some thoughts on Leonard Bernstein

Earlier this week, I played a Leonard Bernstein review show. Bernstein is a composer with whom I’ve always had a somewhat complicated aesthetic relationship. He did so much for music that I am hesitant to be critical, but the truth is that some of his writing makes me a bit uncomfortable. I think I may have figured out what it is.

I think that the Bernstein of West Side Story and On The Town is when he is at his best. It comes across as extremely interesting and sophisticated popular music. I think that the Bernstein of the Mass is less successful.

I was playing a recording of the Simple Song, and my wife called to me from the other room asking, “What are you listening to? It’s awful.” I said, “Take a guess.” She responded, “Andrew Lloyd Weber? Claude Michelle Schonberg? Contemporary Christian Music?”

Perhaps, what is happening comes from his love and respect for all kinds of music. That love manifested itself in his writing through musical choices that occasionally reference popular clichés. The danger for a composer that makes that choice is that the reference may become dated and associated with ideas that reach beyond what you intend.

I’ve experienced something similar in religious services. Occasionally, I’ve heard a religious text that uses a chord progression that has become too worn out from overuse in 70s. It is uncanny how the feelings that I have always associated with that chord progression (when I’ve heard it in a Broadway musical or a popular song) rise up and begin an argument with the text.

So, occasionally, I find that some of his music sounds kind of corny because of musical references that seem to be a little too tired to bear up under the weight of the emotional impact of the content. I find myself growing suspicious of him and doubting his sincerity. Here we have a composer who could write successful Broadway musicals and something as rich and complex as The Age of Anxiety. Why does he sometimes cross that thin line between the simple and the simplistic?

That’s usually the point when I start regretting my thought process. I’d hate it if someone started criticizing everything I ever wrote and making assumptions about my intentions. In the end, I decide to leave the man alone. I do have two problems left over to resolve.

#1 I don’t know of another composer whose output I like and dislike so much.

#2 I hate the way some of the older musicians who did one performance with him back in the 60s or 70s casually say, “Well, when I worked with Lenny…” as if calling him by his nickname is a shibboleth of one’s personal musical sophistication and excellence.

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