Leonard Bernstein (Tully Potter Collection)Leonard Bernstein (Tully Potter Collection)

I met Bernstein in Vienna where he was appearing this summer at the Festival, to conduct a new production of Fidelio in the Theater an der Wien where the first version of the work had its premiere in 1805. All the town was at his feet as they had been when he directed Falstaff, then Rosenkavalier at the State Opera in previous years. Indeed, since Karajan departed nobody has so won the hearts of the somewhat fickle Viennese public like ‘Der Lenni’. To find at least a little peace, he had rented a house in Grinzing, near Heiligenstadt, a mecca for all Beethoven lovers. There, away from the limelight, he was able to relax and talk about his past, present and future.

Even in his 52nd year he still has the youthful enthusiasm, the warmth and the burning energy that first thrust him into the limelight more than 25 years before when he took over a New York Philharmonic concert from an ailing Bruno Walter and won the proverbial fame in a night – or, at least, in this case in an afternoon: at that time the Philharmonic still gave a series of Sunday afternoon concerts. He began as he puts it to ‘learn all about conducting’ when he studied with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute after graduating from Harvard in 1939. ‘What a teacher he was. He really made you learn every aspect of a work asking you suddenly, for example, “what are the seconds doing here?” In 1940 I went to Tanglewood where I was guided by my other great teacher, Koussevitsky. We became very close and I shall always remember him with warmth. At Tanglewood, for the first time, I had the chance to conduct a large orchestra.

‘At that stage I knew only that I wanted to be a musician and I had no thought of becoming anything as glamorous as a conductor. I watched Koussevitsky at Boston from the second row of the balcony and regarded his job as something unapproachable by ordinary mortals. I had started composing at Harvard and I first met Mitropoulos, another great influence on me, by chance at a tea party given by the Greek Society at Harvard. He was very interested in my work and asked to look through all my compositions. It was he who suggested I go to Reiner to study. Later I watched Mitropoulos rehearsing and I think his style rubbed off on me. I also met Copland about this time and I was most impressed and influenced by his music, by his refined, French approach and his neo-classiscism at that time.

‘My first major work, the Jeremiah Symphony, was finished in 1942 and I’m still very proud of that piece. I did it recently in Israel and I was amazed how well it’s stood up. Anyway, I wanted to get a job in New York so that I could have time to write music. But Mitropoulos said that I was a born conductor and he talked me into trying my hand at conducting. Then I was only 24 and that was a bit young in those days. I seemed to be stymied when an extraordinary series of events changed my life. Rodzinski was looking for an assistant for the New York Philharmonic. Now he was an eccentric. He heard me at Tanglewood – on my 25th birthday – and he reckoned that God was telling him to take me, so I became his assistant. But no assistant had ever been able to conduct the New York Philharmonic up to that time. But one day Walter got flu and at nine o’clock in the morning of the day of the concert I was rung up and asked to take over Walter’s programme just as it stood – I think it included the Manfred Overture, the Meistersinger Prelude, Strauss’s Don Quixote and a new piece by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa.

‘I wasn’t really in any state to do any conducting that day. The night before Jennie Tourel had given the first performance of my song cycle, I Hate Music in the Town Hall. There had been a party afterwards and we’d continued until the early hours. I remember going over to talk to Bruno Walter. He was so adorable, going through the scores with me and showing me where this and that was. That helped me a great deal. For the rest I kept my fingers crossed – and prayed. You mustn’t forget this was the first professional concert, also the first complete one, I’d ever conducted. It was thrilling for me at that age to make the front-page of the New York Times next day.’

This wasn’t the only thing that happened to Bernstein in that year. ‘My Jeremiah Symphony was taken up by several famous conductors. Reiner played it in Pittsburgh, Koussevitsky conducted it in Boston. Then Reiner took it to New York. In April 1944 my ballet Fancy Free had its premiere and later in the year On the Town opened on Broadway. It all seemed to be happening.’

Mention of the musical had Bernstein musing about the future of the genre. He told me he had hoped that West Side Story would have been the beginning of a new kind of musical. ‘But young composers don’t seem to have followed that line. As for myself, I’m working on a new commission for the opening of the Kennedy Center next September which will be theatrically based, a large-scale work. But I find it difficult to talk about the future of the theatre. Everything in it today seems filled with despair or satire. There’s very little that’s hopeful, almost nothing that’s noble.’

Similarly he takes rather a bleak view of the musical scene. ‘The avant-garde seems to me to be thrashing around and eating its own tail. Non-tonality is struggling with itself. Tonality looks as though it’s as dead as when Tristan was produced in 1865 – and also as dead as God was made by Nietzsche. I could write as many serial pieces as I wished, if I felt so inclined but you know it’s much harder to write a tune in F major than to compose a three-hour 12-tone sonata.’

In spite of his great success as an executant, he seemed to be concerned about his position as a creator. ‘You see, for years I was in the forefront of modern music. Now I seem to be classed as some kind of reactionary. And it’s a difficult moment for me – I must find out what my contribution can still be as a composer. I think the vibrations from the whole Western world are weak. The young, as I’ve discovered in “bull” sessions at Harvard, are full of despair. They have no heroes, no models – and this attitude shows in their music. They have no sense of the future.’

Bernstein certainly has had one hero in the classical field – Mahler. In the 1960-61 season of the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra did all the symphonies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Most were conducted by Bernstein himself. ‘I think that was the signal for Mahler to catch on. I feel very close to him for several reasons. I understand his problems because I have his weaknesses and his strengths, as well as his own schism between conducting and composing. So when I conduct his music I find that I can identify very closely with it.’

Bernstein believes that Mahler could have written ‘fabulous operas’ and wishes he had done so. His own career as an opera conductor has blossomed comparatively recently, though he has directed performances off and on throughout his life. Among the most important of these have been the American premiere of Peter Grimes, at Tanglewood in 1946, Medic with Callas at La Scala in 1953, Falstaff at Vienna in 1965, Rosenkavalier there in 1968, then this year’s bicentenary Fidelio. ‘My family didn’t know opera existed but I got all the scores out of the library and played them through ceaselessly. Then I had a chance to see some opera when I was at College.’

He says that Fidelio is the last opera that he will conduct without committing the performance to records and he would also like to film the productions  – and to make films of some of his concerts. He then admitted that he had trouble disciplining himself because he liked to do so much. ‘I enjoy everything about music – that’s why I just put the one word “musician” on my passport.’

He had hoped to concentrate on composing after leaving his job at the New York Philharmonic, but he promised so many organisations that he would come to conduct for them when his contract came to an end that he has still not found much time to devote to his own music. And there are still many other conducting projects that he has in mind. He will be in charge of a new production of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1972, and during the 1972-73 season he will make his debut at Covent Garden. Although the work is as yet undecided, he thinks that it may be Boheme. ‘I didn’t know until they told me that the present production dates back to Melba’s time! Of course, there are many other operas I would like to add to my repertory – all the Mozarts, Otello, a Handel opera, Wozzeck, one of the Monteverdi’s and – one day – the Ring.’

Then there is television and recording sessions to be fitted in somehow. ‘I’ve done 50 young people’s shows and 25 for grown-ups, these on every conceivable subject from the St Matthew Passion to Oedipus Rex. And, as I say, I now want to build up a library of actual performances on film for television. I like recording very much because there are so many ways you can direct attention to aspects of the music that is just not possible in an everyday concert. Of course, like every other musician, I always wish I could make all my records over again but there are several that I think worked out quite well: Mahler’s Third and Sixth Symphonies, Shostakovich’s Sixth and Ninth, Beethoven’s First, Second and Eighth, Liszt’s Faust, Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding, and, of course, Falstaff – we had such a wonderful cast. I’d like to re-make the Brahms symphonies – they didn’t quite come off last time I did them. I very much want to record Rosenkavalier too.’

Bernstein believes very strongly in self identification with the composer whose work he is conducting. ‘Before I did this Fidelio I read so many of Beethoven’s letters and memorabilia that I felt I was somehow bridging the awestruck gap between me and Beethoven. Yet I still felt very reverential about tackling the work. “Dare I?” and “Am I worthy?” were questions that kept coming back into my head. Then I felt so close to the disorder and worries of his life that I really imagined I was going deaf. At one point I thought “I can’t hear the second oboe” (It turned out he wasn’t playing) and then I thought that I’d actually written the work. In that theatre, I imagined the first audience of French soldiers – and their indifference or even hostility to that first night. I thought why had I written this or that. It was quite frightening, like a bad dream in which I was there. The Beethovenian doubts were really nerve-racking. Indeed by the opening night I was identifying so much that I felt as if I was conducting my own piece.’

He considers conducting in many ways as important as composing. “It’s a sort of curator’s job – taking care of the great treasures of the past, and it’s very necessary to keep this great museum of works alive for the future. But I feel that the era of great symphonic works really ended with Mahler. When I think of writing it’s for the theatre – and the theatre in the widest context.’

Bernstein indicated that we must finish our interview. He would have liked to go on talking further into the afternoon but work called – in this case another facet of his talent we had not even touched upon, namely his piano playing. He was due to give the Beethoven First Concerto in the same concert at which he was to conduct Bruckner’s Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic. That meant he must practise as he had hardly any time to touch the piano since coming to Vienna.

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