Who Was That Google Doodle?
Leonard Bernstein was born just over one hundred years ago. It is a momentous occasion for the classical music world to celebrate, because “Lenny” (as he is affectionately referred to) is a giant of our art form. He is famous not just as an outstanding conductor, composer, and pianist, but also as a fabulous ambassador of classical music to wide groups of people. For many of these groups, Lenny’s musical and educational creations were their first encounter with this art form. I know that I am not the only one that feels that his presence and strength was one of the prime reasons why classical music retained its strength throughout the course of his life. His decline and death nearly parallel a steady decline in public interest surrounding classical music. Every art form needs an emissary, and classical music is no exception.
So who is this “Lenny” and why is he so great?
The man is a legend – a multitalented musical beast in every sense of the word. He was charming, vivacious, creative, inspiring, wickedly intelligent, funny, and difficult. His archetype was also quite relatable to the vast majority of people of his time, even in spite of the fact that he was Jewish and raised during a time of particularly heightened anti-semitism, both nationally and internationally. He was the son of Ukranian immigrants. He was a success-story without the name Kennedy, Vanderbilt, Astor, or some other name of lore. He was a prodigal talent who became a household name synonymous with classical music. Over time, his name also began to be synonymous with other things: leftist thought, the Black Panthers, homosexuality, and more. He was more than just musician- he became all that we artists should aspire to be: a creative artist with intense relativity to the world around us. Leonard Bernstein was a marvel, and that's why Google honored him with his own Google Doodle on his 100th birthday.
Leonard Bernstein was born in the early 20th century in Massachusetts. Starting on piano around age 10, he eventually graduated from Boston Latin School and Harvard (where he wrote an extraordinary thesis called “The Absorption of Race Elements in American music). He had charisma unlike anyone else, and caught the eye of a number of world-renowned musicians who took him under his wing to train at famous institutions such as the Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia) and the Tanglewood Music Center (Lenox, MA). His capacity, creativity, and curiosity was a magnet for the great and powerful - they were intensely attracted to him, often in a variety of ways. But it was his capacity to be an equally adept performer, composer, and teacher that makes him so important, beloved, and timeless. To give you a brief overview of the guy, let's look at each one of those categories. But fear not, if you finish reading this post with Bernstein fever, there are more resources for you at the end.
Though he was already well-known in music circles, “Lenny” famously burst onto the world stage while he was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He did not simply walk into a career (in fact he spent a year or two teaching piano lessons in New York and desperately fighting for performance opportunities even after having been noticed by some of the world’s great classical musicians of the time).
After hard work, he managed to become the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. One night, after an extended period of drinking and partying (other activities which were particular strengths of Lenny’s), he awoke to a phone call from the then manager of the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Zirato. Here’s Lenny discussing that moment in his career:
After this, his career exploded, and before long he was touring nationally and internationally, playing with renowned orchestras. Though he was active throughout the world, he would always be a champion for American classical music. Early on, he toured to Europe with a piece by famed American composer: Aaron Copland. Copland is often credited with having created the first truly American sound in classical music. Having lived from 1900 until 1990 (dying only a couple months after Lenny), he had a remarkable impact on classical music in America. He was, like Bernstein, a household name.
Copland’s Third Symphony is a perfect example of this American classical music sound that Copland invented, hence why Bernstein took it on tour to Europe. The musical themes within evoke very American images from his time period: Western movies, open prairies, musical ear-worms from other cultures, traditional hymns, and even (at times) the hustle and bustle of American cities. Bernstein is considered to be the greatest interpreter of this piece. He was very close with Aaron Copland, and their close friendship and mutual admiration undoubtedly helped fueled Bernstein's creative imagination in performance.
The fourth movement of Copland’s Third Symphony has recognizable themes in it, particularly the first few minutes, which would later be known as “Fanfare for the Common Man”. It is an immensely powerful piece, and is so evocative, rewarding, and easy to listen to. Listen here, and follow along below:
At the start: A quiet introduction, with winds singing one of the featured melodies of this piece, which would later be published as an extract to perform separately from the symphony called "Fanfare for the Common Man".
0:50 - The brass take-over the melody, after being introduced by percussion and the cellos, giving it a wholly new character. What was first simple and meditative, is now bombastic and proud, underscored with crashes and hits in the percussion. They embellish the melody- leading the listener down new musical corners and avenues.
3:08 - The bassoon gets the melody now, followed by the strings which bring warmth and calm to what was previously a huge, bright sound. These instruments lead us in a new direction, and develop this melody into several new musical ideas which will carry us through the rest of the piece. The winds play off each other as the orchestra leads us to a bouncy, fun, new musical playground.
By 3:42 we are accelerating in a new direction. The bounce and liveliness of the piece increases, forcibly pulling us forward. It's energetic and exciting. As different instruments join the soundscape, the music starts to sound reminiscent of the Wild West and the hugely popular Western movies of the time. In the energetic melodies in the strings, supported by the rest of the orchestra, we can hear cowboys, horses, gunfire, and the open road across a golden, dusty desert.
At 6:01, the old tune returns, after a long departure while we engaged in our Wild West fantasy. The sound is different now, however. It has been influenced by the musical journey of what came before. Rather than having one clear theme played together, different iterations of the themes we have heard so far are layered on top of each-other by various instruments in the orchestra. The wind instruments continue to embellish and flit around, and Copland refuses to let us settle in one place.
When we arrive at 6:48, a new musical world is open to us. Copland introduces a catchy new tune in the strings that almost feels like a jazz standard. It has an oddly shaped rhythmic feeling (what we call "mixed meter" - meaning that each bar of music is a different length, with different stressed beats). In rehearsals, Bernstein used to sing lyrics to this melody for fun:
"I love the way my baby walks.
I love the way my baby talks."
At this point, every musical idea we hear is an old friend, and Copland masterfully interweaves them all to take the listener on an amazing musical journey, which culminates at the end in a return of our bombastic theme, with the whole orchestra joining in the fun. It's a powerful piece, and I find myself gripping onto my seat and smiling widely by the end. Give yourself the chance to listen to this whole movement at least - it's outstanding, and you'll hear why almost immediately.
Lenny was best known, perhaps a bit to his dismay, as being the composer of West Side Story. He was certainly immensely proud of the work, but he always felt that he was destined to compose the “Great American Opera” or “Great American Symphony”. It was a pursuit that he toiled at for years. As a result he created a large body of compositions, some of which are genius, and some of which do not work quite as well.
West Side Story is a famous piece, however, and rightfully receives much adoration from audiences. A great way to hear Bernstein’s score is through the Symphonic Dances he created. To create the Symphonic Dances, he took prominent musical themes from “West Side Story”, and condensed them into a 20-something minute concert piece with multiple movement. This is a great example of his range as a composer: he can melt hearts, and make hearts race.
Only have time for one track? Listen to the mambo and try NOT to dance!
So many amazing versions exist, but this is a famous version bythe
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel
Do you have 20 mins to spare? Listen to the whole Symphonic Dances here. It's worth it, I promise:
Perhaps more than anything else, Lenny is known as a teacher. His educational endeavors are famous world-round. His Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic changed the global face of music education, and in his time were broadcast to dozens of countries around the world. Today they are just as relevant as they ever were, and I have to admit, have been a regular source of inspiration for PitchSHIFT.
One of his earliest, and most famous, is a program called “What is Classical Music” where he eloquently breaks down the problem with this title, while also providing many musical examples of classical music. If nothing else, just watch this first segment here:
As a teacher, his mission is clear: invite others to listen to and like, if not love, this music, while also reminding people that classical music is a diverse, ever-changing art form. By being the artist he was, he not only created great art, but cultivated new audiences of listeners by making them feel welcome. There are dozens of these concerts, so if you love them like I do, seek them out!
So this guy's 100th birthday is a day to celebrate, and classical music institutions have been celebrating his birthday all year. Whether as a composer, performer, or teacher he has made an impact on every classical musician's life, and his music is some of the most lovable, fun, and exciting music ever written.
Want to see if there's a performance of Bernstein's music somewhere near you? Click here to search!