Leonard Bernstein leading the New York City Symphony (1945)

100 years with Leonard Bernstein (II). West Side Story and beyond: jazz

On August 25th, 1918, Leonard Bernstein was born. One hundred years later, we celebrated his most popular compositions and his unquestionable greatness as director of the symphonic repertoire, along a triptych that compiles documents of great value: videos, audios and fragments of his lessons. We remember his controversial and yet deeply human nature, his commitment as a pedagogue, as well as the imprint he left on the listeners. Also, in Barcelona, ​​thanks to his concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Palau de la Música Catalana, on October 31st, 1984

The name of Bernstein is inevitably linked to West Side Story. More than the Broadway musical, it is usual to remember the film, which dates back to 1961, and that includes as well some melodies that easily get stuck in the brain as effective “earbugs”: a somehow foolish Natalie Wood singing “I feel pretty” surrounded by friends who appear amazed; the tragicomic choral scene, with showy dance, “America”; a quarrelsome confrontation between bands -at the beginning and at the end- that leads to the death of the protagonist; and, of course, the good sounding declamation “Maria”. The movie, a version of Romeo and Juliet, is known for its music. A music of post-romantic emotion that incorporates Latin rhythms and the swing of jazz, and that represents the impossibility of a feeling that is believed true and eternal. Especially, when truncated by fate, displaced to an extra-temporal reality, like the one the protagonist couple sings in the duet “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us. / A time and a place for us / Hold my hand and we’re half way there / Hold my hand and I’ll take you there / Somehow / Someday / Somewhere”.

A longing of which nobody -due to the fact of being mortal, and occasionally conscious of the end- is completely free

Infatuation, made possible by a sophisticated biochemical cocktail that collaborates inestimably with the preservation of the species, is characterized by the loss of references and a blind faith in the transcendence of the feeling. In fact, a simulacrum of spiritual union is celebrated through the duet “One hand, one heart”, shamelessly sweetened and yet emotive, since it illustrates (the fantasy of) a nuptial representation and the promise of an infinite love, imperishable that -according to the most romantic logic- cannot be consummated. “Even death won’t part us now”, they sing in unison anticipating actually the action to come, against which they wish to be protected by the feeling of love.  A longing, of which nobody -due to the fact of being mortal, and occasionally conscious of the end- is completely free.

Although the motif seems exclusive of nineteenth-century sentimentality, it is inseparable from the Western love paradigm, since its creation by medieval poets. For example, the symptomatology is already evident in Jaufré Rudel’s amor de lonh, a love that is perpetuated in absence, without the need to share a common space-time or therefore have any contact, and that will lead to the best-known sublimation of the idea of spiritual perfection: Dante’s Beatrice. Here the name of the beloved is María, that José Carreras sang in the operatic version, giving rise to a tense, well-remembered situation, during the recording with Bernstein. More than annoyance, properly speaking one identifies that search for musical perfection and, in short, a commendable degree of professional commitment:


It would be unfair, however, to remember Bernstein as a master of post-romanticism, still attached to a compositional nostalgia about the musical way of modulating and transmitting affections. Other, between his musical tastes, contradict the idea. Thus, the footprint of a composer as bold and visionary as Gustav Mahler is not only found in those melodies that point to the infinite, but in the taste for the rhythmic and timbral contrasts, frequent in jazz, that Bernstein, unlike other intellectuals of the time, always defended. A chapter of The Joy of Music gathers some of the opinions also expressed in television programs, in which he recalls the playful dimension inherent to musical interpretation, which is only true -in its profound meaning- when accompanied by the creativity that characterizes improvisation:

“The player of jazz is himself the real composer, which gives him a creative, and therefore more dignified status”

In addition to that, Bernstein confesses: “I love it also for its humour. It really plays with notes. We always speak of “playing” music: we play Brahms or we play Bach -a term perhaps more properly applied to tennis. But jazz is real play. It “fools around” with notes, so to speak, and has fun with them. It is, therefore, entertainment in the truest sense”. In the antipodes of a thinker and musicologist like Theodor W. Adorno, according to the creator of West Side Story there is no problem for art to fulfil the function of entertaining. Even if both agree in their appreciation of Mahlerian music, which faces the musical representation of the humanly unrepresentable, the most humorous side of a Bernstein is completely alien to the Frankfurt School thinker. The variety of registers that the first is capable of is summarized in the selection of Symphonic Dances:



It is evident that the musical culture in the North American context was deeply marked by composers such as George Gerswhin, author of songs that would also become standards for jazz, on which to perform improvisations, being less influent in Europe. Compared to the works of Mozart or Beethoven, it is rarely programmed. And yet, Bernstein did not hesitate to play one and the others, often conducting from the pianist’s place, according to the tradition of those composer-performers. Rhapsody in Blue transports the listener to Woody Allen’s Manhattan -like the Adagietto of Mahler’s fifth to the decadence captured by Visconti- since signifiers and meanings, content and form, plot and representation, interpretation and life have been exchanged in perfect feedback. The Gershwin piece works as a majestic and rhythmically captivating soundtrack of the city. In the different performances that Bernstein made throughout his career, denoting a vivid knowledge of its spirit, it oozes swing.

“Ambiguity has always inhabited musical art, because it is one of the most potent aesthetic functions”

The contrast between the rigorous attitude of Bernstein and his well-known (and recognized) passion may surprise, as much as the contrast between the clarity of his readings and his emphasis on the incomprehensible -but absolutely real- of the actual musical experience, of course very evident in jazz. In the end, there is no contradiction: the two aspects, one more psychological and the other more mental, complement each other wonderfully in the declamation of a meaning that is essentially unattainable. In the course of this search, however, beauty may eventually arouse. In his Harvard lectures (The Unanswered Question), in the early seventies, Bernstein would reflect on the non-verbalizable dimension of music from all periods, even the most classical one: “this word “ambiguity” may seem the most unlikely word to use speaking of a Golden Age composer like Mozart, a master of clarity and precision. But ambiguity has always inhabited musical art (indeed, all the arts), because it is one of art’s most potent aesthetic functions”.

Ambiguity is understood as a potential signification modality; the meaning yet to discover, that generates the sound vibration, articulated secretly in an often-unpredictable way, as it happens in jazz, or in a even more astonishing way in certain classical compositions. In both cases, affects are generated in the listener -the subject of the aesthetic experience- without responding fully the question about what -the objectifiable content of the interpretation- is that causes emotions. No less important is actually the how, the mode of interpretation that Gustav Mahler -conductor, himself, of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Court Opera, much admired by Bernstein, as we will illustrate in the last post of our triptych- explained that was not made explicit in the score, and that nevertheless it was capital to unravel.