Bernstein is back in London. At the BBC Proms this Bank Holiday weekend his centenary is being celebrated with performances of famous and less famous scores. Already in the season there has been an outing for his first Symphony, Jeremiah, which he described as a ‘Hebrew song’ for soprano and orchestra. Reflecting on this work in Berlin in 1977, Bernstein said “I suppose I am always writing the same piece. The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah, I was wrestling with that problem. The faith or peace at the end of Jeremiah is really more a kind of comfort, not a solution.“
The difficult search for faith is central to his second symphony, which is being performed by Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Named after W.H. Auden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, The Age of Anxiety, the 80-page poem focuses on 4 strangers who meet and reflect on their lives and the human condition in a New York bar during wartime. The Times Literary Supplement may have been out of sync with the times when it declared it Auden’s “one dull book” – for many readers, including Bernstein, it articulated the spirit of the age. The characters seek a state of “prehistoric happiness”, they lament the loss of a father figure, they party (and kindle a love affair that fails to grow), and return to their lives the next morning. Bernstein’s symphony for solo piano and orchestra sticks closely to the structure, with named sections. The ‘Prologue’ opens with a sparse texture of quiet and searching clarinet lines; ‘The Masque’, where the party happens, leaps out as a bravura jazz number, with shades of the gang menace of West Side Story and a winning snatch of melody taken from an offcut of On The Town; Bernstein’s ‘Epilogue’ is intensely rich and affirmative for full orchestra, to which Bernstein returned after two decades to add a piano cadenza. It will raise the roof.
In Bernstein’s own life, Judaism might also be seen as offering a kind of comfort rather than a solution. His daughter Jamie told the Jewish Chronicle in 2012 about “irregular” Jewish life at the family home: Chanukah and Christmas, a Seder and an Easter Egg hunt. When it came to the High Holidays, “My father would always go shul hopping that night, or as he explained it, ‘a little bit of Kol Nidre here and a little bit there’. Together with my brother they would visit a handful of synagogues around New York and even though each one was sold out, they would always find room for Dad. You can only imagine the faces of the chazans when they spotted Leonard Bernstein in the congregation. They must have been trembling in their tallit.”
Finding inspiration in multiple places and wrestling with the big question of the crisis of belief in the 20th century, Bernstein was unstoppable, and left multiple legacies – composition and performance, pianism and conducting, theatre and concert hall, teacher and lifelong student, and a canny communicator. It’s a special pleasure to see the growing audience on youtube for his television broadcasts, where he harnessed new media to demonstrate for huge audiences how melody, harmony and musical structures work. At the Royal Albert Hall, to round off this Summer, you can explore the range of his extraordinary output, from the less-known Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’ for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion, to a concert performance of On the Town.
David Lasserson writes and broadcasts about music, and is an arts consultant.