This week's announcement that Leonard Bernstein, the foremost American conductor and composer of this century, will lay down his baton due to failing health marks the end of an era that saw a nation's musical coming-of-age coincide with the career of a native-born genius whose multifaceted talent has delighted audiences the world over.
Before Bernstein, great conductors were almost by definition transplanted Europeans. Long after America had established its pre-eminence in business, industry and the sciences, it still looked to venerable Old World masters -- like Arturo Toscanini, Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan -- as the ultimate arbiters of musical taste and style. All that changed on a single night in 1943 when, as a lowly assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was called in at the last minute to substitute for the legendary Bruno Walter who had taken ill. His performance stunned the musical establishment with its technical assurance and musical mastery and propelled the then-unknown American to the front ranks of the world's great music-makers -- a distinction he has maintained to the present day.
All the world will miss the magical baton Bernstein wielded with such grace and skill over the course of a career that spanned more than 50 of the most creative and exciting years of American musical development.