Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More About Bernstein

On Monday, we studied Leonard Bernstein's Dance Suite for Brass Quintet. In our discussion, we pondered Bernstein's compositional style, and if it changed over the years. I also wanted to find out how he felt about his reputation as a composer of "popular" music (West Side Story) as opposed to his more serious reputation, and his composition MASS came up in the conversation as well. It was apparent that all of us should do some digging on the subject. Here is something interesting I found:

His daughter, Jamie Bernstein offers some very valuable insight into the contradictions in her father's life and compositions. The excerpt below, from her website, is from a speech entitled A Talk Before MASS, which she gave in Salt Lake City in May of 2009:

Looking back on my father’s creative life, I see two main engines driving my father forward: the contradictions in his personality, and his perpetual confrontations with figures of authority. Of all Leonard Bernstein’s works, none demonstrates a grander synthesis of all these creative cross-currents than MASS.  As a result, MASS is his most deeply personal work.
Let me start with the contradictions. On the one hand, he was the most extroverted guy you could ever meet. How he loved people! All kinds of people. He loved playing the piano at parties till the wee hours; all-night talk sessions with students; noisy dinners with family and friends.  This was the Lenny that became a conductor and a teacher, the communicator extraordinaire, on the podium and on television.

On the other hand, Leonard Bernstein was a composer: an introverted, lonely dreamer who stayed up all night working, chain-smoking cigarettes and staring down his demons.

Within Bernstein the composer, there were yet more contradictions. He wrote for the concert hall, but he also wrote for the Broadway stage. He was a classically trained musician, but he loved the popular music he heard on the radio as he grew up in the 1920’s, 30’ and 40’s. His conducting mentor, Serge Koussevitsky, strongly advised his young pupil to stop writing for the Broadway stage; Koussevitsky thought it was low-class, insignificant music. Luckily, Leonard Bernstein didn’t follow his teacher’s advice – an early example of his lifelong impulse to buck authority.

Eventually, my father found ways to cross-pollenate the two kinds of music he loved best, creating a perfect bridge between the concert stage and the Broadway pit. Leonard Bernstein's orchestral music is joyous, full of tunes, and bursting with catchy rhythms -- while his Broadway scores are as elegantly constructed as a Beethoven symphony. MASS combines all of these elements, and more, into a single, passionate expression of my father’s own multifarious personality.
Here is a link to NPR's article Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'MASS' where you can read about a revival of the work and listen to excerpts. The brass is most prominent in the second selection, Prefatory Prayers.

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