My Cousin Lenny

Remembering Leonard Bernstein



Growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1960s, I always thought of Leonard Bernstein as a kind of distant cousin. All Jewish families who had emigrated from Eastern Europe had people evocative of Bernstein — charismatic, larger-than-life talents who seemed to skirt danger.

It’s not entirely clear whether Lenny, as his friends called him (though his grandmother had insisted on calling him Louis, his given name) was a child prodigy, only that he loved music from an early age and was branded a genius when he arrived at Harvard. His genius showed most dramatically in his energy and inventiveness — a restlessness that some saw as a tragic flaw.

For even when he was quite young, there was the buzz that Bernstein was wasting his talent. Why was that? Partly, it had to do with the snobbism of the classical music world during this period that couldn’t fathom that one wouldn’t want to be dedicated, heart and soul, to a stodgy repertoire. From the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a platform of great respectability from which he still managed to do a multitude of other things — suggesting, I suppose, that he wasn’t putting his all into that sober enterprise. In actuality, Bernstein felt that it was conducting that might be frivolous. Up to the end, he worried he would be remembered as a mere conductor and ought to have given more time and energy to composing. Yet, he did a great deal of the latter, moving across a multitude of genres: music for ballet, opera, voice, brass, strings, piano. He wrote the score for the Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront; for the ballet Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins; and for a number of successful musicals, including the incomparable West Side Story. He also wrote two major orchestral works: the 1963 Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, in honor of John F. Kennedy’s death, and Mass, a 1971 amalgam of musical lexicons meant as tribute to the protest movement.

One of his innovations was to bring music to children. His televised Young People’s Concerts with the Philharmonic, initiated in the 1950s and continuing into the ’70s, seemed like the gimmick of a showman, which, of course, they were (kids always make cute copy — and seeing Lenny with children emphasized his child-like nature). But it was also, in retrospect, an inspired feat of cultural marketing. It cultivated several generations of audiences for the concert hall, a group now entering late middle and old age without being replaced (with the result that orchestras across the country are going bankrupt).

Lenny was “out there” before “out there” was fashionable. He had a stylish Chilean wife, Felicia Montealegre, whose name was as exotic as his was down-to-earth. But we soon heard the rumor that he was gay or, as it was insisted on for the sake of explaining the marriage, bisexual. The whole thing was hard for mid-20th-century Americans to wrap their minds around.

Similarly, his social consciousness was outsized. He was a member of the Communist Party, blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, though this didn’t seem to do him much harm (perhaps because, as a musician, it was assumed that his ideas didn’t count as much as those of screenwriters and directors). More damaging was his later involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1970, Tom Wolfe wrote a profile for New York Magazine about a party Bernstein and his wife hosted for the Black Panthers. Wolfe coined “radical chic” to describe the event — a phrase that became a denigrating meme for the 1970s. Nothing during this time period hurt one’s reputation more than appearing foolish — and that’s how Wolfe rendered Bernstein: as an affluent, white liberal seeking penance for his race’s misdeeds. The representation ignored so much about Bernstein’s background and accomplishment, and, more disturbingly, allowed both the impulse of social consciousness on the part of rich people and the seriousness of race injustice in general to be sidelined.

But ridicule was the price to be paid for originality and beauty. I can still remember being smitten, as a young child, by the way Bernstein looked: the hair that flopped dramatically while he conducted, without baton; the large leonine face, at once burlily handsome and femininely sensitive. Lenny was a star — but that made him suspect to a society in which there were clear demarcations between populist stars and artistic geniuses. The division, instigated by Virginia Woolf’s decrial of “middle-brow” culture, was reinforced by the Partisan Review crowd into the 1970s. (It was why that group fell out with Norman Podhoretz when he claimed, in his book Making It, that you could be an intellectual and still want material success.)

But boundary-crossing was what Lenny was all about. It put him ahead of his time — in his embrace of popular culture and sexual fluidity, in his understanding of the importance of children in establishing taste, in his willingness to risk contradiction and ridicule with respect to politics. Today, along with his musicals, he would have had a music video, not to mention a clothing line and a signature scent.

It’s hard to fully explain the tragic aura that clung to Lenny. In part, it had to do with his eclecticism. In ranging so widely, he gave the impression that he couldn’t dedicate himself fully to one endeavor, genre, or person. In part, it emanated from his own disappointment that he had not equaled the achievement of his idol, Gustav Mahler. Ironically, his score for West Side Story will probably be listened to long after Mahler’s Fifth (the work with which he was buried) ceases to be performed.

His tragic aura was also based on the scapegrace quality of his persona. He seemed to have intentionally put himself in the way of difficulty and danger. Was this errant Jewish boy “depraved because he was deprived”? That brilliant lyric from the Officer Krupke sequence of West Side Story is by Stephen Sondheim, a mentee of Bernstein (another one of Lenny’s legacies was to mentor talent).

Or was the tragic aura connected to the too-great expectations that he engendered in the critics and audiences that appraised his work? Bernstein’s heyday was in a time of high hopes. John F. Kennedy’s Camelot was meant to usher in a new world order; Norman Mailer was supposed to write the Great American Novel. Bernstein, similarly, was expected to catapult American music to a new level of excellence and prestige. But high hopes are invariably bound to be dashed. Kennedy was assassinated; Mailer petered out; Bernstein scattered his energies. Still, perhaps more than Kennedy or Mailer, Bernstein made an enormous contribution to American culture. His tragedy lay in the human fact that he was not the musical messiah that he came so close to being. •

Feature image courtesy of Materialscientist. Images courtesy of Tom and Davepape via Wikimedia Commons.

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.


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  • >>>Ironically, his score for West Side Story will probably be listened to long after Mahler’s Fifth (the work with which he was buried) ceases to be performed.

    Change the word ironically to tragically and it would work better.

  • It just so happens that I played a CD today of Kubelik conducting Mahler’s Fifth. Believe me, Bernstein does not even get near Mahler’s composing talent. Mahler was also the greatest conductor of his time, especially of operas.

  • This article made me cry: I have almost never been so depressed by something that I read on the internet. I know a bit of Paula Martinez Cohen’s work and I like it. I know that she is an interesting and serious writer, and I think that she likes Bernstein for many of the same reasons that I do. She does not seem to like classical music very much. This is normal. Classical music does not loom very large in America today and American culture writers tend not to know much about it or to care about it. The traditions of the classical concert are indeed quite “stodgy,” but the core repertoire of the classical tradition is no stodgier than Persuasion, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov or In Search of Lost Time. These novels can seem inaccessible to the contemporary reader, but with effort and perhaps a good teacher the can still have a transformative, pulverizing effect on the reader. I think that most of the people writing in American cultural publications admit, and are affected by the power of old novels. In fact Beethoven and Mahler have the same power to shake us to change our lives and shake us to our very core. Of course it is bad to be snobbish: just as many people will never like Jane Austin, many people are uninterested in classical music, or in music in general. American writers tend to prefer one strand or another of our nation’s extremely rich tradition of popular music, in part because classical music seems like a cultural irrelevance. Leonard Bernstein fought with every fiber of his being to place classical music at the center of American culture, to make it impossible to ignore. He gave excellent performances of the standard repertoire, and his lectures made it accessible to generations of young people; he introduced much interesting and neglected classical music (Nielsen, contemporaries like Copland, Hindemith and Stravinsky; Mahler above all); he tried in his own compositions to forge an organic link between classical music and the popular music of his time. This connection had been real and powerful in the past: think of the influence of the waltz and the minuet on Viennese classicism, of folk song on Britten or Bartok; even the influence of jazz and tin pan alley on the composers of the 1920s, above all Kurt Weil. It was not obvious in America perhaps because classical composers have almost never become the cultural heroes there that they have elsewhere (Bernstein is probably the most famous American classical musician), perhaps because modern popular music was born here. If anyone could have saved American classical music from irrelevance it was Lenny: this article shows why he failed.

    West Side Story is an excellent operetta. Time will tell if it has the staying power of Der Fledermaus, The Mikado, The Merry Widow, La Belle Helen, or the Brecht/Weil Threepenny Opera. Even in the United States the can-can from Belle Helene is certainly much better known than anything from West Side Story. In Europe “Da geh ich ins Maxims” is much more famous than “Maria.” West Side Story may speak to us more powerfully than these other operettas because we are closer to the traditions from which it arises: tin pan alley musicals and jazz. Those traditions are dying even faster than classical music. Why should we expect jazz to last any longer than the tango or the waltz? Mahler’s Fifth, like Bernstein’s “serious” compositions, is a very different kind of work. It will cease to be preformed when there cease to be enough classically trained musicians to make up professional symphony orchestras. May that day be long in coming! When it comes, all of Lenny’s work will be forgotten.

    I feel that in Europe, including the UK, classical music is more culturally central: no doubt in part because most of the classical repertoire is made up of European composers. Generous state subsides are also to thank. In Europe writers and public figures will often talk at length about their taste for classical music. Merkel gave a long interview about her love for Wagner. Jeremy Corbyn loves Mahler & David MIliband is married to a member of the LSO. The prime minister of the Netherlands is failed classical pianist. French TV news anchors are revealed by gossip magazines to be having affairs with sexy violinists. In America, a talented writer like Paula Martinez Cohen can recognize Bernstein for the American original that he is, but be untouched by the musical tradition that formed the core of his being.

  • “it had to do with the snobbism of the classical music world during this period that couldn’t fathom that one wouldn’t want to be dedicated, heart and soul, to a stodgy repertoire”
    “Ironically, his score for West Side Story will probably be listened to long after Mahler’s Fifth (the work with which he was buried) ceases to be performed.”
    Oh. My. God. This writer is evidently utterly, utterly clueless about music.

  • Mahler’s first name was Gustav, not Gustave. This error strikes me as similar to some of the errors in Joan Peyser’s book on LB. The tragedy of LB, for me, is dual: First, the hyper-emotional, hyper-mannered quality of many of his interpretations. Second, that he actually believed he was a serious GREAT composer whose music could stand comparison with any truly great composer’s. His serious compositions are a washout, as one critic wrote. They’re embarrassing to listen to, tedious, loud, banal, tawdry. Then, finally, he imprinted on the American public the idea that conducting is a highly physical, super-romantic experience with endless gyrations and flailing arms and foot-stomping. His best work is mostly the Young People’s Concerts, where the 52-minute time limitation forced him into being concentrated, direct, straightforward. He is at his very best in things like the 1954 Omnibus lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth, his 1960 YPC program on Mahler, and his 1966 one on Modes. That’s the LB I choose to remember, as I struggle to forget Kaddish, Age of Anxiety and MASS.

  • As someone who learned much about music from Bernstein’s wonderful TV lectures, I enjoyed being reminded of those days and of his impact on American culture. To paraphrase Archie and Edith, “Mister, we could use another Leonard Bernstein today.”

    But the Mahler dig—even apart from the misspelling of his name—was hardly necessary.

    In his frustration about a career as a conductor conflicting with his greater aspirations as a composer, as well as his ability to mesmerize audiences and reveal music in new ways (to say nothing of his Jewishness), Mahler was Bernstein before there was Bernstein. And as much as Lenny would want to know that people would still be listening to his music long after he was gone, I doubt he would put his compositions ahead of, or even equal to, Mahler’s.

    Bernstein was a musical missionary. But his god was Mahler.

  • I too love Lenny for all of his huge contributions to this life. But why take a cheap shot at Mahler 5 and set up some kind of nonsensical competition between that and West Side Story. Lenny would have thought that was silly – s-i-l-l-y – Both works will of course be listened to for many centuries to come – often by the same people…..maybe even you, Paula…

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