Wasted Talents?

A. C. Douglas, in praising the recording of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, conducted by the composer, makes a point I’ve frequently agreed with:

We’ve never been much drawn to Leonard Bernstein’s “serious” compositions as despite their admirable moments, and with the possible exception of his Chichester Psalms, they’ve all (or, rather, all of our experience) seemed to us constrained by a pervasive self-consciousness from which the music can never entirely break free. Not so Bernstein’s works for the American musical theater, a genre for which he possessed a nonpareil genius (and we use the term advisedly). Even though we’ve little taste for the genre, we can’t help but be carried away by Bernstein’s expressive, pitch-perfect scores for that genre, all of which (again, all of our experience) are perfectly free of the self-consciousness that hobbles the scores of his “serious” works.

Here’s my very arguable hypothesis: Bernstein’s biggest mistake was becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but contrast the list of successful compositions before 1958, when he took up the New York post (Jeremiah Symphony, Candide, Trouble in Tahiti, Serenade on Plato’s Symposium, Fancy Free, On The Town, West Side Story) with how few he producted afterwards (Chichester Psalms probably the only indisputable one).

As an educator and man of the theater, Bernstein had few if any peers. As a conductor, he had many despite his immense talents. Superb in Mahler and American composers like Copland, Ives and Schuman, he could be either eccentric, erratic or even pedestrian in other parts of the repertoire. And did age add wisdom? At least to me, his later DG recordings are more labored and self-conscious than their Sony predecessors, which may not have had perfect ensemble but had more brio.

He aspired to write a masterpiece worthy of his exalted place in the musical world, turning his back on the theater where he had been so successful. His failure to write it was a source of constant frustration to him. “I don’t want to be remembered as the composer of West Side Story,” he once complained at a party. “Better than being remembered as the composer of A Quiet Place,” someone muttered.

It may seem ungrateful to ask more of one who had so much to offer, but had Bernstein continued as an educator and man of the theater, guest conducting programs where his insight was most acute, he would have gone down as a much greater musician than we remember him. Anyone can give us another ordinary cycle of Brahms symphonies. Only Bernstein could have given us another West Side Story.

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