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Leonard Bernstein

By William Schuman

When a member of our organization dies, a place is vacated, soon to be filled in the numerical institutional rotation of self-renewal. There will be a successor. But the new member is not elected as a replacement for the one who has departed. The implementation of the process is in the spirit of the remark attributed to Thomas Jefferson when he was appointed minister to France, following the tenure in that post of Benjamin Franklin. He is said to have remarked: “I came to follow Mr. Franklin, not to replace him.” And so it is with us. Our continuity is reflected in the words of a former member, Philip Barry, who in his play, Hotel Universe, wrote: “All things are turned to a roundness. Wherever there is an end, from it the beginning springs.”

So much has been written about Leonard Bernstein that the repetition of the ever-present superlatives has rendered them inadequate to the descriptive needs—they have lost their force. Yet in recalling the essence of this artist and this man, restraint is out of place. Leonard Bernstein was a man of such astonishing capabilities that any attempt to modify the excesses that were germane to his innermost qualities would be a false and superimposed restriction.

When one speaks of Lenny and invokes the shopworn phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” the application is crystal clear. A man of such overwhelming attainments in so many diverse pursuits cannot be and need not be arbitrarily categorized. We do not honor his memory because he did so many things superbly. It is the whole of his life’s work that is the singular dimension—the dimension which is the special stamp of the Bernstein persona. Whatever the enterprise, it was anchored in his natural and unerring ability to seek out, understand, and reveal the creative process—to pay homage to the primacy of that process as the life blood of art as with life itself.

Whatever the arena, Leonard Bernstein instinctively identified its core and exploited the innovative opportunities which lay hidden before they were revealed through the probing quality of his intellect and his unique talents as performer.

Justifiably, much has been made of his ability to popularize high art, but there is the other side of that coin—his ability to elevate a popular medium. Television, often described as a cultural wasteland, was transformed by Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein proved that television does in fact possess all the attributes claimed for it, and through the extraordinary power of his personality, his erudition and his showmanship, he proved it. All by themselves, Leonard Bernstein’s triumphs on television have added a balancing perspective to the seemingly exaggerated claims of what the medium could be. Leonard Bernstein showed us that these claims, far from being exaggerated, were, if anything, understated.

Who can ever forget the picture of Bernstein standing on an enlarged orchestral score which had been painted on the floor of the television studio? He used every conceivable device germane to the visual and auditory medium to popularize without diminishing,. In short, he found the center of the creative process as it applied to the new medium of television and exploited that potential on its own terms to achieve larger goals.

In 1985 when Leonard Bernstein was presented with our Gold Medal for Music, the citation noted that his compositions had long since entered the mainstream of American music, encompassing an extraordinary range of thought and achievement: songs, piano pieces, chamber music, choruses, ballet and movie scores, symphonies, music theater and opera. For example, his score for The Dybbuk is a reminder of the power of the master composer to probe and illuminate the most subtle, complex, and diverse human qualities. His theater works, such as West Side Story,  could have been composed only by a populist rooted in the classical traditions of his art— and a Candide, only by a classicist with the voice of the populist. The rich and varied symphonies and operas, indeed the entire catalog, brilliantly combine those often disparate worlds into a single, cohesive, personal language— the recognizable profile that informs the artist.

How could these thousands of pages have been imagined by one individual, who during the same period of time became recognized as one of history’s greatest conductors, a prolific author, an advocate of enlightened causes, and a superb pianist?

Those of us who knew Lenny since his earliest days are often questioned about his characteristics as a youth. If you asked me what he was like then, the answer (with hindsight) would be exactly what you might expect. What in his maturity was wisdom was then precocity; what became erudition was then promise; what developed into mastery was then technique; and the ebullience of his wit, charm, and brilliance were even then clearly manifest. One didn’t have to be clairvoyant to recognize at once that this particular young man had the unmistakable stamp of star caliber. But to suggest that any of us might have imagine the career that lay ahead is not to understand what happened. There has been no career like this before. No one, especially Lenny himself could have drawn the blueprint. He used to ask his friends what he was—was he a composer, a pianist, a conductor? And in view of his subsequent achievements, he might have added—writer, philosopher, social activist.

We do not honor him, as we have noted, because he did so many things superbly, but because everything he did, viewed in its finality, emerged as part of a unified force. In short, he became an authentic American hero. Not a legendary hero, a Paul Bunyan; not a sports hero, a Babe Ruth; but a new breed of American hero, an arts hero. And wherever he went in his worldwide travels, it was an event of importance, a vibrant reminder that America does indeed honor the intellect, the spirit, the achievement of her artists.

On the deeper personal level there are not words for me adequately to express what his enduring friendship meant to those he loved and who loved him. In the final analysis it was his capacity to interact fully with his fellow human beings which was the underlying factor from which all else emerged.

If music, as Aaron Copland has written, is one of the glories of mankind, then surely our Leonard Bernstein will ever be one of the glories of music.

We are fortunate to have lived in his time.

Read by Hugo Weisgall

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters