If you are lucky, you might get a composer with Leonard Bernstein’s popular appeal and intellectual aptitude every fifty years or so—a man with the musical skill of Herbert von Karajan, but not so much of the exclusivity and sourness that made Karajan distant and unlikeable. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how one person could contribute more to the consumption of music than did Bernstein: Aside, obviously, from his capacity as a composer, having written one of the great musicals of our time in West Side Story, Bernstein saw the importance of helping those who are otherwise non-musical to understand why it is that someone like Mozart is great, and why, exactly, Mozart’s music is foundational and intriguing. He knew, too, that the conducting profession entailed something far greater than merely touring around the world with an accomplished orchestra in order to offer respectable interpretations of the great pieces. Bernstein was great at doing just that, of course, and much more; but humans need, in some sense, to be taught, and if Bernstein excelled in anything, it was in teaching children and adults, college graduates and working men, alike, about what it means to truly appreciate music.
One of the keys to interpreting Bernstein’s career thus seems to involve the importance of music education—not just playing band in high school, or hearing a few minutes of Bach on the radio as you drive home from school, but actually studying the mechanics of music and appreciating its fruitful historical unveiling. Bernstein’s contributions to the field were invaluable, but the study of classical music remains stigmatized in twenty-first-century American culture precisely because it is seen as the stuff of snobs and cultural pedants. In light of Bernstein’s proper legacy as an educator, this development seems tragic, and I think he would be the first to point out the necessity of reaching the poor, the marginalized, and social outcasts of all sorts with the transforming power of music.
To focus on Bernstein the teacher, however, is not, by any means, to underestimate Bernstein’s eminence as a composer—nourished by his friendships with geniuses like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky—evident in his musical variety and in his ability to capture in sound the mid-nineteenth-century American spirit. Though Bernstein spent much time with symphonic music in directing orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, two of his most famous works, Candide and West Side Story, were written for the stage—the latter of which brilliantly reinterprets Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet to an American audience, using jazzy sounds and dancing city slackers to tell the lovers’ story. Accordingly, it is no coincidence that we see the musical as quintessentially 1950s in its pertinent understanding of intercity ethnic conflict, but that we also acknowledge its continued relevance to the sorts of struggles characteristic of contemporary culture. As Bernstein once reflected, “I don’t get sick of [West Side Story]—that’s a sign of something fresh; I mean, it’s not fresh the way Mozart stays fresh time after time, but who’s in that class?”