Essential Music: Leonard Bernstein

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Leonard Bernstein in the classical music landscape of the United States, and the rest of the world. If there ever was a megastar conductor in the US, Bernstein was that. Flamboyant, outspoken, and an immense musician, Bernstein contributed to the growth and development of classical music for several decades.

Bernstein was a conductor, composer (best known for West Side Story, but he composed dozens of other works), teacher, vulgarizer (his Young People’s Concerts helped introduce children in the US to classical music), and political activist.

In the years approaching the centenary of his birth (he was born in 1918), we have been graced recently with a wealth of collections of his work. It is now possible to obtain large numbers of his recordings and easily assess his work as a conductor and composer.

As a conductor, Bernstein was instrumental in exposing listeners to unknown music. In 1951, he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2, written decades earlier but never performed. He championed the music of other American composers, such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and William Schuman. He also led the re-discovery of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, starting in 1960.

As a composer, his works may be less influential, though West Side Story is a touchstone of the times, and his Mass is a monumental work. Each of the box sets below contains recordings of most of his own compositions; he recorded them for both Columbia and DG.

A1Axq9ksvaL._SL1500_.jpgSony started with the Leonard Bernstein Symphony Edition (, Amazon UK), which contains 60 CDs of his symphonic recordings with Columbia records, where Bernstein recorded exclusively through 1972. After that time, he mostly recorded with Deutsche Grammophon, though still released some records with Columbia. A second volume, to contain more symphonies and concertos, is due out in October. (, Amazon UK)

91g4N4kv+CL._SL1500_.jpgDeutsche Grammophon then followed with The Leonard Bernstein Collection – Volume One (, Amazon UK), containing 59 CDs and one DVD on the making of West Side Story. Many of the DG recordings are live, and many cover works he recorded earlier for Columbia. Volume Two of this set is due for release in 2015.

(Note that the DG boxes include discs in alphabetical order of composers’ names. So the first volume contains Beethoven and Brahms – and Bernstein – but not Mahler and Sibelius. In other words, you have to get both. The first Sony box is only symphonies; the second will contain more symphonies, together with concertos. So you really have to get both of them as well.)

One of his most important activities to the general public was that of music vulgarizer. In his Young People’s Concerts, broadcast on TV in the United States, he explained classical music so children (and adults) could understand it. These are available on DVD and are still relevant. (Volume One:, Amazon UK; Volume Two:, Amazon UK.) He also recorded several episodes for the Omnibus TV series, hosted by Alaistair Cooke, explaining conducting, modern music, opera and more. (, Amazon UK) And six lectures he gave at Harvard University, called The Unanswered Question (taken from the title of a work by Charles Ives), give more insight into slightly thornier musical questions. (, Amazon UK)

51ftLBGSz7L._SY300_.jpgThere is a plethora of films of Lenny live, from the 1970s and 1980s, which are a testament to his unique style of conducting, and his ability to get orchestras to play their best. Especially notable are his complete Mahler Symphonies (, Amazon UK), Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos (, Amazon UK), and Bernstein conducting some of his own works (, Amazon UK).

9780300179095.jpgThere are also a number of books by and about Bernstein. His Harvard lectures, The Unanswered Question, are available in book form (, Amazon UK), as are transcripts of some of his Young People’s concerts (, Amazon UK). There’s a thick biography by Humphrey Burton, who directed most of Bernstein’s live films (, Amazon UK), but I found it to be little more than a list of dates; it gave me no insight into who Bernstein was. A recent collection of his letters (, Amazon UK) should help better understand him (I haven’t read it yet), and Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein (, Amazon UK), a transcript of an interview that Bernstein gave to Jonathan Cott in 1989, gives a more colloquial view of the man in his late years.

Leonard Bernstein was a fascinating man who helped shape classical music for decades. With the recent – and forthcoming – box sets, it’s relatively inexpensive to amass a huge collection of his work, and appreciate just how multitudinous he was. He is probably the best documented conductor of our time, with hundreds of recordings, dozens of films, and his huge oeuvre of work for television. As we approach his centenary, we’ll certainly be seeing more releases, though with the four big box sets from Sony and DG, I can’t imagine that there will be much more to come (though there are a lot of live recordings from the NYPO – some of which have been released – that would make a great box set).