Inspirations: Leonard Bernstein / by Ben Frost

Who are you if you are not the sum of everything that’s happened before?
— Leonard Bernstein

Imagine you’re the assistant to one of the most famed conductors in the United States. He is performing a concert this evening and has suddenly taken ill. There’s no time for rehearsal, there’s no option to cancel and the concert is going to be broadcast live on radio to the nation. There’s no choice: you’re on to conduct this evening.

This is exactly what happened to Leonard Bernstein in 1943 when he stood in front of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to make his professional conducting debut thus becoming a national treasure overnight. What a way to start a career!

Leonard Bernstein, or Lenny to his friends, was one of the giants of 20th Century American music. He first entered the nation’s consciousness as a conductor but unusually he was an equally talented composer, author, lecturer and pianist. Not a polymath in the wider sense, but someone with an extraordinary grasp of every aspect of music-making, and who was set apart by his enthusiasm and desire to share music with others.

My first experience of Bernstein’s music, along with most people, was West Side Story. I bought the CD of the original Broadway recording on a whim in a music shop in France whilst on holiday. It didn’t leave my Sony Discman for weeks. From the moment I pressed play and the Prologue exploded into my ears, I became a lifelong worshipper of Leonard Bernstein. The addictive rhythms, the lush melodies and abundant amount of fun contained in those notes are all signatures of his music. Indeed, it is those very same traits that brought him criticism in the serious music circles that he moved in.

Bernstein stepped (seemingly) effortlessly from the world of classical music* to the giddy maelstrom of Broadway and popular song which was and is very unusual. At one end of the spectrum, he had a deep and profound understanding of some of the most extraordinary pieces of art ever created: the works of Mahler, Wagner, Stravinsky and countless other giants of the music world were at his fingertips. Yet he, uniquely, was able to draw on those influences and transmute them into the more popular form of musical theatre. What else is the West Side Story prologue than a bluesy riff on early 20th century classical music?

I am a sucker for a tune, that’s for sure, and Bernstein always wins me over with an infectious melody. What always gets me is that his melodies aren’t predictable. Take the 7/4 tune in the first movement of the Chichester Psalms, heard here ( at 1:10. Or Tonight from West Side Story (**. His melodies are wide-ranging, tricky, yet wonderfully memorable. On paper they look challenging but music doesn’t live on paper, and when liberated as sound it becomes beguiling and catchy. 

The other thing that grabs you about Bernstein’s music are his chords, and by that I mean his use of harmony. If you’ve ever tried to play his music on the piano you’ll have struggled to get your fingers around the keys: they’re like tongue-twisters for your hands. They brought a new sound to musical theatre - just listen to the stabbing chords at the beginning of the West Side Story Mambo. They’re thrilling because they’re unexpected - they are notes in there that shouldn’t be there and that’s fun. In his classical writing he pushed to the point where conventional harmony rules break down completely - this is most clearly explored in his 3rd Symphony, the ‘Kaddish’ ( Nothing is predictable and there are no conventional tunes but it’s a great way to see how far Bernstein drove himself in the pursuit of true music-making. By exploring this kind of music, he broadened his own theatrical vocabulary. 

Bernstein used his prominent position as conductor of the New York Philharmonic to launch a series of televised lectures about music. They are one of his greatest legacies and set the standard for musical education on both the screen and the classroom. Here’s a fantastic clip with Bernstein looking at fragments of music that Beethoven discarded whilst writing his 5th Symphony. 


I suppose the largest imprint that Bernstein leaves on my consciousness is his fearlessness. He pushed the boundaries in every field of his music-making and was unafraid of experimenting. Some of these were disasters but his masterpieces would not have been achieved without these mistakes on the way. He famously conducted Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the slowest tempo you have ever heard ( For a movement usually performed in 4 minutes, he stretches it out a further minute and a half. Extraordinary stuff.

If you don’t already know his work outside West Side Story, I thoroughly recommend investigating Leonard Bernstein a little further. It’s an exploration that’ll have you in turn tapping your toe, weeping, skipping to the next track then singing along. You’ll love half and hate the other half. The one thing it’ll never be is boring.

Ben Frost

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

Christopher Street from WONDERFUL TOWN
Times Square, Finale Act One from ON THE TOWN
Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety”

* Interestingly, Bernstein didn’t differentiate between serious music and popular music, only what he called good music and bad music. 

** Incidentally, dubbed by the extraordinary Marni Nixon who also voiced Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She also turned up as a nun in the How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria sequence of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.