A Wunderkind at 100

Leonard Bernstein prophesied an American classical music; his disillusionment and disappointments mirrored the nation’s.
In 1980, at the age of 62, Leonard Bernstein undertook the composition of a formidable full-scale opera, commissioned jointly by La Scala, the Kennedy Center, and Houston Grand Opera. He called it A Quiet Place. It’s the story of an unquiet family, the same one that Bernstein had depicted in Trouble in Tahiti in 1952, when he was just 34. Trouble in Tahiti is a romp, deftly dispatched. But Bernstein had not composed an opera since, and A Quiet Place did not come easily—so much so that he decided to incorporate Trouble in Tahiti as a flashback. As he worked on the score, he confided to an associate that Trouble in Tahiti was “a better piece.” And so it is. The Bernstein trajectory of promises fulfilled and not is anything but simple.

This August will mark Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The centenary celebrations started last August and are worldwide. The Bernstein estate counts more than 2,000 events on six continents. And there is plenty to celebrate. But if Bernstein remains a figure of limitless fascination, it is also because his story is archetypal. He embodied a tangled nexus of American challenges, aspirations, and contradictions. And if he in some ways unraveled, so did the America he once courted and extolled.

Like the United States, Bernstein came late to classical music. He was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his father, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a successful beauty-products supplier. Sam Bernstein initially discouraged his son’s interest in music. Not until he was 14 did Bernstein hear an orchestral concert. At Harvard, he majored in music and met Aaron Copland, who he later called “my only real composition teacher.” He studied composing and conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, then moved to Greenwich Village, where he sometimes performed in clubs; his odd jobs included arranging popular songs and transcribing jazz improvisations. Beginning in 1940, he studied at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony’s visionary music director, Serge Koussevitzky.

Bernstein acquired instant fame in 1943 when he conducted the New York Philharmonic on short notice, replacing the indisposed Bruno Walter in a program of Schumann, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Miklós Rózsa. A year later, he led the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in Pittsburgh, his ballet Fancy Free was choreographed by Jerome Robbins for New York City Ballet, and his musical On the Town opened on Broadway. Just 26, Bernstein was the wunderkind of American music.

His career mounted with vertiginous speed. From 1954, he was television’s go-to musical personality. Candide and West Side Story—his two best-known Broadway products—opened in 1956 and 1957. Bernstein’s ambitions were recklessly explicit. He thrilled to the breathless possibility of a new species of American musical theater. “All we need is for our Mozart to come along,” he told a 1956 TV audience while surveying the swift evolution of the Broadway musical (“What makes South Pacific different?” “Why can’t Europe imitate Pajama Game?”). Concurrently, he expressed a charged ambivalence about the prospects for a “Great American Symphony.” Splitting himself in half in an imaginary 1954 dialogue (“Symphony or Musical Comedy?”), he argued that there was “no historical necessity for symphonies in our time” and countered, “There has never in history, by statistical record, been so great an interest in the symphony and the symphony orchestra as is at this moment manifest in the United States.”

Bernstein’s brio, wit, and facility were irresistible. The music he was composing, whether high or low, already sounded like “Bernstein.” Whether it was deep was another matter. Did West Side Story turn cheesy when it got serious? Why were the most earnest pages of the 1954 Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (arguably the finest of all his concert works) the least successful? Bernstein’s progress—underlined or undercut by an insatiable drive to succeed—became a topic of incessant debate in America. Lenny needed to focus his talents was the frequent verdict. He was spread too thin. Bernstein more than shared this nagging anxiety.

Then in 1958 Bernstein, at the age of 40, became the youngest music director in the history of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and—as every announcement stressed—the first Philharmonic music director to be American-born. It was his biggest, most glamorous, and most prestigious showcase. Ten years later, he would be gone, frustrated and fatigued.

* * *

If there is a single motif that unifies the Bernstein saga, it was his desire to resolve the oxymoron “American classical music.” Beginning in the mid-19th century, Europe’s musical traditions were vigorously appropriated by a profusion of American orchestras and opera troupes (the New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842). But classical music in America remained Eurocentric: a colonial outpost prodigious in scale. Bernstein’s determination to change all that was never more explicit than during his momentous Philharmonic decade.

That the orchestra was a troubled institution was public knowledge. Howard Taubman, in the New York Times, was only one of many voices demanding a thorough housecleaning. The Boston Symphony, propelled by Koussevitzky’s 25-year tenure (1924-49), had undertaken a sustained American mission: Bernstein’s quest for the Great American Symphony had first been Koussevitzky’s quest. And it was Koussevitzky who created the Tanglewood Festival as an incubator for American musical talent. In Philadelphia, Leopold Stokowski had spent 26 years ceaselessly exploring: building the orchestra into a laboratory for new repertoire, new sonic possibilities, and new educational strategies. Not only was New York’s orchestra a less polished instrument than Boston’s or Philadelphia’s, it had enjoyed no such sustained artistic leadership. The Philharmonic’s longtime manager, Arthur Judson, would not relinquish authority to a conductor of consequence. Between 1923 and 1936, the orchestra did not even have a “music director.” Judson was finally pushed out in 1956, and the board turned to Bernstein for guidance.

Young, eclectic, and irreverent, Bernstein had a remedial agenda not merely for New York but also for the nation. There were two critical objectives. The first was to identify and promote an American canon so that American orchestras would eventually emphasize American works; until that happened, the United States could only claim a second-rate musical high culture, however abundantly stocked with world-class imported goods. The second objective was to carve a role for new music: There needed to be a contemporary canon, American and not, that audiences could embrace. That Bernstein was himself a composer looking for the way forward and himself an American musician looking for a rooted identity were crucial factors. More than the Russian-born Koussevitzky, more than the English-born Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein tackled the oxymoron head-on. He was fired by personal urgency.

In a remarkable memo outlining his inaugural year, Bernstein wrote, “The season is divided into seven periods of four weeks each, except for the final period, which is six weeks. I will conduct periods 1, 3, 5, and 7. The over all point of my eighteen weeks is a general survey of American Music from the earliest generation of American composers to the present.” And so it was. Bernstein’s first subscription program as music director included William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. A rambunctious cornucopia of Germanic procedures and American tunes, Ives’s Second was an overlooked American masterpiece that Bernstein, already curating the past, had premiered with the Philharmonic in 1951. Schuman’s overture was a brash patriotic salute on the fringes of the repertoire. Bernstein’s initial program embodied his supreme aspiration: that American orchestras would prioritize American works. They would belatedly clinch an American canon. And they would honor European progenitors.

What followed that first season were forgotten turn-of-the-century Americans: George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell. These—plus Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Wallingford Riegger, all of more recent vintage—comprised Bernstein’s “Older Generation.” Then came “The Twenties” (Copland, George Gershwin, Edgard Varèse), “From the Crash through the Second World War” (Samuel Barber, Randall Thompson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson), and “The Young Generation” (Kenneth Gaburo, Lukas Foss, William Russo, Easley Blackwood Jr.). On top of all that, 16 of Bernstein’s 29 soloists for the season were born in North America. The die was cast.

The comprehensive curatorial role Bernstein was pursuing was unprecedented in the history of American music. It more resembled the defining projects of a world-class museum: uncovering treasures past, reassessing received truths, gauging the contemporary trajectory with thematic initiatives. That American orchestras have never adopted a comparable template is one reason they are now in trouble. Bernstein more than saw it coming. Overnight, he became the Philharmonic’s in-house scholar and educator, its resident conductor, pianist, and composer. He would (and could) do it all himself.

And yet, remarkably, Bernstein would never again show such allegiance to American music. His second season proclaimed a messianic transatlantic cause: six Mahler symphonies, plus two sets of Mahler songs with orchestra. For one stretch of two months, every Philharmonic program included at least one Mahler work. Bernstein’s third season ended with six programs exploring the “Keys to the Twentieth Century”—mainly mainstream Europeans. In 1963-64, Bernstein devoted six programs to “The Avant-Garde”—nine composers, of whom only four were American.

Because these acts of advocacy were also ongoing exercises in self-discovery, their outcome proved confused. Bernstein the composer mistrusted contemporary fashions. And Bernstein the American classical musician—the oxymoron—was withdrawing from the eager New World narrative with which he had begun. He took a sabbatical in 1964-65 to compose. A planned Broadway musical proved abortive. “I made many experiments because I had the luxury of a whole year to do nothing but experiment,” he later recalled. “And part of my experimentation was to try to write some pieces that, shall we say, were less old-fashioned. And I wrote a lot of music, 12-tone music and avant-garde music of various kinds, and a lot of it was very good, but I threw it all away. And what I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called Chichester Psalms.” He called it “old-fashioned and sweet.” In a “sabbatical report” he wrote for the New York Times in 1965, he pondered “the ancient cliché that the certainty of one’s knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience.” In 1966, he announced his resignation from the Philharmonic, effective in 1969.

The remainder of Bernstein’s directorship emphasized the resilience of the symphony in the 20th century. He discovered the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who had fashioned a heroic idiom transcending cliché. He championed Sibe­lius—an unabashed romantic who had been precipitously trashed by the modernists. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony became a Bernstein specialty. (He and the Philharmonic had used it to wow Soviet audiences, including the composer, during a 1959 tour of the USSR.) A 1966 Young People’s Concert, “A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich,” produced a Bernstein encomium both prescient (Shostakovich was still a victim of Cold War putdowns) and self-referential (at 48, Bernstein was growing comfortable with feeling “old-fashioned”):
In these days of musical experimentation, with new fads chasing each other in and out of the concert halls, a composer like Shostakovich can be easily put down. After all he’s basically a traditional Russian composer, a true son of Tchaikovsky—and no matter how modern he ever gets, he never loses that tradition. So the music is always in some way old-fashioned—or at least what critics and musical intellectuals like to call old-fashioned. But they’re forgetting the most important thing—he’s a genius: a real authentic genius, and there aren’t too many of those around any more.

Bernstein’s disappointment upon leaving the Philharmonic was undisguised. He knew that he had failed to transform the orchestra into something dynamically American. He had endured steady complaints—basically valid—that it lacked the gold-standard polish of the orchestras in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland. But if his were not the accomplishments he had once envisioned, they were formidable and distinctive. He had not remotely succeeded in canonizing an American repertoire. But, starting from scratch, he had established the iconic importance of Charles Ives. He had singlehandedly canonized Nielsen and helped to restore Sibelius’s luster. And he had left a central legacy honoring a composer and Philharmonic music director far bigger than himself: Gustav Mahler.
In 1958, when Bernstein took over the Philharmonic, Mahler was not an unknown name, but his music was hardly popular. He had been the orchestra’s conductor from 1909 to 1911. And five subsequent Philharmonic conductors had been (or would become) notable Mahlerians: Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and John Barbirolli. In such company, Bern­stein was not the supreme Mahler interpreter. But he was without question Mahler’s supreme advocate. No previous New York conductor possessed anything like Bernstein’s educational panache.

Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were a signature innovation. The Philharmonic had a long history of concerts for young audiences. But never before were they regularly scripted and hosted by the orchestra’s music director. Never before had they been nationally televised. And never before had they been so personal. Bernstein said he conceived the concerts with his own children in mind. But, as ever, he was also projecting his own shifting persona—its appetites and needs—and never more than on February 7, 1960, when he asked, “Who Was Gustav Mahler?” Mahler’s singularity, Bernstein said, resided in his ability to “recapture the pure emotions of childhood,” oscillating between extremes of happiness and gloom. Mahler was romantic and modern at the same time. He was both conductor and composer. He was rooted yet marginal. He was Jewish; he was Austrian. He absorbed Slavic and Chinese influences. Mahler was an exuberant and depressive man-child, a 20th-century American eclectic.

It was predictable that Bernstein’s Philharmonic swan song would be a big Mahler symphony. He chose No. 3, a 100-minute existential narrative for orchestra, mezzo-soprano, and chorus, that in 1969 was still a concert rarity. Bernstein the New World oxymoron had gravitated toward the nostalgic longings and dire premonitions of fin-de-siècle Vienna. In retrospect, it was too late in the day to cultivate or perpetuate an American classical-music repertoire of sufficient scope and variety: The formative phase of American composition had already come and gone with relatively little to show for it. And there was an additional obstacle—one that implicated Bernstein himself.

* * *

In 1892, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak arrived in Manhattan to head the seven-year-old National Conservatory of Music. He discovered a city stocked with singers and instrumentalists to rival any musical capital, but one with a paucity of original music: American composers remained preponderantly emulative. Dvorak saw a remedy: the black musical mother lode, which had taken him by surprise. “In the negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he predicted. “They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose.” Dvorak’s prophecy was instantly influential. It was also controversial. But the general expectation that American orchestras and opera companies would acquire their own repertoire was ubiquitous.

Dvorak had adherents—most productively, his black assistant Harry Burleigh, who became the composer chiefly responsible for turning spirituals into concert songs. Largely, however, the prophecy was derided or forgotten. American classical music stayed white. The black mother lode instead wondrously fed ragtime and jazz. The obstacle to Dvorak’s prophecy was modernism. It was Oedipal. It cherished what was new and mistrusted the past.

At the beginning of the new century, Van Wyck Brooks, a critic and historian of genius, went looking for a “usable past” in American literature. At first he found none. Then, along with Lewis Mumford and F. O. Matthiessen, he looked harder and discovered Herman Melville and other forebears: a canon. In classical music, Aaron Copland, explicitly echoing Brooks, undertook a retrospective quest of his own. But Copland was a creative artist, not a scholar; he lacked the time and interest to assiduously investigate America’s little-known musical history. He came up empty-handed. That American classical music lacked a usable past quickly turned into an article of faith, centrally propagated in the writings of Copland and his fellow composer Virgil Thomson. The result was a standard narrative maintaining that all American compositions before 1910 (Thomson’s date) were stuck in infancy—in Thomson’s words, “a pale copy of continental models.”

The 1920s and 1930s therefore constituted an ostensible coming of age. Copland’s A-list of American composers in his 1941 book Our New Music mainly comprised himself, Thomson, Roy Harris, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, and Marc Blitzstein. Today, the standard narrative endures—and yet Copland’s fellow composers do not. Even Harris, whose Third Symphony (1939) seemed to both Copland and Thomson a brave ignition point, is barely a footnote.

America’s literary coming of age was powered by Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville. Its musical coming of age remained deaf to possible precursors. Thomson believed American folk music was essentially white—that even the sorrow songs of the plantation originated as “white spirituals.” Copland believed that jazz was of limited use to concert composers. It had “only two expressions: the well-known ‘blues’ mood, and the wild, abandoned, almost hysterical and grotesque mood so dear to the youth of all ages. . . . Any serious composer who attempted to work within those two moods sooner or later became aware of their severe limitations.” Copland inferred among African Americans “a conception of rhythm not as mental exercise but as something basic to the body’s rhythmic impulse.” He compared “interest in jazz” with interest “in the primitive arts and crafts of aboriginal peoples.”

These opinions weren’t bigoted. Rather, they were a product of culture and aesthetics. Copland and Thomson were wholly antipathetic to Dvorak’s roots-in-the-soil prophecy. Copland, in particular, was never cozy with the vernacular. Composers “composed,” they did not copy. The cost to the standard narrative is easily summarized: It penalized America’s two greatest compositional talents, Charles Ives and George Gershwin. To Copland and Thomson, both were gifted dilettantes. Their music was unfinished. But, as we now appreciate, both dug deep roots. Porgy and Bess is a fulfillment of Dvorak’s prophecy. As for Ives (whose music, though mainly composed before 1920, remained preponderantly undiscovered for decades), he fed on Stephen Foster, on ragtime, on a vernacular feast of church and patriotic hymns, on songs of the Civil War, the parlor, the college fraternity—tunes he rudely or innocently invoked without compromising their indigenous vigor. More than any subsequent American concert composer, he succeeded in evoking an “America” as ragged, democratic, and capacious as that of Whitman or Melville.

Enter Leonard Bernstein. His 20,000-word Harvard undergraduate thesis, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music” (1939), is the standard narrative swallowed whole. As he wrote to Copland: “The thesis tries to show how the stuff that the old boys turned out . . . failed utterly to develop an American style or school or music at all. . . . Now how to go about it? It means going through recent American things, finding those that sound, for some reason, American, and translate that American sound into musical terms.” But, like Copland and Thomson, Bernstein little investigated the old “American things”; that they were worn and derivative remained a hunch or assumption. Of Gershwin, he wrote that he “did not try to reconcile a ‘modern’ idiom with the diatonic Negro scale. He simply remained steeped in nineteenth-century methods and made the most of them.” Bernstein was aware of Ives, but suspicious: The Concord Sonata was truly “American,” “worthy of respect”—but also “tiring,” “overlong.” It was only Copland, the schooled practitioner, who was able to merge vernacular elements with an “advanced style.”

Nineteen years later, in 1958, Bernstein’s second New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert asked: “What Is American Music?” The implications of his concurrent chronological survey of American symphonic works became explicit: It was an evolutionary ladder. Sampling George Chadwick’s Melpomene Overture, an 1887 gloss on Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, Bernstein found “straight European stuff” from “the kindergarten period”—leading to the “grade school” of Dvorak, Edward MacDowell, and others infected with “Indian and Negro melodies.” After that came Gershwin and “high school”—composers “still being American on purpose.” They had not yet absorbed and elevated the vernacular into a schooled idiom, one that came out sounding American “all by itself.”

Did Bernstein realize that Melpomene was atypical Chadwick? That his truer métier was comedy? It is impossible to say. Personally, I would rank Chadwick above most of Copland’s “mature” American composers. His symphonic sketch Jubilee (1897)—the closest thing in music to Winslow Homer’s poetic boyhood romps—should be an American staple. “We’re still a baby!” Bernstein told his young people in 1958. But he wasn’t thinking of American music so much as about himself.

Of all the paradoxes infiltrating the Bernstein story, none is more startling than his sustained advocacy of George Gershwin and Charles Ives in contradiction to his sustained adherence to the standard narrative. Throughout his career, he both performed and derogated Gershwin: “I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky . . . but if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter.” As for Ives: Bernstein thought him “an authentic primitive, a country boy at heart.” Bernstein also derided Dvorak’s New World Symphony; he maintained that the Largo, because pentatonic, was as Chinese as it was American.

The only possible basis for these bizarre opinions was residual ideology. Did Dvorak’s Largo become the famous synthetic spiritual “Goin’ Home” by coincidence? Did Shostakovich praise Porgy and Bess in the same breath as Boris Godunov by mistake? Did Ives, while still a Yale student in 1898, manage to write a consummate German lied, “Feldeinsamkeit,” by accident? Such intoxicating music as the dissipating sonic aureole concluding Ives’s The Housatonic at Stockbridge (completed around 1917) demonstrates an aesthetic sophistication as genuine as any to be found within the Copland list. In a 1987 tribute to Ives, Bernstein extolled “all the freshness of a naïve American wandering in the grand palaces of Europe like one of Henry James’s Americans abroad.” He could not possibly be referring to the Fourth Symphony or Concord Sonata; the usable past traversed by these pieces is far more of the New World than the Old.

As for the Ives work that Bernstein most consist­ently championed: The protean Second Symphony (completed by 1909 and hence predating the beginnings of American music as chronicled by Virgil Thomson) is first cousin not to Grandma Moses, but to Huckleberry Finn. In these seminal appropriations of the American vernacular, Ives and Mark Twain transformed hallowed Old World genres—the symphony and the novel—into something new. No less than Twain—or Melville or Whitman—Ives was self-created and improvisational. He echoed Whitman’s “blending for all” and Melville’s espousal of a rooted “democratic dignity.” As for Porgy and Bess, its very template, rising prayerfully from tribulation to redemption, is the sorrow song; the long lineage of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is also Gershwin’s lineage. Copland’s American musical modernists were crippled by a pastlessness of their own devising.

It bears mentioning that Bernstein’s Ives repertoire remained surprisingly modest: the Second and Third Symphonies, Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day, Central Park in the Dark, and a few shorter works. In 1987, he announced he would conduct Ives’s Fourth Symphony, then changed his mind. Perhaps he felt this sprawling New World invocation, whose spiritual and quotidian ingredients grandly uplift one another, was insufficiently finished. And yet he continued to conduct the tub-thumping Third Symphonies of Copland, Harris, and William Schuman—compared to Ives, ephemeral products of a sanguine, “come of age” America.

That the Bernstein-Copland relationship was also personal was a further complication. “I suppose if there’s one person on earth who is at the center of my life, it’s you; and day after day I recognize in my living your presence, your laugh, your peculiar mixture of intensity and calm,” Bernstein wrote to Copland in a 1967 letter. “I hope you live forever. A long strong hug.” Bernstein’s 1979 Kennedy Center tribute to Copland extolled “the Copland grin, the Copland giggle, the Copland wit and warmth, and width of his embrace.” And yet in retrospect Bernstein—who often felt off-center, who craved companionship and hated solitude—was never aesthetically kindred with this most necessary of friends. “Aaron is plain, plain, plain!” he once exclaimed. Bernstein was never plain. And Copland could not possibly have ecstatically identified with Mahler and Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Shostakovich.

In short: The standard narrative endorsed by Aaron Copland proved a cul-de-sac for Leonard Bern­stein. It is one reason that Bernstein never resolved his New World oxymoron. Instead, he escaped his dilemma by decamping to Vienna, where he was lionized more unanimously than he ever had been in New York.

* * *

During the Dark Ages of the New York Philharmonic—the music directorship of Zubin Mehta (1978-91)—I would sometimes find myself in the orchestra’s offices. I dreaded seeing the photograph of Leonard Bern­stein hanging over an elevator. It was an image whose ebullience provoked a piercing sadness and incredulity. Evidently, Bernstein no longer wanted to take charge of his leaderless orchestra. And the orchestra didn’t want him. In 1984, Bernstein materialized to conduct part of a program celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Young People’s Concerts. Though a film clip of his “Who Was Gustav Mahler?” was shown, Bernstein did not speak. A member of the Philharmonic staff confided to me the reason: Bernstein was “crazy.” He could not be “controlled.”

His personal turmoil was real enough. Back in 1973, during his televised Norton Lectures, Bernstein had struggled visibly to find his accustomed aplomb. His topic—“Whither music in our time?”—was left unanswered. Sampling Chomskian linguistics, he strained for intellectual credibility. Only the fifth lecture, on “The Twentieth Century Crisis,” caught fire. Its message was that the emblematic 20th-century composer was not Schönberg or Stravinsky—the usual suspects—but Mahler, whose attempts to relinquish tonality were reluctant and incomplete and whose nostalgia for past practice was overt and tragic. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1909), his “last will and testament,” showed “that ours is the century of death.” That is the “real reason” his music suffered posthumous neglect—it was “telling something too dreadful to hear.” It is hard to imagine anyone else making this odd claim.

Having once oversold America, Bernstein abandoned the faith. American popular music, which he had adored for its vitality and inventiveness, had lost its way for him. The demise of the Kennedy White House, in which he had been a frequent guest, tarnished his American dreams. His 1970 fundraiser for the Black Panthers’ defense fund was savagely and famously ridiculed by Tom Wolfe as “radical chic.” And there was Vietnam. In 1973, Bernstein conducted Haydn’s Mass in Time of War at the Washington National Cathedral to counter the Nixon inaugural concert a few miles away. The same year, he announced his intention to retire from conducting in order to compose. His letters document ecstasies of fulfillment in alternation with “big, soggy depressions.” A dominant topic is his sexuality. His marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre imploded in 1976 when he left to live with a male lover: She cursed him and predicted, “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” When she died of cancer in 1978, Bernstein blamed himself. A 1987 letter alludes to “those ever-decreasing moments when I like myself.”

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1970s, Bernstein conducted a series of 77 live recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic. He introduced the orchestra to the symphonies of Mahler. He brought Ives’s Second to Munich. And he doubtless absorbed centuries of tradition in return. In the complex transatlantic terrain of “late Bernstein,” his composer’s gift was a fading component. (The New York Times greeted the 1983 premiere of A Quiet Place—plainly envisioned as a magnum opus—as “a pretentious failure.”) It was in the midst of this cycle of accelerating turmoil and inconsistency that Bernstein ripened into one of the century’s preeminent interpreters of symphonic music, serving the Old World canon he had once sought to supplement. Then his health plummeted. In 1990, he announced his retirement from conducting mere days before dying of a heart attack at the age of 72.

Once, in the 1990s, I had occasion to watch Lukas Foss, a gifted conductor-composer long associated with Bernstein, rehearsing Copland’s El Salón México with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Frustrated with the musicians, he finally instructed them to “de-Bernstein” their instincts. They did and produced a memorably lean, tight, and idiomatic performance. By this time, Bernstein’s way with the standard narrative works—not to mention his own West Side Story, which he had recorded in 1988—was hopelessly out of place. The late Bernstein style combined intensity with massive weight—more slow than fast, more convoluted than straight. In Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Mahler, it invariably produced readings so different from anyone else’s that they should have been controversial. They were not.

My own experience of Bernstein the conductor began to peak in 1975 when I heard him lead the New York Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4: confessional music mounting to maelstroms of pain. I was sitting in the first row, off to the side, and could see the conductor’s face and hands in profile. Tchaikovsky’s first movement ends wailing with sorrow, screaming with pain. Bernstein’s hands were trembling so violently from the emotion that he could not steady them to begin movement two—an Andante launched by an oboe solo marked “semplice, ma grazioso” (simple, but graceful). Bernstein let his oboist—the inimitable Harold Gomberg—take over. Gomberg’s playing was never “semplice”; he was a personality. Then there is a second theme, a march that mounts to fortissimo. “Più mosso,” Tchaikovsky writes: a little faster. But Bernstein’s march, when it peaked, got slower: A triumphant march. It became the linchpin of his interpretation. The remainder mounted ever higher plateaus of elation. The coda to the finale begins with a breathless quartet of horns—one of which flubbed the passage. I saw Bernstein’s entire body wince.

Twelve years later, I attended a Mahler Second with the Philharmonic. Barbara Hendricks and Christa Ludwig were the vocal soloists. The first movement is a funeral march. It contains a seminal passage in which Mahler pounds the music to dust. He writes “very heavy,” “slowing down,” and “much louder.” Bernstein maximized these instructions. The titanic impact would have disfigured any other performance. But the heat was unrelenting. Mahler’s second movement, a gentle Ländler, barely survived the Bernstein treatment. After that, he scaled the heavens. There is a recording of this famous performance, but I will never listen it. It could only sound exaggerated; you had to have been there. I wish I could forget the denouement: Lauren Bacall stepping to a microphone to present Bernstein with the “Albert Schweitzer Music Award,” a ceremony complete with popping flashbulbs: the artist upstaged by his celebrity.

But my most consummated Bernstein experience was with the Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1979. Beethoven marks the second movement “Scene by the Brook: Andante molto mosso”—a very fast walk. Bernstein’s tempo was very slow, risking stasis. His reading was also very soft, sometimes on the cusp of silence. The effect was unforgettably hypnotic (no American orchestra plays as sweetly as Vienna’s), a sublimation of Beethoven’s intended nature picture. I would call it an interpretation belonging neither to the New World or the Old: a limbo of ecstasy.

My own participation in the Bernstein centenary will take the form of a tribute concert celebrating “Bernstein the Pedagogue” at this summer’s Brevard Music Festival. My script reprises portions of Bernstein’s most self-revealing Young People’s Concert, 1958’s “What Is American Music?” It began with an inimitable tour de force we will revisit on film: Bernstein talking, playing, and conducting his way through a brisk demonstration of the folk sources that make music “national.” After that comes the evolutionary ladder: Chadwick to Gershwin to Harris to Copland. I am adding the finale of Ives’s Second Symphony, which in Bernstein’s exegesis had no place: Preceding World War I, it simply didn’t fit.

The Brevard orchestra will be made up of talented high school students from all over the United States. I will have a full week to instruct and harangue them. The Bernstein story I will share with them is a story of America: its cultural possibilities and impossibilities, its legacies of democratic ardor and racial division, its New World freshness and inexperience, its very identity. What will they make of Dvorak’s prophecy? Who are Ives and Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein to them? Unless they, and others like them, can look beyond their formative experiences of Beethoven and Brahms, unless they can embrace the oxymoron Bernstein tackled, the marginalization of classical music in American lives will continue unabated.

At 100, Bernstein remains larger than life, inescapable, archetypal. Partly it’s because of the tenacity and creativity with which he challenged past practice in pursuit of an American classical music. Partly it’s because his buoyant American energies suffered such public disappointments, such blows to the head and the heart. His iconic story—his charismatic impact, his unrequited quest and poignant fate—will surely galvanize our summer exercise in personal and American self-understanding.