Music Man

October 16, 1990

The death of Leonard Bernstein at 72 deprives the United States of the most illustrious musician in its history, and deprives music of its most illustrious American.

Millions of people who love classical music have Bernstein to thank for their introduction to it. And for decades hence, young Americans who find acceptance of their scores in European productions or their conducting on European podiums will have Leonard Bernstein to thank for opening the opportunity.

His versatility was at once his blessing and his curse. He was the first native-born music director of a top-ranked American symphony orchestra. His guest-conducting of all the greatest orchestras in his later career established an American as one of the most eminent conductors in the world.

Bernstein introduced the then-obscure music of Gustav Mahler to modern-day audiences and became Mahler's foremost interpreter and champion. His own symphonic compositions won high praise, especially some of his earlier works. He was an accomplished concert pianist, too.

His small body of theatrical composing includes what may be the greatest American musical of all time ("West Side Story") and two that are winning their places in the repertory of opera companies of the world (his quasi-operatic version of "West Side Story" and his operetta "Candide"). His earliest composing success, "Fancy Free," stamped him as one of the finest composers for the ballet. His score for the award-winning film, "On the Waterfront," further enhanced his multi-talented reputation.

Bernstein's success coincided with the age of television. His network conducting and teaching about music -- especially his Emmy-winning "Young People's Concerts" -- brought it into the living rooms of America and the ears and hearts of children and adults of an entire generation. In books and college teaching he carrier this forward at a more technical level. He was a celebrity from the moment of his stunning conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 until his death on Sunday, 47 years later. He always used his immense fame in the cause of music.

That all this was a blessing is self-evident. The possible curse of it is that admirers of each of Bernstein's endeavors thought he just missed eternal greatness in that particular line by his diversion of time and effort to the others.

Leonard Bernstein wrote no Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. His "serious" music missed not only the popularity but also the critical acclaim of his "lighter" music. But that may be illusory. Mozart, too, attained immortality for what was considered light theatrical fare at the time.

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