Asking Musicians about Bernstein’s Compositions


I decided  to interview four musicians about their thoughts on Leonard Bernstein as a composer. I specifically chose musicians so they would have some background knowledge about Bernstein’s work. The four musicians I interviewed are: Dan Krenz, a graduate student studying conducting and a trumpet player; Amy Clark, a violin player; Lauren Chen, a flute player; and Neal Hampton, a Brandeis music professor and conductor of the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra. Let’s see what they had to say!  


Question 1: What was your first experience with a Bernstein composition and what were your first impressions?

Amy  : “I heard West Side Story when I was six or seven and my brother was playing in the pit. I loved it. I was sitting in on rehearsals and learned all of the songs because I found it so cool and interesting.”

Lauren:  “I’m not entirely sure what my first experience was with a Bernstein composition (mostly because I have been attending concerts with my family since I was quite young, and I don’t remember the earliest concerts)—but the first experience that I can remember most clearly is listening to West Side Story. I loved the upbeat vibrancy, energy, and playfulness of the music—it was so unlike most of the orchestral music I had heard in the past.”

Professor Hampton: “Playing an arrangement of West Side Story in high school orchestra. It was the first time I saw such complicated rhythms.”

Dan: “First experience with a Bernstein composition: That’s a tricky one. I honestly probably do not remember exactly what my first experience was but one of my earliest memories was coming across this video of Bernstein conducting Candide. I remember just thinking how fantastic it was. It’s such great music and watching him conduct by dancing and flirting with the orchestra was very enticing.”

Question 2: What made Bernstein’s composing style so unique? 

Amy:  “I think it was how he incorporated jazz into his music. It always sounded very American to me.”

Professor Hampton: “You feel his personality in his music: his unabashed extroversion, his eclectic tastes which ranged from Mahler to Broadway to a number of contemporary American composers.”

Dan: “The thing about Bernstein’s music is that it always sounds like Bernstein. He truly did live through his music. In every piece that I have encountered of his I have found this to be the case. No one else could write the music he did, and that’s a good thing.”   

Question 3: How did Bernstein’s compositions fit into the genre of “American classical music” that he wanted to create?

Dan: “Bernstein was very interested of the idea of an “American” style of classical music. As you know he studied with Copland and was a big fan of Gershwin. His ties to both the orchestral world and Broadway made him a renaissance man who really tried to bridge the gap in this American style. Of course, a lot of his music is infused with Jazz which is a truly American idiom. I know that Bernstein was really concerned with leaving a legacy with his music. He wanted to be known for that. I would certainly say that he has achieved that right?”

Professor Hampton: “While some of the language was similar to his contemporaries he included popular dance elements (broadway/jazz) in his music.”

Question 4: Why do you think many of Bernstein’s compositions aren’t as well known as West Side Story or Candide

Amy: “Like any composers he is going to have pieces that gain more acclaim than others. On top of that they are really incredible to listen to.”

Lauren: “I suspect that West Side Story and Candide might feel more accessible to audiences that are not as familiar with what we might consider more “traditional” classical music… and so these two compositions end up being the ones that people know best among Bernstein’s works. In some ways it might actually be a self-perpetuating cycle—e.g., an orchestra might gravitate towards playing West Side Story or Candide rather than a lesser known work that might not be as well-received by an audience.”

Dan: “West Side Story was a massive hit, it’s hard to achieve higher than that. With Candide, people really only know the overture and not the story or the other music from it. Every composer has some pieces, for whatever reason, are more recognizable than others. Everyone, even non-musicians, know’s the opening to Beethoven 5. But the number drastically drops off for people that can sing the theme from the last movement. It doesn’t really bother me that Bernstein’s other work is not as well known. That’s true for everyone. There are a number of factors that can create one piece to become the most recognizable of a composer’s output.”

Professor Hampton: “West Side Story became familiar because it was a Broadway smash which was then made into a hit movie. I’m not sure about Candide.”

Question  5:  Favorite Bernstein composition?

Amy: “West Side Story. I was so excited by it when I was little it just has a place in my heart.”

Lauren: “I really like the premise behind his Anniversaries piano compositions (“Four Anniversaries,” “Five Anniversaries,” “Seven Anniversaries,” and “Thirteen Anniversaries”), where each movement of each piece is written for a specific person.”

Dan: “It’s hard to pick a favorite. Although, right now I’m working on his Serenade and the more I look into it, the more I am enjoying it.”

Professor Hampton: “Bernstein Serenade”

Question 6: Favorite Bernstein piece you’ve conducted or played? Why?  

Amy: “I had a lot of fun playing his mass.”

Lauren: “I think among his orchestral works, I’ve actually only played Candide and West Side Story (as one might have expected considering my previous answers). If I had to choose one, I might lean more towards Candide just because I played it a little bit later on and felt that I was better able to appreciate it.”

Dan: “I’ve never actually played any Bernstein and I’ve only conducted one: Candide Overture! Conducting it with the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra last semester was a really incredible experience for numerous reasons but that was the only piece that I have ever performed.”

Professor Hampton: “”Chichester Psalms. A beautiful piece of liturgical music. Perfect piece for the Brandeis Orchestra and Chorus.”


As we can see, musicians have similarities and differences when it comes to Bernstein’s compositions. It is interesting to see how different musical backgrounds can influence experiences with Bernstein compositions. It seems that  many people’s first experience with a Bernstein composition  is West Wide Story, but as people get farther into their musical careers they come into contact with some of his lesser known compositions. I think most of us can agree that Bernstein’s compositions have elements that sound uniquely Bernstein and that he was certainly a talented composer who wasn’t afraid to take risks.

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.