Bernstein's work is really meaningful for me

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14, 1990. It is a measure of the man that almost two decades after his death his music making continues to move and inspire. My post about his Mass, which I wrote in 2005, has attracted more reader's comments than any other article uploaded On An Overgrown Path over the last four years. Bernstein's music reaches an audience that ignores the geographic, age and cultural boundaries enforced by today's new music thought police. This is shown by the comments that continue to be added to my article. Here are two of the most recent; interestingly, in view of the fact that Marin Alsop is currently championing Mass, both are from women:
I've already bought CD with Bernstein's Mass, and I'm really surprised!!! I'm young (very young :) ) musicologist and I'm fascinated in this work. I think or I feel something true in it. Maybe now I'm too fascinated to say something more objective but each one way of expression in Bernstein's work is really meaningful for me. It's interesting idea to create these all blues and rock parts, for me it's clear emotional report - when he uses blues it's like he says: "I can say whathever - it makes no difference to me", when he uses rock music it's like... "It has to be stopped! I need to know something! I want to fight with all these problems!" It's clever I think. And easily understandable:) ... I suppose it is fair now to admit I'm writing from Poland - Sylvie
Put me in the genuine Masterpiece camp. I can't speak to the musicality--dammit, Jim, I'm an ornithologist, not a music theorist--but the standard pieces of any Mass--especially the Gloria and Sanctus--are ethereally beautiful and thrilling--fresh even 30+ years after being written. The honest viewpoints (some cliche'--just as some people spout cliche's honestly) of the various people in the congregation ring true, as does the priest's steadfast simple and even rather blind faith. It rings equally true when his faith shatters, and then when the simple charity of the congregation leads him back. I had the original recording--never had four speakers to hear how it was actually supposed to be played--and now have it on CD. I loved listening to it in college in the early 70s, and love it just as much today - Laura Erickson
Laura's mention of 'four speakers' prompted me to feature the cover of Bernstein's 1973 CBS LP of the Rite, which was originally released in SQ quadraphonic format as well as stereo. The sleeve illustration was by that great designer Richard Hess. Once you are told that Richard Hess also invented paint-by-numbers you will see that LP sleeve in a rather different light.

A very different take on Lenny's music is found on the CD below. The Bernstein Estate authorised guitarist Lucian Plessner to make arrangements for guitar of a selection of his music including excerpts from Mass, Candide and West Side Story. Laura Erickson used the words 'etherally beautiful' about Mass, and that description applies equally to Lucian Plessner's transcriptions. This is haunting and intimate music making that is ideal for late-night listening. Released on the German CPO label in 1998 Leonard Bernstein on Guitar appears is deleted. But it is still available from online retailers and is well worth searching out.

The last track on Leonard Bernstein on Guitar is a reduction of the Candide finale. Make Our Garden Grow may well be an unashamed crib from the close of the first act of Aaron Copland's neglected opera The Tender Land, but it is also a wonderful summation of Lenny's approach to life and music.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Email received:

Two years ago you wrote about the premiere of my Concerto for Orchestra, The Flames of Quietude, during a festival in The Hague with the Residentie Orkest here in Holland. One of the things I tried to do in the piece was to have five of the individual parts be playable as solo pieces, or together as chamber works, outside of the orchestral composition. Each of these "solo parts" could also be performed earlier on the same day as the orchestral composition, for the same audience, thus giving the eventual orchestra performance a sense of connection for the listener - that he or she was hearing something that already was part of his or her musical consciousness and awareness. For these five parts (Flute, Clarinet in Bb, Violin I, Cello, Piano) I also incorporated fragments, or references, to extremely recognizable and important works from the repertoire by Poulenc, Mozart, Bach, Dvorak and Beethoven. Upon hearing the references during the listening experience of the orchestral composition, one might have a sense of realization, or illumination, as new contexts would provide new meanings for already-acknowledged bits of the stuff the Western Canon is thought to be built upon (a sort of ceremony, or ritual, of the experience of concert-going, as we know it).

But for the other parts within the orchestral piece, I looked for more subtle allusions to stylistically-varied works from the Past which are also a part of our collective musical awareness (and, thus, part of a listener's Present). Having tried some crazy harp-Stravinsky and some wild oboe-Thomas Newman, I wondered what to do with the Percussion players to make their parts connect to this layer of musical cosmic acknowledgement, so to speak. And then I was listening quite coincidentally to a cd performance of Bernstein's Mass, and I wound up being so surprisingly moved by it (I hadn't heard it since a live performance I had attended at Tanglewood in the '80's), I wound up quoting one particular Hebrew (but quite ubiquitous) word in a verbal utterance which is made by the four percussionists at the end of my piece. It was not Bernstein's particular use of this word which was so moving but, rather, the overall effect that this often-maligned work of Bernstein had on me, and the all-encompassing spirituality it seemed to embody. In some ways it could be considered a classic of our modern eastern/western, highbrow/lowbrow, sacred/secular, theatrical/concert repertoire, although the difficulty of placing it into a fixed category denies it a label, or functionality, as such. Anyway, I now think of it as an important part of the canon of human musical creation, and I'm glad that so many readers of On An Overgrown Path respond to it so viscerally and personally.

Vanessa Lann

Recent popular posts

A tale of two new audiences

Does it have integrity and relevance?

Is classical music obsessed by existential angst?

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss

New music for old instruments

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

The excruciating boredom of pure fact