The final result was brilliant from all perspectives. Laurents's book captured thelingo of the streets, Sondheim's lyrics conveyed youthful emotion through breathlessunderstatement, huge portions of the show were given over to Robbins's expressive andgripping ballets, and Bernstein's music soared from tragic fury to the tenderness of firstlove, and all with the essential spirit of New York. The cast of relative unknowns headedby Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera threw themselves into their roles. Theintegration of these elements was extraordinary, and perhaps is heard to best advantage in"Maria," an absolutely perfect blend of lyrics, melody and sheer feeling toconvey the ardor of first love.
In 1946, Bernstein took his first tentative step toward an international career with ashort European tour, beginning with a program of American music in Prague to celebrate theanniversary of liberation. Next came London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. But the realmagnet was in Palestine.
Bernstein's first TV program was broadcast live on November 14, 1954 – exactly elevenyears after his New York Philharmonic debut. That half-hour show was anambitious debut, exploring Beethoven's sketches for his in order todemonstrate the depth of the composer's genius in struggling with and refining his rawmaterial to the simplicity, perfection and inevitability of its final form. Musicalexamples abounded, and to add visual excitement to what otherwise could have been a dulllecture, the first page of the score was painted on the studio floor, the musiciansstanding on their respective lines and moving about as Beethoven manipulated their music.
Eight succeeding shows covered the gamut of music, from Bach to jazz andfrom grand opera to musical comedy. In January 1958, was followed by , broadcast on Sunday nights for fifteen years, dubbed into a dozenlanguages and syndicated to forty countries. All were written by Bernstein and wereinfused with his knowing, dynamic personality and his genuine love of all music. They wonEdison, Emmy, Peabody and Sylvania awards for excellence in television. But perhaps theirgreatest achievement emerges from a 1960 incident in a Denver park, when a little boy wentup to Bernstein and hit him. The reason, it turned out, was that the previous program hadbegun to run over and Bernstein had to omit his usual closing. The boy resented that,"You didn't say goodnight to me." But Bernstein was thrilled at what else theboy remembered: "You were talking about Mahler." And that, of course, was theultimate vindication of all of Bernstein's efforts: he harnessed the boob tube to turn anentire generation on to classical music.
Bernstein claimed: "I have always loved words fully as much as musical notes; Ifind the same joys of ambiguity, structural suspense, anagrammatic play and grace ofphrasing in both." As a child, he and friend Eddie Ryback invented their own language("Rybernian," an amalgam of their names) and throughout his life Bernsteindevoured crossword puzzles and loved to play verbal word-games. But the promise of theseprivate pleasures remained unfulfilled artistically.
Similarly, many of the albums had extensive, informative notes that would have beenmeaningful to perpetuate. Nielsen and Ives symphonies had biographical booklets tofamiliarize buyers with the lives and music of their relatively unknown composers. Several1959 releases had proud photos and reviews of the Philharmonic's triumphant overseasconcert tour. The Beethoven reprinted Beethoven's fascinatingletters haggling over the publishing rights for his masterpiece. And many albums presentedBernstein's own cogent and highly personal observations about the music. These have allbeen discarded in favor of generic program notes (mostly translated from German authors,for whatever inappropriate reason) which make little pretense of addressing the specificperformances; indeed, the notes in volume 40 dwell upon Ives's ,a Bernstein hallmark that isn't even included in the Royal Edition, and volume 97 leaveslisteners wondering how Bernstein managed to grab a dozen opera megastars to sing cameoslivers of Vaughan William's . (The reason, of which the notesgive not even a clue: this auspicious performance was recorded live at the gala dedicationof Lincoln Center in 1962.) While the booklets do present some fine black and whiteportraits of the young conductor by Don Hunstein, they bulge unnecessarily withmultilingual translations.
Foremost among these is the absurd linkage of America's greatest conductor with, of allpeople, His Royal Highness Prince Charles. What, you may properly ask, does America'sflamboyant supreme musical genius have to do with the staid wastrel English monarch-to-be?And yet HRH's goopy face and insipid watercolors disgrace each cover and his patheticartistic creed bloats every booklet. The unintended contrast between the richness ofBernstein's talent and the poverty of the Prince of Wales's privileged affluence is bothstriking and pitiful.
Among other regrets is the replacement of the original LP album covers, which boastedattractive, innovative and thematically appropriate graphics, type and layouts. Some hadeye-grabbing shots of Lenny in hyperkinetic action or more formal portraits of the proudorchestra and its leader; others added visual beauty to the musical contents, such as aRenoir oil for a Debussy collection; yet others provided a touch of whimsy: three similarportraits of Napoleon, Beethoven and Bernstein for Beethoven's , ora closeup of a target painted on an apple for a collection featuring Rossini's . The Royal Edition, though, substitutes a layout which, whileattractive, becomes boring in its bland uniformity. Worse, the royal watercolors, evenapart from their artistic vacuity, have nothing whatever to do with the music. Indeed,many of the matches go beyond random and seem downright perverse: a placid marsh forStravinsky's ferocious , frigid mountains for Mahler's pastoral , or, worst of all, a phallic tower for Verdi's .
The effectively launched Bernstein's stereo recordings withColumbia and the New York Philharmonic, a series that ultimately would boast over 500works to become the largest discography of any classical artist. From the refinedclassicism of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart to the searing emotion of Mahler and Shostakovich,Bernstein and the Philharmonic's earnestness, versatility and innate musicality areremarkably consistent. Nearly every work is well-conceived, -performed and -recorded.
Having associated with contemporary composers and having written much modern musichimself, Bernstein was well aware that the pivotal significance of transcended mere popularity. Indeed, so much of what we now accept as "modernmusic" derives from . Carl Van Vechten (who got beat up in the openingnight melee) recalled that the audience had reacted so violently because they found thewhole thing "a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art." With the benefitof perspective, Edwin Evans more aptly described the score as "a conflict which isforever rending and tearing, not in order to destroy, but in order to emerge."Stravinsky recognized that traditional classical music had become stagnant and had toevolve quickly. He did not set out to destroy the old music, but his jagged rhythms, wildharmonies and violent dynamics gave birth to so much of the music of our time. Thus theproblem Bernstein faced was to present the score with startling freshness to an audiencethat was apt to take its innovations for granted. After all, in the 45 years since thepremiere of modern notions of rhythm had grown sophisticated through jazz,traditional musical form had become superseded by chance music, the outer bounds oftonality and dissonance had been supplanted by serial music, and crashing chords seemeddownright placid compared to high-decibel rockers and computer-generated .
Stravinsky's score is an absolutely brilliant component of the ballet, which opens in awondrous evocation of the first promise of spring and concludes in vicious humansacrifice. The music ranges from plaintive folk music to huge, pounding rhythm, fromplacid reverie to grating dissonance, and from leaping metric grace to irregularfragmentation. Perhaps above all else, it is a score that proves the point that languagecannot possibly suffice to even begin to describe great music.