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Leonard Bernstein – Defining the American Classical Music Experience

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Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

The following blog post was written by Daniel Walshaw, Music Division.

Wild, passionate, perspiring, and, above all, human – words not typically associated with a man clad in a tuxedo performing great works of the classical repertoire. However, it is nearly impossible to describe the extroverted music-making of Leonard Bernstein without using at least one of these words and, thanks to the great master, they also help to define the American concert experience. Admittedly, I am far too young to have any real-time memorable experience of the maestro, but his influence has reached far into my heart and identity as a twenty-first-century American composer, conductor and performer.

The problem with classical music in America is the lack of American qualities. We are not a people of tuxedos, champagne and classy concert settings; we are of casual dress, cocktails and night clubs. Yet the concerts and musicians of the twentieth century attempted to mimic European style. Bernstein, whether intentional or not, broke the mold of a classical musician by embracing modern American culture. Performing jazz, working with popular musicians, and composing musicals has opened the doors for modern classical composers and performers to compose for film, collaborate with artists from a variety of genres and even listen to the music of Lady Gaga with pride.

Bernstein also helped to define the American concert experience with his belief that music is for everyone. His Young People’s Concerts, Thursday Evening Previews, and televised lectures have paved the way for modern orchestras to create all sorts of outreach concerts and forced generations of conductors to perform that ever so frightening task of talking to the audience.

Finally, beyond the endless ways in which Leonard Bernstein changed the American musical landscape, the one that affects young musicians the most was his intense passion in performance. The idea that every last ounce of emotional, physical and intellectual energy should be thrown into music making is one that can be seen throughout many generations of performers.

As I remember Leonard Bernstein on his 92nd birthday, I am truly grateful as an American musician for the musical future he created and I am filled with great joy and amusement when I think that ninety-two years from now, scholars will come to the Library of Congress to study it all as historical performance. Happy Birthday Lenny!

Comments (2)

  1. print out all the pages you can of him thank you so much

  2. diplomacy and cultural;;;;;the comment of leonard berstein the quality of the artist is not to prouv anymore more recentely Neil diamond with jazz singer every where in world they comes to america;;;;;and the politic from thomas jefferson to abraham lincoln well diplomacy and cultural;;;;today the symptom in europa where some artist can express because the sound of the music or the politic is between i choose new york city where people find the promesse land liberty and freedom of to be or not to be that is question for the jewish artist today in france and in some place yes in europa the fascism is not to far;;;Joelle esther benyayer i defend the press and the freedom to tell corruption and extremisme;;;the people become like animals thanks to the music to escape;;;;i ask to become american because i choose to wrote in english and talk about new york city the protectionism in france is too big for some artists im not the only one

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