Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety”


"If the charge of 'theatricality' in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty. I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way" (1) - Leonard  Bernstein

Bernstein’s Second Symphony

Out of Bernstein’s three symphonic works, his second symphony, entitled “The Age of Anxiety,” is most perplexing to me.  Although none of Bernstein’s symphonies could be considered at all orthodox, his second in particular seems to be a work in contradictions.  Critics debate endlessly concerning the symphony’s connection to W.H. Auden’s written work, and despite being based upon a narrative, Bernstein’s symphony seems to be lack one.  Some critics have lambasted the improvisatory nature of the work, while others ardently praise its incorporation of jazz elements.   With this in mind, I set out to answer the following question – does Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” deserve to be called one of the great symphonies of the 20th century?

W.H. Auden’s Anxiety

Bernstein’s second symphony, was heavily inspired by W.H. Auden’s famous poem, The Age of Anxiety.  Created soon after WWII in the age of McCarthyism, Auden’s poem grapples with themes of human isolation and faith.  Into The Age of Anxiety, Auden incorporated elements of popular culture, current events, and common vernacular.  Auden was able to draw upon modern science to enhance his work as well.  Each one of the four protagonists represent one of Carl Jung’s archetypes – Thought, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition (2).   The poem itself is described as a Baroque Eclogue, an ornate tribute to the bucolic, and is written in alliterative verse. The material is definitely unwieldy and has been called nebulous by some.  In a New York Times Op-ed by Daniel Smith, the poem is described as being “a difficult work — allusive, allegorical, at times surreal” (3).

Below is a recording of Bernstein’s second symphony.  The London Symphony Orchestra is playing under Bernstein’s direction.


Bernstein’s second symphony is quite different from most symphonies.  Instead of a typical four-movement, work, Bernstein wrote his symphony for solo piano and orchestra, dividing the piece into six sections – mirroring Auden’s text.  Still, Bernstein’s unique style of composition can be heard clearly.

The symphony begins with a solemn clarinet duet.  The pure sounds of the two clarinets overlap one another while moving between consonance and dissonance.  In the next section of the symphony, Bernstein incorporates serialism – a compositional technique in which a fixed series of notes, especially the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, are used to generate the harmonic and melodic motifs.  A twelve-tone row, played by a single flute, serves as the audience’s introduction into the surreal.  Instrumentation remains sparse. The piano, which acts as the voice of the four main characters is introduced in an unaccompanied solo at the beginning of the section entitled “The Seven Ages.”  As more instruments are introduced in conjunction with the piano, the tone becomes more dissonant and at times frantic – reflecting the “anxiety” felt by the protagonists.  When the work proceeds into “The Seven Stages,” stylistic changes abound.  “The Seven Stages” are constantly in transit and seem to lack a central narrative.

The second half of the piece opens with “The Dirge,” a 12-tone theme, first introduced by the solo piano.  However, this grave moment does not last for long.  When in doubt, Bernstein always opted for a party.   Bernstein’s answer to “The Dirge” comes in the form of the upbeat “Masque.”  He takes the 12-tone row and transforms it into hip, grooving, bebop jazz (1).


“The Age of Anxiety” includes specific details that Bernstein claimed had “written themselves”; in “The Masque,” for example, the celesta clearly sounds the hour of 4 AM as in the Auden poem.  Because the symphony seems literally dependent on the events of the poem, critics found it to lack cohesion.

Critical reviewer, Virgil Thomson, after praising the work’s “lively” rhythms and “picturesque, expressive” textures, came down hard upon its technical construction: “the work does not hold inevitably the musical attention.  Its form is improvisatory. Its melodic content casual, its harmony stiff, its contrapuntal tension weak.” Robert Ward, another critic stated that “the total significance (of the symphony) impresses very little” (4).


Overall, I think the symphony can be considered one of the greatest of the 20th century.  Bernstein makes a profound statement in his second symphony about the state of the postwar world, and confronts the uncertainty facing many.  Bernstein’s incorporation of serialism, jazz and classical material sets his second symphony apart from others of the time.  On the whole, the symphony is musically compelling; it truly takes the listener on a journey.


(1)“Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety (1949).” Leonard Bernstein,

(2)“Age of Anxiety Introduction.” Princeton University Press,

(3)Smith, Daniel. “It’s Still the ‘Age of Anxiety.’ Or Is It?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Jan. 2012,

(4)Gentry, Philip. “Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety: A Great American Symphony during McCarthyism.” American Music, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 308–331. JSTOR, JSTOR,



Bernstein’s Kaddish : Emotional Expression


Backgrounds, heritage, and outside forces help people subconsciously make decisions and feel certain ways. Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish heritage had a huge and clear influence on both his compositions and thought processes. One of his earlier pieces was his  “Symphony No. 3 Kaddish”. In Jewish tradition, “Kaddish” is recited in synagogues and is part of the mourning rituals during services. Bernstein’s “Kaddish” was dedicated to the memory of John. F Kennedy who was assassinated a few weeks prior to the first performance of Bernstein’s symphony. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of the word “death” ; however, there is mention of “life” multiple times throughout the piece. 

To a certain degree, his symphony was a way in which Bernstein was able to explore his issues of his faith and connection to Judaism. Bernstein’s symphony has a very ominous tone; Kaddish begins in a minor key, modulates to a major key, and then returns to the original minor key for the ending. The final chord in this piece is a very dissonant chord, leaving the listeners filled with suspense and maybe even some agitation. Different keys and progressions all had to have been precisely decided by Bernstein in order to get his emotional point fully across. He incorporates very slashing, atonal and dramatic notes and aspects in this piece.  Music is an incredibly emotional and thought-provoking form of art. 

Bernstein uses his symphony to express his religious heritage and struggles, as well as loss and mourning. In the beginning of the symphony the speaker recites “I want to pray. I want to say Kaddish. My own Kaddish. There may be no one to say it after me. I have so little time, as You well know… Is there even time to consider the question? It could be here, while we are singing. That we may be stopped, once for all…”. (1)  In Kaddish, Bernstein argues with God through his use of narration and powerful music.


Bernstein was a very proud Jew and had many connections to Israel and the Israel Philharmonic.  Although we may never know how he truly felt about God and every aspect of Judaism, through viewing his life and his spiritual journey through his work, it is safe to say that Bernstein had a huge connection to Israel and to the Jewish people. 


(1)Jack Gottlieb, “Symphony No. 3: Kaddish (1963)

Leonard Bernstein: The Composer of the Century

Leonard Bernstein at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I’ve read many articles about the famous Leonard Bernstein, but it wasn’t until recently when I came across a piece about Bernstein as a composer that I began to fume. The piece, Too Much Bernstein Leaves a Critic Fed Up with his Music was an op-ed by Anne Midgette, featured in The Washington Post this past year. (1) To say the least, Midgette has a lot of frustration about Bernstein’s music.

Anne Midgette

Anne Midgette is an American journalist and classical music critic who has spent most of this year attending concerts and events that celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday – which took place this past August. In these last few months Midgette has gotten to listen to a wide range of Bernstein’s creations from recordings of the “Complete Works”, put on by Deutsche Grammophon, to the soundtrack of West Side Story. After listening to almost every performance Midgette has unfortunately come to the conclusion that she dislikes him as both a musician and a person, “‘Hate the man, love the music’ is the favorite counsel of music-lovers in such instances (Richard Wagner comes to mind). In Bernstein’s case, I’m no longer sure that I have all that much tolerance for either.” This claim is a clear example of Midgette’s frustration as she expresses disappointment in both his character and work. I can understand where she comes from in her argument about Bernstein as a person; there is no doubt that Bernstein could be a difficult person to be around – even his daughter felt that way (Tongue kissing). (2) My question is, what specifically does Midgette not like about his unbelievable story-telling scores?

One comment that Anne Midgette makes in her op-ed is, “Most people who are familiar with Bernstein’s work have had some moment that they find toe-curling. I tend to squirm at his bickering-married-couple pieces, from “Trouble in Tahiti” through to “Arias and Barcarolles,” his final work.” (3) The use of squirming in this statement clearly has a negative connotation of irritation with his score. However, how could one be irritated with the music from “Trouble in Tahiti”?! The score is genius. Bernstein pushes boundaries to open the public’s eyes to the realities of suburban life in the 1950s. While society wanted people to believe that suburban families with the mother who stayed in the kitchen all day, the father that brought in the income, and the children that ran around and played in the street were all always happy, Bernstein reveals that no family is or was ever that perfect. Instead, through his progressive music and lyrics, Bernstein captures the daily tensions that occurred in a typical household and challenges the characters to reflect on their not so great lives. (4) The couple featured is clearly very irritated with one another and Bernstein’s music only adds to the effect.  One opportunity an artist gets is to challenge society and introduce topics that are hard to talk about because they have so many supporters and thus hold influential roles. Therefore, there is no reason to get upset at the music of “Trouble in Tahiti” because at the end of the day Bernstein was just using his platform and creativity to speak out, and even more so, he did it beautifully. 

Midgette doesn’t only have a problem with “Trouble in Tahiti” and “Arias and Barcarolles”. She continues her rant and also complains about Bernstein’s famous third symphony, “Kaddish”, “Other roll their eyes at his attempts at religious statements in “Kaddish” in which the narrator engages in a long dialogue with God”. (5) There is a clear negative attitude towards this piece, solely from the fact that she believes an acceptable response to the “Kaddish” is to roll your eyes. I firmly disagree and am uncomfortable with this. Firstly, Leonard Bernstein dedicated this symphony to the memory of former president John F. Kennedy, which was performed a few weeks after his tragic assassination. Bernstein and Kennedy were good friends and therefore he dedicated the Kaddish – a Jewish prayer for the dead – to Kennedy’s memory. (6) Thus, rolling one’s eyes is disrespectful because it offends the beautiful gesture that Bernstein was trying to make. Secondly, the “Kaddish” deals with such a universal topic in society, “what can we believe in when mankind has the desire and capability to destroy itself?” (7) When this piece was composed, the world was falling apart. People were in the midst of the Vietnam War, the struggles of the Civil Rights movement were all over the media, and the Cuban Missile Crisis had only occurred a year earlier. Thus, this idea of who or what to have faith in was very prevalent at the time. Bernstein exposed this conflict through a symphony about someone questioning and challenging a humanistic God. (8) It had to have been a relevant performance back then because the fear in the narrator’s voice had to have been recognizable and relatable. In the 1960s, people were in the midst of massive chaos and uncertain of about the country’s future. Thus, these pieces and lyrics probably sparked reflection and forced the audience to begin contemplating their own personal and societal struggles.  In conclusion,  the end of the symphony is very moving; it doesn’t finish on a happy note like most endings. Instead, sung by a full choir, the ending is filled with suspense, suggesting that all is still not right in this world. It seems that peace is still yet to come. (9) The message from this ending was not only relevant for the issues happening fifty years ago, it is still a concept that we have to accept in the today. There are still so many unfinished disputes: gender equality, anti-Semitism, racism, and Bernstein’s message is an important one, we need to start figuring out a way to obtain peace. In my eyes, this section alone should deeply and positively affect anyone and everyone.

I find Bernstein’s risk taking, activist style of composing very moving and I would be happy to talk to Anne Midgette in person any day to discuss our opinions further. Until then, while Midgette is, “looking forward to spending some time without him”, I can’t wait to continue diving into the famous composer’s life.

Work Cited List

(1) Midgette, Anne. “Too Much Bernstein Leaves a Critic Fed up with His Music.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 July 2018,

(2) Midgette, Anne. “Too Much Bernstein Leaves a Critic Fed up with His Music.”

(3) Midgette, Anne. “Too Much Bernstein Leaves a Critic Fed up with His Music.”

(4) Kingston, Bob. “Trouble in Tahiti – Prelude (‘Doa–Daa–Day–Day’), Scene 1 and 2.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Jan. 2010,

(5) Midgette, Anne. “Too Much Bernstein Leaves a Critic Fed up with His Music.”

(6) Alsop, Marin. “Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Kaddish’ Symphony: A Crisis Of Faith.” NPR, NPR, 29 Sept. 2012,

(7) Alsop, Marin “Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Kaddish’ Symphony: A Crisis Of Faith.”

(8) “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein,

(9) Vecordia, Gerard. “Leonard Bernstein. Symphony #3. Kaddish.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Mar. 2013,


Conducting Ain’t Easy

My first attempt at conducting was a train wreck. As a pubescent freshman in a suburban public high school in New York, I barely had control of my overgrown limbs, much less the movements they made. But that did not stop my courageous mindset, breaking barriers for disproportionately sized teens all over the world. So when my chorus teacher asked someone in the class to volunteer as tribute, I responded.

It was a day like any other, as my classmates and I made our way up to the fourth and top floor of our glorious high school, we were preparing for the usual chorus class; our teacher would start with a vocal warm up consisting of lip trills, scales, and sighs, before diving headfirst into whichever musical medley we were working on that semester and eventually make our way into the depths of a latin piece. Yet this was no usual class.

We had a guest. A scrawny man with an unkempt beard shared the room with us for the first time, introducing himself in a quiet way, observing from the corner of the room. I forget his name but for the purpose of the story I will call him “Frank”. Frank was a student at Queens College, studying to be a conductor, where our teacher was in charge of their chamber choir. Our teacher asked Frank to come to the middle of the classroom and conduct the beginning of a piece we were learning. His effortless arm waving fed into my misconception that this was an easy task, but I would soon find out that this was not the case.

After Frank had finished, our teacher asked for a volunteer to try the same entrance and rhythm. I volunteered without hesitation, wanting to impress my teacher, but suddenly became nervous while walking up to the podium. After the first try I knew I had made a mistake. I butchered the entrance to the piece several times before my teacher had to take my hand and wave it for me.

My experience was the opposite of Leonard Bernstein’s first time conducting the New York Philharmonic, yet even he, a trained conductor at the young age of twenty-five, was nervous. In an interview conducted with his brother, Burton, in 1989, Bernstein confessed he had little preparation in advance of substituting for Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall in 1943. The beginning of the Schumann Overture was what was giving him particular trouble, as he had seen others fail at the difficult entrance. He arrived at the concert early and went down to the drugstore. The pharmacist gave him two pills, one to calm his nerves and the other to give him energy on stage. While he was backstage before the start of the show, he threw away the pills and only remembers the applause that came at intermission. The next day the New York Times published a front page article about his first time conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Front page of The New York Times, November 15, 1943

Conducting is not easy, but just like Frank from Queens College, Leonard Bernstein made it look that way. Despite the nervous energy, he was able to do so well that he caught the attention of the New York Times, while I struggled to make the entrance into one piece of music. How do you think you might fair in a trial at conducting?

The Trifecta: Bernstein, Faith, and Music

Yes, Bernstein was born Jewish and fully admitted to his Jewish roots. Even Serge Koussevitzky, his longtime mentor, urged Bernstein to change his last name because it sounded “too Jewish” but Bernstein resisted and said, “I’ll do it as ‘Bernstein’ or not at all” (1).  However, his attitude towards religion was still quite complicated and a mysterious part of his identity. Nevertheless, many of his composed works symbolized religious and Jewish elements — and the interplay of faith and humanity. Specifically, the “Kaddish” symphony magnifies his convoluted journey with religion, but the underlying tension between himself and his devout father is strongly understood as the main focus. The symphonic foundation of the piece allows for the theatrical and conversational elements to come to life: “…in a sense the symphonic form is hardly there for its own sake, but as a kind of stage set, in front of which a dramatized debate—or interior monologue—takes place” (2). However, does the “Kaddish” only illustrate an inner dialogue and intense conversation between father and son…or something else entirely?

Leonard Bernstein (L) and his father celebrating his opening night concert at Lincoln Center. (Photo by Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“Every son, at one point or other, defies his father, fights him, departs from him, only to return to him,” Bernstein expressed at the 70th birthday party for his father (3). Although Bernstein candidly spoke to the news media and interviewers about his work, his composed music expresses deeper, more intimate and raw emotions. For instance, the text of “Kaddish,” which Bernstein wrote himself, exposes Bernstein’s contested relationship with his father and dives deeper into the meaning behind his off-the-cuff quote from his father’s 70th birthday.

Ironically, the Kaddish is the traditional Jewish mourning prayer — but the prayer never mentions the term death, only “the word chayei or chayim (“life”) three times” (4). Moreover, the prayer praises God and the spirit of life, not the absence of life. This symbolic dualism runs throughout the piece; chromatic textures (twelve-tone techniques) contrasts “simple expressive diatonicism — for instance, during the Din Torah section (literally meaning judicial trial of two Jewish parties), the Speaker has an outburst of emotion “in which God is accused of a breach of faith with humanity” (5). Moreover, the dualism appears when human immortality by God’s divine power contrasts humanity’s imminent suicide by reality (6). The dualistic and contrasting undertones purposefully emphasize the lows and highs, mountains and abysses of his turbulent father-son relationship but also of American life. 

Album Cover – Bernstein – Symphony No. 3 Kaddish

The “Kaddish” is viewed as an argument with God, as the Speaker “takes him on in the prosecutorial manner of an angry Job,” but his father’s discontentment and disappointment are obvious throughout the text (7). Bernstein’s father hoped he would leave his music aspirations behind and pursue something more respectable, like carrying on the family business. Although his father eventually came around to his son’s career choice, the beginning of “Kaddish” (Part I – Invocation) emphasizes the Speaker’s despair and bitterness towards his father, as the Speaker addresses God as “angry, wrinkled old majesty,” — perhaps this is Bernstein’s disobedient voice coming alive (8). However, is the Speaker only addressing his familial pressures and rollercoaster relationship, or is he also making accusations against God and humanity? Perhaps, Man and God are dueling on the battlefield of life, amidst all the conflict, chaos, and evil of reality. Prior to Bernstein finishing the piece, JFK had just been assassinated and he was taken aback by this horrendous act; a wave of hurt and despair settled over the world, adding another powerful dimension to this already tense and passionate piece before it premiered in Israel only three weeks later (9). Bernstein’s “Kaddish” is trying to illustrate the internal struggle between ourselves and any higher power (moral, spiritual, physical) but also … the cognitive dissonance we experience every day. He wanted the audience to look within and reevaluate their interaction with reality and the politically charged environment. 

Beyond the higher power, regardless if it does or does not exist, the piece also tried to ignite a conversation around the internal struggle with oneself and all the isms: racism, sexism, socialism, capitalism, etc. It is not just Jews or religious people that need to look within and reflect, but all of humanity — the moral struggle is areligious, apolitical, and appears in all facets of life. The pure beauty of this piece is broken down into two components or takeaways: 1) faith and relationships are neither cookie cutter nor black and white, but moral behavior isn’t either and, 2) it transcends time and place, as the principle or idea does not change (i.e. morality and cognitive dissonance between our actions and beliefs) but the subject certainly does (i.e. ourselves and the world around us).

By Mollie Goldfarb

  1. “Reckoning with Leonard Bernstein’s Faith on the Centennial of His Birth,” Religion News Service (blog), August 22, 2018,
  2. Neil Levin, “Symphony No. 3,” Milken Archive of Jewish Music, accessed October 14, 2018,
  3. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival,” The New York Times, November 12, 2017, sec. Arts,
  4. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein,” accessed October 14, 2018,
  5. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein.” 
  6. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein.” 
  7. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival.”
  8. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival.”
  9. Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” accessed October 14, 2018,

Bernstein Conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5

“We’re going to play it fast, but not Leonard Bernstein fast,” my conductor quipped as he described the tempo in which we would play the final movement of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. He was referring to Bernstein’s famous 1959 recording of the fifth symphony with the New York Philharmonic in which Bernstein doubled the tempo from Shostakovich’s original tempo at the end of the piece.

It was the summer of 2013 and we were playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 at my music camp, Kinhaven Music School. It was an admittedly challenging piece for young high school students, however we were more than willing to put in a few more practice sessions to learn the renowned symphony.

Orchestra rehearsal at Kinhaven Music School

Fast-forward five years to 2018. Whenever I come into contact with Symphony No. 5, I immediately associate it with Bernstein’s recording of the piece. Perhaps this is because I learned about Bernstein’s recording while I was learning the symphony. However, this inherent association between the fifth symphony and Bernstein’s recording seems to be larger than just me; it seems to be a widespread phenomenon. Why does Bernstein’s recording standout as the recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5?

Bernstein’s Interpretation of Symphony No. 5

CD cover of Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5

Bernstein was known for taking risks and breaking boundaries, and the fifth symphony is clearly no exception. Aside from all the aspects that make for a brilliant performance, Bernstein conducted the piece in a notably different way than Shostakovich wrote. At the end of the fourth movement, there is a huge buildup of sound before the orchestra transitions into the final part of the movement. Shostakovich originally wrote this final part to be played rather slowly, however Bernstein conducted this section twice as fast as marked. Bernstein’s recording of the last movement is 8 minutes and 55 seconds long whereas most recordings of the movement are around 11 to 12 minutes long!

Doubling the tempo of a piece is risky, but speaks volumes about Bernstein’s musical abilities as well as his stylistic choices. Of course there are pros and cons of changing aspects of a piece, like the tempo. Shostakovich had a message he was trying to get across in his symphony, whether it was patriotism or a jab at the Soviet Union, or a combination of the two. Changing the tempo could possibly detract or change the message Shostakovich was trying to convey, but it seems like Bernstein’s change possibly enhanced this message, or rather created a new energetic interpretation of it. Shostakovich himself thought it “worked very well.”

Bernstein in Moscow

Bernstein shaking hands with Shostakovich after a performance in Moscow, 1959

Bernstein just seemed to get it. Shostakovich’s symphony holds immense meaning, displaying his struggle as a composer trying to create art under Stalin’s oppressive regime. “Bernstein conducts the final movement with all the violence, energy and incandescence that he can bring to it. He understood well that this is not a happy ending, and he brings that across in his performance,” stated Ted Libbey.

Dimitri Shostakovich and Leonard Bernstein in Moscow, 1959

Bernstein’s deep understanding of Shostakovich and his work could be attributed to his visit to Moscow with the New York Philharmonic in August 1959, where they performed the fifth symphony and were lauded with a standing ovation. Being in Moscow and meeting Shostakovich likely helped Bernstein internalize and understand the music in its context.

Bernstein added his own personal touch to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and created an everlasting interpretation of the piece (also, playing with the New York Philharmonic doesn’t hurt). Whether rehearsing the symphony at Boston Symphony Hall or at a small music camp in Vermont, Bernstein’s recording remains at the forefront of musicians’ minds. It is recordings like Bernstein’s that keep such great pieces of music alive. If you haven’t listened to Bernstein’s recording, it is definitely worth having a listen!


Work Cited

Alsop, Marin, and Melody Joy Kramer. “Hearing History in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.” NPR. September 23, 2006.

Libbey, Ted. “Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphonic ‘Coup’.” NPR. October 20, 2009.


Bernstein at Tanglewood: Conducting
Coming up more about Bernstein’s early years in Massachusetts and his final concert at Tanglewood which his brother described as, 'Lenny coming home to die.'

Bernstein and Tanglewood; the two names are quite nearly synonymous.  Throughout Bernstein’s great and varied life work, one of the few constants was his involvement with the Tanglewood Institute.  His operas, Broadway shows, symphonies, concerts and controversies seldom stopped him from spending time at Tanglewood during Berkshire summers.  The joy that Bernstein experienced while conducting and spending time in Tanglewood was unbounded. His daughter, Jamie Bernstein, was once quoted as saying “Every time he (Bernstein) went up there (to Tanglewood) it was like he would be rejuvenated. He would turn into a kid again”(1).  Bernstein’s connection to Tanglewood could nearly be described as spiritual; the very first time he led a orchestra as a symphonic conductor was at Tanglewood. He conducted the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra in Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2, with the composer himself in the audience (2).  From his very first summer spent in Berkshire, under the guidance the of Koussevitzky, he was “hooked.” He described his time spent in summer study there as “the happiest and most productive of my life.” At Tanglewood, Bernstein’s conducting was truly put to the test; his extensive Tanglewood discography can account for that.  Over the rapturous summers spent in the Berkshires, he conducted Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes & many more. He held audiences spellbound and captured student musicians at the flick of his baton. In my opinion, it was only fitting that he spent the last years of his life conducting and bringing joy at Tanglewood – the place that brought him such rapture .  His final concert at Tanglewood was fittingly described by Bernstein’s brother as, “Lenny coming home to die.”

Bernstein and Koussevitzky
“For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.” - Bernstein in a Letter to Koussevitzky (2)

Koussevitzky imparted great musical and conducting knowledge onto the impressionable, young Bernstein.  Not only did Koussevitzky teach Bernstein to study each piece with passion and a singularity of mind, but Koussevitzky also stressed the importance of central themes, or lines, to Bernstein.  Bernstein’s dedication to central lines would propel him as a conductor for years into the future. Koussevitzky taught his young assistant to become absorbed by each work: taking each and every individual part to heart – though not to the same extent as Fritz Reiner.  In the summer of 1942, Bernstein played the bass drum in the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad during which Koussevitzky conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.  Along with knowledge of musical material, Bernstein gained invaluable experience conducting on the stand.  In these formative years, under Koussevitzky’s watchful eye, Bernstein began to funnel his passion towards conducting into a sort of performance art.  Bernstein also began to incorporate large, thematic, gestures into his conducting. From Koussevitzky, the young Bernstein learned to mark the inner beats and to bring out counter-melodies throughout the orchestra.  However, their relationship was not without creative conflict. Koussevitzky wished to tamper Bernstein’s ego and said he ought to be an “interpreter of great musical works,” discouraging Bernstein from playing his own works as a conductor.  Still, Koussevitzky predicted that Bernstein would become the greatest conductor of all time, and their time spent at Tanglewood was truly invaluable.

“It was a renaissance for me - a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined weltanschauung with which I came to you.” -Bernstein

Conducting Analysis

For this section of the blogpost, I have chosen to observe Bernstein’s conducting in action.   After all, in the public mind, the conductor is the living embodiment of musical power – holding a dozens of musicians under perfect control and unleashing the force of the full orchestra with mere gesture. Bernstein’s conducting, at Tanglewood, is excellent enough that any number of pieces could suffice .  However, this recording of Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s 5th, is something special. At the beginning of the movement, Bernstein motions with great sweeping gestures to the strings and at times drops the baton practically to his knees when low voices takes up melody.  The inner beats are alluded to; melodies and counterpoints are highlighted with the flick of a baton. The emotion Bernstein feels in concert is clearly wrought upon his face and choreographed by his body. A discourse between conductor and conducted remains constant as Bernstein encourages and cues the seated players; every player maintains eye contact with Bernstein.  The result is truly compelling. The strings and woodwinds unite as a single and smooth voice. The brass stings in the proper places, and even though Bernstein may have become more subdued in his later years, the orchestra and their conductor bring new vitality to the symphony. In this performance, the fruits of Bernstein’s long years of labor become evident. In his element at his beloved Tanglewood, he holds perfect control over the orchestra: harnessing the techniques learned from Koussevitzky many summers ago as an assistant conductor.

August 19th, 1990

Bernstein led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in what would be his final concert. Carl St. Clair conducted the BSO first in Bright Sheng’s orchestral transcription of Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles”, and Bernstein then conducted Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  He suffered a coughing fit during the third movement of the Beethoven symphony, but continued to conduct the piece until its conclusion, leaving the stage during a standing ovation



“Better still was the Beethoven. It was done in Mr. Bernstein's characteristic mature style, meaning slower and heavier than he used to perform the Viennese classics. That robbed the score, the last movement especially, of some excitement. But it lent the proceedings a real grandeur, and the flowing Allegretto second movement was particularly gorgeous, with touch after instrumental touch striking home with the force of revelation.” - NY TIMES August 21, 1990 (4)


To conclude… Bernstein Shared a Special Connection with Tanglewood, and his years there saw him grow into, reputedly, the best conductor of all time.

Work Cited

(1) “Alex and Jamie Bernstein | Here’s the Thing.” WNYC Studios, 24 Dec. 2012,
(2) “Tanglewood Background.” Tanglewood | Educator | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(3) Alsop, Marin. “Leonard Bernstein, the Conductor.” Conductor | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(4) JOHN ROCKWELL, Special to The New York Times. “Review/Music; Bernstein Leads His Annual Tanglewood Concert.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 1990,
(5) Ross, Daniel. “Leonard Bernstein Explains Beautifully and Eloquently Exactly What a Conductor Does.” Classic FM, 17 May 2016,


Conducting 101: Conducting like Bernstein

Before beginning to dissect Bernstein’s scores and conducting patterns, let’s take a look at basics in conducting.  


As you can tell from the picture on the left, each time signature gets a particular conducting pattern. Each first beat will get the downbeat (your hand will go in a downward motion). These conducting patterns are only three of the many different patterns out there. There are many more time signatures that each get their own conducting pattern.

Bernstein composed, conducted, and educated a wide audience and had a huge impact on music in America. He was a very expressive and emotive conductor who entertained so many audiences for many years. 

Let’s learn how to conduct some of his pieces: 

1) ” A Simple Song” – MASS 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “A Simple Song” from his MASS

The beginning of this song is conducted in cut time, but it does eventually
make its way to common time- conducted in 4/4. This time signature is one of the most common, if not THE most common, time signature. In simple terms, every quarter note gets one count in each measure. (In this time signature, 4 quarter notes makes 1 whole measure). It is not so surprising that a name with such title is in such a simple time signature.  Try listening to this song and feeling the pulse of the rhythm. (1)

2) “I Feel Pretty” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

This song is a bit more complex than the first. “I Feel Pretty” is in 3/4. The conducting pattern will look like the first pattern on the chart above. This time signature consists of 3 quarter notes per measure. A waltz will also be in 3/4. This time signature may make some feel more inclined to sway or dance as opposed to marching or walking like in a 4/4 time signature.  (2) 



3) ” America” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story

Lastly, this song is conducted in 6/8. This time signature also allows for a swaying motion. The time signature also helps push this specific song towards a very uplifting happy feel. It’s easy to imagine how into this piece Bernstein would be as he conducted during concerts. Try conducting 6/8 with the help of the diagram in the picture above. (3)










Bernstein at Brandeis: A Conductor’s Premiere Takes Center Stage

By Liza M.

“This is a moment of inquiry for the whole world: a moment when civilization looks at itself appraisingly, seeking a key to the future.”

— Leonard Bernstein, Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts, Brandeis University, 1952.

Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere at Brandeis University in 1952.

Smacked in between his other three most famous works, On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti was composed in 1951, a composition he first began during his honeymoon. This 45 minute, one-act opera immediately begins with the repetition of the phrase, “the little white house,” set throughout the prelude. Catchy as ever, the opening trio (the narrators of this drama) sings in close harmonies, setting the perfect scene of an almost idealistic suburban town with nuclear families and weather that’s always pleasant. Above all, people are happy, hustling and bustling and enjoying life, including everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s the 1950s, but as the jazzy beats dwindle away from the opener and the music changes its theme and course as the first scene begins, the audience soon starts to realize that such a utopia is not everyone’s reality. Cut to Sam and Dinah, the two main characters in this story; they’re married with a child, but their life is far from perfection as they suffer through the trials and tribulations of marriage, as well as dissatisfaction with each other, themselves, and their environment. Audience members experience an intimate day-in-the-life of the family, which begins with an argument over the breakfast table, followed by Dinah’s garden day dreams, Sam’s naughty indiscretions, awkward street run-ins, personal reflections about parenthood, and a mention of a movie recently released titled Trouble in Tahiti. Ultimately, the couple may or may not be able to overcome the struggles of married life, but the audience is left to believe that regardless of whether the couple chooses to stay together or not, Sam and Dinah have a long road to personal recovery ahead of them. 

Leonard Bernstein (right) in front of the stage set for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere.

But Bernstein’s role as Trouble in Tahiti’s composer extends far past his composition abilities. Bernstein first premiered Trouble in Tahiti at Brandeis University in June of 1952 for an audience of close to 3,000 people. At the time, Bernstein was on faculty at Brandeis serving in the music department, a job that began in 1951 and would continue through 1956. It was in 1952, however, that Bernstein initiated the Festival of the Creative Arts (a festival that still exists today), which was the setting for Trouble in Tahiti’s premiere at 11:00 p.m., as an all-day symposium had gone way over schedule. Along with a weak amplification system, the stage outdoors being just barely built, and pressure from his fellow Brandeis colleague Irving Fine to finish the opera just in time for the festival’s commencement, Bernstein felt that his newest composition wasn’t ready to his satisfaction for the performance, and he ended up deciding to rewrite the final scene for the next showing he would have later on that summer at Tanglewood. 

A page from the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.

As a conductor, part of Bernstein’s job was to educate the public by introducing new types of music and probing interesting concepts for deeper reflection. Trouble in Tahiti brings about candid new ideas and critiques of love, materialism, and loneliness during a post-war era, concealed ostensibly by a perfect suburban world and unrealistic ideals of happiness. Each scene evokes different emotions from the audience as the music stylistically changes; Bernstein challenges his audience to find reasons to believe in the imperfections of the characters, to find them relatable, or to feel so far removed from them that you find yourself questioning your own life and life choices. 

The front of the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.


  • A production of Trouble in Tahiti produced by Opera North in August, 2018.
  • [ ] A scan of the complete brochure from the Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts.

Bernstein’s Rise to Fame as a Conductor

On November 14th, 1943, Leonard Bernstein’s life as a conductor would change forever, when he got the last minute opportunity to sub for a sick Bruno Walter. But what about him led to his success? Was it the people he met, or was it his innate character traits? I believe it was a combination of both, and would like to explore the process that led to Bernstein’s fame alongside the character traits that he had throughout this process.

Bernstein Conducting

Bernstein’s conducting journey started at the early age of 20, when Bernstein met Dimitri Mitropoulos who inspired him to take up conducting, in addition to composing. Not long after, Bernstein began his studies in conducting at the Curtis Institute where he studied with Fritz Reiner, who along with Bernstein’s other mentor, Aaron Copland, encouraged him to introduce himself to the then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky was impressed by Bernstein, and this connection would earn Bernstein conducting lessons at the Tanglewood Music Center while Bernstein was still in his early twenties.

Serge Koussevitzky clasps hands with Bernstein during a curtain call at Tanglewood

Not in small part due to Bernstein’s mentors, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, and Copland when it was time for Arthur Rodzinski, musical director of the New York Philharmonic, to chose an assistant conductor for the orchestra, Bernstein was the one who was chosen. (1). “It was Nov. 14, 1943, when Leonard Bernstein, then 25, was summoned to conduct the New York Philharmonic because Bruno Walter, the guest conductor, had fallen sick.”(2). This captivating performance, which was live-broadcasted, was a key event that led to continued fame for the rest of his life.

Although these connections and events were a key part of what led to his eventual success and fame, what innate characteristics of him as a conductor and person contributed to getting these connections in the first place, and ultimately to his fame?

One of the first things one will notice when watching a video of Bernstein conducting is his expressiveness. Menahem Breuer, former concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recalled of her time playing under Leonard Bernstein, “It was never for show although he was dancing on the podium. It was all emotional and sincere, music was pouring out of his body.” (3). This characteristic was undoubtedly part of what made Bernstein such a compelling conductor.

Another characteristic that I believe led to Bernstein’s success was his love of teaching. Bernstein was of course known as an educator in many ways but what is notable is that his love of teaching continued while he was conducting as well. A musician who played under Bernstein recalled a time when a substitute harpist in one of his orchestras needed help with their part, “Our harpist got sick, I think in Venice. The substitute harpist had never played the Mahler Fifth in rehearsal. So there she was, shivering by her harp, and Lenny looked over and saw she needed clear beats. So he laid out every single note in the slow movement for her. That entire movement, he conducted it just so she could be absolutely clear of all the triplets and subdivided rhythms, which are very difficult. He knew she needed him.” (4). Bernstein also loved teaching the orchestra as a whole. Marin Aslop stated, “I was always delighted when he would stop a rehearsal and say “must I tell you the story of this Haydn Symphony?” only to have 70 musicians magically turn into 4 year olds with that sparkle of anticipation in their eyes that says “yes, please tell us that story!” (5).

A final key characteristic that I believe was crucial to Bernstein’s success as a conductor was his passion. Bernstein’s son, Alexander Bernstein, stated, “When he studied a score his concentration was total, so that all of my fiddling around with his trinkets and jumping, Robin Hood-like, from chair to couch didn’t even faze him” (6). Lawrence Wolfe, bassist of the Boston Symphony, recalled, “ One time things weren’t going all that well. It wasn’t gelling, and it seemed there was a discrepancy between his score and the parts onstage. He took the score and slammed it down, and stomped offstage. Someone lit a cigarette, put it in his mouth; someone handed him a drink. The personnel manager said, “We’re going to take a break now.” About 20 minutes later, the break was over, and Lenny was fine, as if nothing had ever happened”( 7). Although his passion may have sometimes come out in the form of anger or irritation with the orchestra, whether Bernstein cared or not was never in question to the musicians who played under him.

When combining Bernstein’s expressiveness, love for teaching, and passion, with the fact that Bernstein had mentors like Copland, Koussevitzky, and Reiner, and adding alittle bit of luck (becoming assistant conductor of the NY philharmonic at the right time), it becomes clear how Bernstein rose to fame so quickly at such a young age, and stayed famous to the point of his death and beyond.


Works Cited

  1. Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein the Political Life of an American Musician. University of California Press, 2009.
  2. Brozan, Nadine. “CHRONICLE.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 1993,
  3. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Aug. 2018,
  4. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  5. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  6. Trott, Donald L., and Alexander Bernstein. “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander.” The Choral Journal, vol. 34, no. 4, 1993, pp. 9–13. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  7. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”

Pictures and Videos




A Tale of Critique and Chutzpah: Leonard Bernstein as a Conductor


By Mollie Goldfarb

Classical music was commonly danced and listened to in the Jewish shtetl, otherwise known as Brooklyn in the 1930s. My grandparents’, Bubbe and Opa, respective family living rooms were filled with the sounds of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven when they practically lived down the block from one another (before they even knew the other existed and way before their first date). Their teenage memories consist of the sweet sounds of classical music, none of that rebel rousing jazz music of the 1930s. Obviously, it only made sense their honeymoon include a stop at Tanglewood, the premier spot for classical music during the beautiful, breezy summer months in the Berkshire Mountains.


Bubbe & Opa. Tanglewood – Summer 1955.


Bernstein was revered as a God in the heavenly tree-lined landscape of Tanglewood, according to his son Alexander: “The entire exertion of the place revolved around him–his work, his needs–and everyone was happy to oblige.” (1) However, his relationship with the NY Philharmonic from 1958 – 1990 was much more tempestuous compared to his consecutive teaching summers spent at Tanglewood. Although many music enthusiasts were discontent with his unmistakable style, some orchestra members applauded Bernstein’s dynamic behavior and mannerisms. He adamantly rejected the stuffy, unrelatable pretenses of classical music, specifically because the NY Philharmonic was declining in popularity and lacked sufficient energy to interest its patrons or compete with the more “prestigious” symphonies in Boston & Philadelphia. For example, the late Walter Botti, a New York Philharmonic bass player from 1952 to 2002, believed his charisma transformed the orchestra: “Lenny loved everybody and he wanted to be loved by everybody, but music came first. He pushed the Orchestra, but he never, never embarrassed anybody or put people on the spot. He was a real mensch.” (2) He constantly nudged the musicians to their physical and emotional limits by demanding long-hours and intense rehearsals, as he tried to solve the oxymoron of “American classical music.” (3) During this time, classical music was rooted in Eurocentric ideals and principles but this did not discourage or halt Bernstein in his tracks to Americanize classical music; rather, he began to have wild dreams to conduct American canons distinct from the far-flung arrangements in Europe: “More than the Russian-born Koussevitzky, more than the English-born Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein tackled the oxymoron head-on.” (4) His programs consisted of an interesting mash-up between 19th-century romantic music and modern American works. To grasp the diversity of music during his time with the NY Philharmonic, his first subscription program included William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (5) Nevertheless, even though his position with the Philharmonic spanned over many years fraught with political turmoil and social revolution, his desire to conduct great American canons and regenerate American patriotism did not digress. However, his sense of urgency was sometimes overshadowed by his splashy behavior and presence onstage.

In his distinct quest to solve this oxymoron of American classical music, he faced many critiques from scholarly peers and longtime NY Philharmonic subscribers, such as my grandparents. His larger than life personality often frustrated many patrons; my grandparents always felt he would “eat up the applause” once onstage and even worse, distract from the music with dramatic theatrical mannerisms, “excessively swaying and stomping his foot to the music.” Patrons began to wonder, “Was the main attraction the man on the podium or the music he was conducting?” His overwhelming conducting style played to a specific audience while it simultaneously soured others opinion of him: “At his worst, Bernstein was the Barbra Streisand of conductors, an ego-filled blimp who used the classics as a backdrop for his dramatic posturing.” (6) His polarizing style was fervently felt throughout the audience, leaving those similar in opinion to my grandparents isolated and annoyed by his takeover and grand upheaval of classical conducting.

That Mahler feeling … Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1970. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Although his personal conducting style did not win over my grandparents’ hearts, his programs as a conductor drastically (consciously or subconsciously) altered their attitude towards American classical music–one of the most explicit and important goals in Bernstein’s professional career, specifically as a conductor. I recently asked my grandparents if they thought NY Philharmonic patrons of that era truly enjoyed his eccentric programs with an interesting Eurocentric and American mix. Their answer neatly sums up the long-lasting impact of Bernstein as a conductor and more or less, a revolutionary: “It is hard to say, as we do not have access to patron’s views…and do not remember if Bernstein introduced more modern American music…That is not to say he did or didn’t. We just do not remember. However, if you were to ask us today if we enjoy the aforementioned music the answer would be yes.”

  1. Donald L. Trott & Alexander Bernstein, “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander,” American Choral Directors Association, November 1993.
  2. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100,” The Weekly Standard, April 27, 2018,
  3. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  4. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  5. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  6. Terry Teachout, “How Good Was Leonard Bernstein?,” Commentary Magazine (blog), October 1, 1994,

Leonard Bernstein and My Family

As a junior on campus, I have heard his name countless times, and celebrated him. I realized that I did not know enough about such a character and endeavored to learn more. In order to gain a more personal idea of Leonard Bernstein, I decided to reach out to my aunt, Roz Castle, and dad, Barry Resnik, two very musical people, and find out what they remember of him.

LR: What do you know of Leonard Bernstein?

RC: Conductor, did my favorite west side story, nice Jewish boy from new York, always had these epic concerts and epic orchestrations. I remember seeing him on tv and I was just glued to the set. I saw him at Lincoln center, very Broadway

LR: What do you remember from when you were growing up and did his music have an effect on you?

RC: They went to a Saturday matinee a lot. Was a very huge Streisand fan so any of that musicals and movies got me. My parents always had the stereo going and we would hear him play. He could make something so small be so incredible. Musicals were huge at the time of growing up which was the mid 60s, before rock and roll. A lot of Jewish influence at the time and was very big in her house. You don’t sing to Leonard Bernstein, you sing to whoever’s singing, but you hear his orchestrations in your head.

West Side Story poster

LR: Did you ever listen to his music?

RC: West side story is the big one but I remember some of his album covers in my parents collections. I don’t remember much else because I wanted to hear the female artists, but he would make the voices that I loved become electric. It was what he did, not him specifically. He brought the ingredients together, but without him these things would never have come to be the way they did.

LR: What do you think keeps his music alive for so long?

RC: Great music is just great music. Time doesn’t mean anything to music.

Leonard Bernstein album cover- A Total Embrace: The Conductor

I loved her response to my last question and I still love it! It is so true. Bernstein made great music for everyone, no matter the class, to listen to.