Remembering Leonard Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein, the great man’s eldest daughter has devoted most of her life to continuing her father’s rich and unique legacy

Bernstein was classical music for generations of Americans. The period through which he led the New York Philharmonic, 1958 to 1969, was a heyday that none of his successors, however distinguished, has quite managed to top.

And as a composer, Bernstein proved himself a tunesmith who could hold his own with the best of them, capturing the soul, rhythms and urban magnitude of New York City.

Few other American musicians have seemed as American – mixing styles, crossing boundaries, telling the American experience like it is. He was touched with genius, a thoroughbred icon of the 20th century.

“We realised the extent of my father’s fame when we were watching The Flintstones as kids,”’ says Jamie, as she recalls how the penny dropped and she realised that the man she called dad had another, remarkable life.

“In one episode, Wilmer and Betty went to hear Leonard Bernstone conduct. That was big time!”

I’m talking to Jamie in a roomy Manhattan apartment, a hop-and-skip from Carnegie Hall, the scene of many of her father’s triumphs – could there be a more fitting setting for a glimpse behind the public face of Bernstein?

Bearing in mind the circles Bernstein mixed in, I’m sure Jamie must have had suspicions that her father was more than he seemed.

“Oh yeah,” she says, grinning. “I remember coming home from school and finding my dad with a friend who had this adorable goofy grin. A grandfather figure, but with this other-worldly, saintly quality. That was Aaron.”

For “Aaron”, read Aaron Copland, the legendary American composer, who was Bernstein’s mentor.

“Then there was my extended sibling pool of musicians from the New York Philharmonic,” she continues. “They loved my father and he loved them back: I’d go to rehearsals and it was like being part of another family. I was too young to appreciate it fully, but I knew it was special.”

There’s a touching photograph of father and daughter that gives a glimpse of how the public and private faces of Bernstein blurred. A 10-year-old Jamie sits on a podium with a look of wonderment on her face as her dad, arms dramatically outstretched, gestures at the New York Philharmonic. His jacket is strung over the railings: she looks like she’s just come from school. A familiar family image in a somewhat elevated context.

“My father struggled with the public and private sides of his music-making,” Jamie admits. “When he was conducting he was an extrovert, carousing with people all the time. Then he would come home and turn on the composer thing and that meant spending hours alone late at night, smoking heavily and staring down demons to get those notes on the page. And he could never sleep. He ping-ponged between amphetamines to wake him up and pills to help him sleep. There were so many expectations of him that he had to function, but it messed him up over time.”

Bearing in mind how different Lenny (as he insisted on being called) the conductor was to Lenny the composer, to what extent was the man fans saw on the concert platform recognisable as the man Jamie knew at home?

“Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t tell me that the reason they are a classical music fan is because of the Young People’s Concerts that dad recorded for television,” says Jamie.

“He was a little more formal during those occasions, but it was all very familiar to the way he was at home. He was compulsive about teaching. I remember when You Really Got Me by The Kinks came on the radio. He said, ‘Hey that’s in the mixolydian mode! Do you know what a mode is?’ And he was off.”

Jamie recalls the thrill of seeing her father on stage, with the New York Philharmonic musicians, playing that same Kinks song to demonstrate a mode during a Young People’s Concert. It’s an example of how Bernstein’s private persona morphed into his public life and, as Jamie explains, one that gets to the heart of his music.

“Dad had no fear of mixing genres and using one to illustrate the other,” she explains. “In his own compositions he tried to build bridges. His concert works have the rhythm, drive and tunes of a Broadway show, while his musicals have the sophistication and through-composed techniques you find in a Beethoven symphony.”

Jamie was interested in music from a very young age, so it seems natural that she should discuss the subject with her father.

“We talked about music all the time, especially as I grew older,” she recalls. “People ask me about West Side Story forgetting it was written when I was tiny, but by the time he was writing Chichester Psalms I was very much in his world. Mass was also written when we kids were around. With all the rock music that dad included in it, I’ve always thought of the piece as ‘ours’.”

Despite the regard Bernstein’s music is now held in, there was a creative crisis that dogged it, almost from the beginning. As his composer colleagues followed Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal revolution, Bernstein continued to believe in the potential of tonality.

He was a composer with a Romantic sensibility, but who was also stimulated by the new. It was an apparent contradiction that often felt overwhelming. Did Bernstein ever express that frustration to Jamie?

“He appreciated what there was to admire in the new music scene,” she says, “but as a composer he couldn’t help defaulting to a good tune. His Kaddish Symphony No.3 washes those inner tensions in public. The work is about a crisis of religious faith that uses his ambivalence about atonality as a metaphor; he puts atonal material against tonal melodies and, of course, tonality triumphs.”

As we move on to talk about Mass, the 1971 theatre piece, in walks Alexander, Bernstein’s son, and the conversation becomes three-way. Mass, about the mental disintegration of a priest, is easily Bernstein’s most controversial work.

If the subject wasn’t provocative enough, then the musical collision between the jazz and rock groups and the massed choirs and orchestral forces was enough to disorientate many listeners at its first performance.

“I think Mass had so many moving parts that it was maddening for dad to put together,” Jamie says. “Yes, but I think he had a wonderful time assembling it!” Alexander counters.

“It was written for the inauguration of the Kennedy Centre,” continues Jamie. “President Nixon was meant to come but didn’t; the FBI got word that my father had planted an insult to the President in the music – it turned out to be ‘Dona nobis pacem’, a line from the liturgical text!” Memories bounce between brother and sister accompanied by much laughter.

As we wrap up the interview, I’m reminded of Bernstein’s often-stated ambition to create “the great American opera”. Perhaps Mass is that piece?

“He himself thought it was A Quiet Place, the opera he wrote in 1983 – but he was very depressed at the time and there was no time to revise anything and that left problems,” Jamie remembers.

“But you know what? I think he’d already written the great American opera: it’s called West Side Story.”

Ah yes, West Side Story. As I walk down Eighth Avenue, my head is full of syncopated finger-snaps and funky saxophone lines accompanied by the music of the city itself.

It couldn’t be clearer – New York sounds like Leonard Bernstein.