Leonard Bernstein’s music: 10 best works by the American maestro

21 December 2023, 09:23 | Updated: 21 December 2023, 11:33

The 10 best pieces of music by American maestro and composer, Leonard Bernstein.
The 10 best pieces of music by American maestro and composer, Leonard Bernstein. Picture: Getty
Classic FM

By Classic FM

From the famous West Side Story and collaborations with Sondheim, to symphonies and serenades, here are the definitive top 10 pieces of music that Leonard Bernstein wrote.

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Leonard Bernstein is one of the greatest figures of the American 20th century music scene. A charismatic conductor and brilliant composer, Bernstein wrote many great works from operas and ballets to symphonies, that are still well-loved and much-performed to this day.

The celebrated musician even became the subject of Netflix hit Maestro in 2023 which sees him portrayed by Bradley Cooper.

Bernstein spent his time away from the podium championing humanitarian issues, from civil rights and the Vietnam War to HIV/AIDS research.

Remembered fondly for his innovative Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein was a brilliant music educator and introduced many to classical music for the first time, sparking lifelong joy in those he inspired.

As a conductor he was known for his enigmatic podium performances, and was particularly celebrated for his interpretations of Mahler. He is even said to be buried with a manuscript of Mahler’s Symphony No.5 over his heart, open to the heart-rending second movement, the ‘Adagietto’.

As a composer, he blended this Germanic influence with his New York surroundings, capturing the brassy sound of the city’s jazz, big band, and Broadway traditions, mixed with traditional Jewish music and all conveyed through imaginative percussion, raucous brass and lyrical strings.

A one-of-a-kind musician, Bernstein’s creativity spanned musical theatre, film scores, large-scale symphonies and operettas. Here are 10 of his all-time best...

Read more: Who was Leonard Bernstein? Exploring the man behind the ‘Maestro’, Bradley Cooper’s new musical biopic

  1. West Side Story

    With two film adaptations and many successful stage runs, West Side Story is Bernstein’s best-known work by far. A collaboration with lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest musicals of all time.

    Based on Romeo and Juliet, it tells of two star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of fierce feuds and rival gangs in 1957 New York City.

    Musically, the harmonic and melodic backbone of the entire score is the tritone, otherwise known as the Devil’s interval, which Bernstein uses to create a sense of unease amid the hope of young love. We’d estimate it nearly impossible to find a soul who hasn’t heard at least one of the show’s hit songs: ‘America’, ‘Maria’, ‘Somewhere’, ‘I Feel Pretty’.

    Read more: Did you know Bernstein borrowed a tune from Beethoven for West Side Story?

    West Side Story - America (1080p HD)

  2. Candide

    Originally intended as a play, Candide was transformed into an operetta when an enthusiastic Bernstein convinced librettist Lillian Hellman of his vision. It took a team of lyricists to write, with Richard Wilbur doing the bulk of the work, plus additional contributions from Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself, who co-wrote ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’ with his wife, Felicia.

    Based on Voltaire’s work of the same name, Candide is a comical love story, as the titular character Candide pursues his great love (and cousin) Cunegonde through all manner of trials and tribulations that try to keep them apart.

    Bernstein’s overture is the best known piece from the operetta, and is one of his most performed works to this day. It switches masterfully from lyrical strings to oom-pah brass band sections, to flighty wind motifs, in a brilliantly exciting and inventive five minutes of music.

    Candide Overture: Leonard Bernstein conducting

  3. Chichester Psalms

    Epic and jovial, serene and pure, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is a large choral work written for choir and orchestra, and boy treble or countertenor soloist.

    The composer’s Jewish identity is front and centre in this work, as Bernstein takes the original Hebrew words from the Book of Psalms as his text.

    The Chichester Psalms were commissioned by Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, for the Southern Cathedrals Festival that was hosted by the city in 1965. It was performed there in July of that year, but not before it premiered at New York City’s Philharmonic Hall two weeks earlier, with Bernstein on the podium.

    Read more: This autographed Bernstein score was found in a second-hand shop – and it held one more surprise

    LEONARD BERNSTEIN - Chichester Psalms // CONDUCT - L.Bernstein

  4. MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers

    The full title gives you a giant clue as to what’s happening here.

    With his trademark flair for the eclectic, Bernstein takes the traditional Catholic mass and transforms it into a Broadway-infused showpiece, complete with orchestra, dancers, rock band, and a marching band for good measure.

    From its toe-tapping rhythms and tongue-tangling choral passages, to stripped-back and heart-felt sermons through song, MASS is a brilliant blend of its composer’s many musical influences.

    This remarkable work was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy, for the opening of Washington’s Kennedy Center in September 1971. Today, it remains one of Bernstein’s most striking works.

    Gloria: Gloria in Excelsis (Chorus)

  5. On the Town

    Bernstein’s first foray into musical theatre, On the Town was born from a ballet called Fancy Free, that the composer scored the same year to accompany Jerome Robbins’ choreography.

    It tells of a love affair with New York, the city Bernstein considered home. Three American sailors are set loose in Manhattan for 24 hours during World War II, performing big tunes and ballads like ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Lonely Town’ along the way.

    Although Bernstein was a relatively unknown composer at the time, On the Town was an immediate hit on Broadway.

    The production made him the first symphonic composer to collaborate on an American musical. It was also the first musical to incorporate black and white characters on stage in equal roles, and the show’s conductor Everett Lee made history by becoming Broadway’s first black conductor and musical director.

    Read more: A 10-year-old Yo-Yo Ma sent an adorable letter to Leonard Bernstein

    Bernstein - Three Dance Episodes (On the Town) I Alondra de la Parra | WDR Funkhausorchester

  6. Symphony No.1, ‘Jeremiah’

    Bernstein’s named his First Symphony ‘Jeremiah’ after the major Hebrew prophet born in 650 BCE.

    In three movements, titled ‘Prophecy’, ‘Profanation’, and ‘Lamentation’, Bernstein’s work follows the prophet’s story.

    The final movement borrows its name and text from the third and final book Jeremiah authored, the Book of Lamentations, according to Jewish tradition.

    Several elements of the piece make reference to Jewish music. Bernstein noted that the first theme from the second movement was “paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant,” and the start of the mezzo-soprano line in the final movement is “based on a liturgical cadence still sung today.”

    Jeremiah - Symphony No. 1: I. Prophecy (2017 Remastered Version)

  7. On the Waterfront

    Bernstein only wrote one original film score in his career. And that was this, On the Waterfront, a score for Elia Kazan’s 1954 film starring Marlon Brando, for which the composer earned an Oscar nomination.

    The composer later reshaped his score, which skilfully captures the corruption and extortion of New Jersey’s waterfronts in the 1950s, into a symphonic suite, which is sometimes performed by orchestras today after enjoying a revival during the Bernstein centennial in 2018.

    Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton sees the score as a “20th-century equivalent of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, with the film’s principal characters, Terry and Edie, as the star-crossed lovers.”

    Read more: Leonard Bernstein: Google celebrates the composer's 100th birthday with a Doodle

    Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront"

  8. Symphony No.3, ‘Kaddish’

    The ‘Kaddish’ is a Jewish prayer recited in synagogue services, reflecting on death and loss.

    Bernstein used this ancient hymn as the basis for his final symphony, and one of his most powerful works. The symphony is scored for full orchestra, choir, boys’ choir, with a soprano soloist and a narrator.

    It was dedicated to John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just a few weeks before the work’s premiere in 1963.

    The composer remained deeply connected to this work, revising it in the late 1970s. Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, narrated the American premiere of the work – perhaps adding to the layers of personal connection for the composer.

    Leonard Bernstein - Symphony N.3 "Kaddish"

  9. Divertimento for Orchestra

    After the death of his wife, Felicia, in 1978, Bernstein retreated from performance engagements to focus on composing. He worked on various projects, none of which made it to completion, until he received a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in April 1980.

    The orchestra were looking for a piece to help them celebrate their centennial, and Bernstein accepted. The composer had a long-term sentimental connection to the city, having grown up and attended university there, made his directorial debut at the Tanglewood Music Center, and conducted more then 130 concerts with the orchestra itself.

    It consists of eight movements, with more and less traditional titles from ‘Waltz’ and ‘Mazurka’ to ‘Turkey Trot’ and ‘Sphinxes’. Bernstein based the music around the notes B and C, for ‘Boston’ and ‘Centennial’.

    In his own words, the composer described the Divertimento as “a fun piece” that “reflects my youthful experiences here where I heard my first orchestral music.”

    Bernstein: Divertimento ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

  10. Serenade after Plato’s Symposium

    Always a composer who loved bringing together words, literature and music, this work resulted from Bernstein’s reading Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium.

    Composed in 1954, when he was writing some of his most popular music, the Serenade is one of Bernstein’s most lyrical orchestral works. It’s scored for solo violin, harp, string orchestra, and percussion, and brings to life in music Plato’s famous reflections on the nature and purpose of love.

    According to the composer, “The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet.”

    Hilary Hahn - Bernstein's "Serenade after Plato's Symposium" for Midori | Kennedy Center Honors