Music’s Peter Pan

Bernstein 1945Earlier this year, Catherine Reef published Leonard Bernstein and American Music, a young adult biography, of the composer and conductor. In this essay, she describes her personal admiration for Bernstein and her experiences as a lifelong fan of his work.

By Catherine Reef

Leonard Bernstein captured the public’s attention in 1943, at twenty-five, when he hopped onto the podium at Carnegie Hall to masterfully conduct the New York Philharmonic, and he never lost it. In the years ahead, he was to enjoy a long tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director, and he would conduct many of the world’s leading orchestras. His performances could be electrifying, whether he was conducting or playing the piano, and his interpretations revealed a meticulous study of musical scores. He also distinguished himself as a composer of works for the orchestra and the theater, of pieces as diverse as his Jeremiah Symphony and the musical West Side Story. He wrote an opera, Trouble in Tahiti, decrying the alienation of suburbia, in 1952. He faithfully maintained an affiliation with the Berkshire Music Center, the summer music school known popularly as Tanglewood, and he even became an award-winning television personality. He did it all with a young man’s verve, prompting music critic Harold C. Schomberg to dub him the “Peter Pan of Music.”

It was only natural that a feature article in the New York Times of August 26, 1968, bore a title that echoed the disbelief of many fans: “Can He Really Be 50?” Apparently he could. At fifty Bernstein was as busy as ever. He was collaborating with Jerome Robbins on a project that would prove to be a false start, a Broadway musical based on a one-act play by Bertolt Brecht. He had a full conducting schedule, and he was raising three children with his wife, Felicia. “At 50, he’s looking toward 70 and racing his engine,” writer Thomas Cole observed.

Bernstein would soon retire as musical director of the New York Philharmonic, but for him this retirement offered the chance to take on ambitious new projects. His much-talked-about Mass debuted in 1971, at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. He became active in the anti-war movement, and in 1973 he was back in the nation’s capital to conduct a Concert for Peace at the National Cathedral. He also weathered a rare flop: the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which he wrote with Alan Jay Lerner to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial, closed after seven performances in New York.

There were more concerts to conduct, including one celebrating the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and then all too soon it was August 1978, and the Miami Herald was profiling ”Bernstein at 60.” The sixty-year-old Leonard Bernstein was recently widowed and feeling the pressure of the passing years. “I don’t mind that I’m aged, that there are lines in my face,” he told reporter James Roos. “What I mind is the terrible sense that there isn’t much time.”

Even if he feared that his personal clock was running down, he felt at home among the young, and his energy flowed steadily. He worked with Stephen Wadsworth, then a budding writer, on a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti. A Quiet Place revisits the characters in the 1952 opera as they face tragedy, learn to communicate, and make peace with one another. Bernstein was too optimistic for anything but a hopeful resolution. The collaboration, for Bernstein, was an opportunity to convey wisdom to an emerging artist. He was “the great mentor figure in my life,” said Wadsworth, who today directs opera studies at the Juilliard School. “Lenny told me to go forth and do whatever it is I had to do, and without apologizing for it ever. That was just one of many useful things I learned from him, and it’s one I pass on to my students all the time.”

In the summer of 1985, Bernstein embarked on an international tour with the European Community Youth Orchestra that included performances in Hiroshima, Japan, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the atomic-bomb attack on that city. The concerts were part of his lifelong mission to promote peace through music, which had a profound impact on fourteen-year-old Midori, who was there as featured soloist in a performance of a Mozart violin concerto. Bernstein “was taking action and doing something about a cause that he strongly believed in,” she recalled. “For me it was learning by experiencing what was really going on.”

Then it was August 1988, and the New York Times visited “America’s Musician at 70.” Strange but true, “Leonard Bernstein, the perennial wonder boy of American music, is a white-maned eminence,” wrote Donal Henahan. It was as unlikely a scenario as Peter Pan growing old. At seventy Bernstein had become a revered figure. “His exhorting glances and dramatic gestures” were seen as “the necessary eruptions of an overpoweringly musical nature,” noted Henahan.

Bernstein never gestured more dramatically or triumphantly than on December 23, 1989, when he conducted two performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” one in East Berlin and the other in West Berlin, to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall. For the German word Freude, meaning joy, in the symphony’s final, choral movement, he substituted Freiheit, meaning freedom. It was a great moment for people everywhere. But less than a year later, on October 9, 1990, Bernstein surprised the world by announcing his retirement from conducting. He planned to use the time he had left to compose and teach, he said. The concert he conducted at Tanglewood on August 19 had been his last.

I saw that concert in 1990, when it was broadcast on television. As I watched the maestro labor to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I remarked to my family, “He doesn’t look well.” This was an understatement. Bernstein, a lifelong smoker, was dying. On October 14, five days after announcing his retirement, he left us, although he was far too young. There would be no “Bernstein at 80.”

Leonard Bernstein touched me and countless others with his music and his unfailing optimism. “Good must triumph,” he said in 1966, after leading a concert dedicated to the horrors of war. This was the belief that motivated him, and it is one that all of us who do creative work should take to heart. What reason do we have to compose music or make paintings or write biographies unless we hold the conviction that our work can contribute to the good? What other doctrine will keep us young?

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