At 100, ‘West Side Story’ composer Leonard Bernstein is still brilliant

A genius at work. Leonard Bernstein in Carnegie Hall in New York in the late 1940s.
A genius at work. Leonard Bernstein in Carnegie Hall in New York in the late 1940s. William P. Gottlieb/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

I’m still not used to a world without Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918 — 100 years ago this week; he’s already been gone almost 30 years.

The thing is, Bernstein is irreplaceable. It’s a cliché in the popular field of amateur Bernstein psychoanalysis that he thought the world revolved around him — descriptions of his ego usually have words like “monstrous” attached to them. But if that’s indeed what Bernstein thought, he was at least in part going by the evidence. He was a giant international superstar — a brilliant and charismatic composer, pianist, teacher, writer, television pioneer and celebrity; a prodigiously prolific recording artist; and the first American conductor to achieve worldwide respect, honor and fame. There had certainly been no one like him previously, and there’s been no one to match him since.

Here are his most famous works: “West Side Story,” “On the Waterfront,” “Peter Pan,” “Candide,” “Wonderful Town,” “On the Town,” “Mass,” and three symphonies.

Bernstein grew up on music of the synagogue, but also on jazz. He remained tightly and warmly tied to his Jewish identity while consciously doing everything possible to universalize himself. He was a conductor and also a composer; a classical composer and also a Broadway composer; a devoted servant of music and also an extraordinarily — well, monstrously — egotistical exhibitionist; a promiscuous sexual adventurer and also a loving and devoted family man; a generous, humane, thoughtful human being and also a silly, childishly self-indulgent one; a lover of women and also, or primarily, of men; an astoundingly successful man who, by his own admission, was also a man of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.

Some of Bernstein’s qualities I observed firsthand because I was lucky enough to play under him several times as a member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. He would arrive at the Kennedy Center wearing a cape, trailed by an entourage of young men who brought him his cigarettes (which he smoked onstage, against all regulation and custom) and his drinks (water? perhaps), and he wasted time and told stories during rehearsals to make sure that he would cost the orchestra management extra money in overtime payments to the musicians.

It was all pretty funny, pretty pathetic or mildly revolting, depending on your point of view. But when he conducted — ah, when he conducted — it was with a combination of intelligence, depth, insight, joy and easy command of even the most complex passages that was simply staggering, not to mention inspiring.

And he was a composer of genius, a brilliant and original musical mind. If you need convincing, [nevermind the famous songs, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from “West Side Story” like, “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” “Maria,” “America” and “I Feel Pretty,”] but for true genius look no further than “Cool,” a song that represents an astonishing synthesis of musical languages, styles and influences, including traditional classical, avant-garde classical, popular song and jazz.

The song includes a section known as the “Cool Fugue.” What could be more traditionally classical than a fugue? But there it is in the middle of a Broadway show, and it’s not just a simple fugue — the subject of the fugue is a 12-tone row, the kind of thematic building block that composer Arnold Schoenberg invented for his jarringly atonal music in the early part of the 20th century.

Nobody but Bernstein could have conceived of such a musical work, and no one but Bernstein could have pulled it off.

But did Bernstein “fail to live up to his potential” as a composer, as so many have noted, distracted by his performing career and, later in his life, limited by a crippling self-consciousness? Well, sure, but how many people write one piece of music that lasts? What Bernstein perceived as his failures may have been an enormous emotional burden for Bernstein himself, but the rest of us, Rather than focusing on what the man didn’t do, we should be grateful for the gifts he did leave us.

As for Bernstein’s personal qualities and idiosyncrasies, they will fade in interest and relevance as the years go by. Already, in fact, they seem beside the point.

The music he left us, what he did for music in our time, and what he meant for music in our time — those are the things that count, the contributions that will endure.

Miles Hoffman is violist of the American Chamber Players, and classical music commentator for NPR's “Morning Edition.” This article has been supplemented with additional information.