Celebrating his 100th Year
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, and died in New York on October 14, 1990.
Commissioned by the Juilliard Musical Foundation, Brass Music consists of four short tributes to various dogs of the composer’s acquaintance. Originally composed for brass quartet and piano in 1948, it was first performed in a public concert by members of the New York Philharmonic on April 8, 1959, receiving its premier at Carnegie Hall.
Leonard Bernstein loved celebrating his friends with short, often high-spirited works composed for celebratory events like birthdays. These were almost always for piano and bore the heading “Anniversary.” Especially in the 1940s he composed over a dozen such works, for Aaron Copland or Serge Koussevitzky, or for his sister Shirley, and others. Some of these he published in suites of seven, five, or some other grouping.
But he also loved dogs—including the dogs of his friends. In 1948 he composed several individual pieces, each depicting a specific canine of his acquaintance, conceived for one or more brass instruments, sometimes accompanied by piano.
About the Music
Rondo for Lifey (trumpet and piano) was written for a skye terrier belonging to actress Judy Holliday. She had been one of the members of The Revuers, a small company assembled by Adolphe Green and including Betty Comden in New York in the early 1940s. Avoiding joining his father’s business after Harvard, he moved to New York and joined the others, thereby creating the team that was to write the musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town, while Holliday went on to stardom in her own line.
The Elegy for Mippy I and II were written for his brother Burton’s dog, who suffered a tragedy, hence the choice of an elegy as the form. The first is for horn and piano, the second for trombone solo, and both anticipate a second coming of the pet.
The last movement, Fanfare for Bima, is a brass quartet (trumpet, trombone, horn, and tuba) written to celebrate the black cocker spaniel of Bernstein’s teacher and idol, conductor Serge Koussevitzky. The theme of the piece is a bit of tune that Koussevtizky whistled to summon his dog.
It is rare for a piece like this—chamber music in a very short form, with a touch of humor involved—to be performed in a symphony concert. This, no doubt, is why it had to wait a decade from composition to “premier.” The occasion was a special festive concert offered as a benefit for the New York Philharmonic Pension fund. At such events, usually gala performances at advanced prices, the audience is promised a number of surprises. In this concert, comedian Jack Benny was one participant, playing the opening of a violin concerto—which was taken over by the Philharmonic’s concertmaster John Corigliano when Benny pretended to lose his place. It is in that spirit that Bernstein’s tribute to three favorite dogs took its place.
The Chichester Psalms were composed on a commission from the Very Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Sussex for its 1965 festival. The score was completed in Fairfield on May 7, 1965, and first performed by the New York Philharmonic in Philharmonic Hall that July 15 with the Camerata Singers, Abraham Kaplan, conductor, and John Bogart, alto. The first performance of the work as the composer conceived it, with all-male chorus (the treble parts performed by boys), took place at Chichester that July 31. The score calls for an orchestra consisting of three trumpets, three trombones, a large and varied percussion ensemble (glockenspiel, xylophone, chime in B-flat, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle, rasps, whip, wood block, three temple blocks, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, and three bongo drums), harp, and strings. Duration is about 19 minutes.
The Chichester Psalms was Leonard Bernstein’s first composition after the Third Symphony, Kaddish (intended for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary in 1956, though not completed until 1963). Both works add to the orchestra a chorus singing texts in Hebrew. But where the Kaddish Symphony is a work often at the edge of despair, the Chichester Psalms is serene and affirmative. It is also for the most part strongly tonal, the result of months of work during a sabbatical leave from Bernstein’s post as music director of the New York Philharmonic, during which time he wrote a great deal of 12-tone music, but finally discarded it. “It just wasn’t my music; it wasn’t honest.”
About the Music
Following an introductory phrase that dramatically outlines the interval of the seventh (in a figure that will frame both the first and last movements of the work), the orchestra begins a vigorous 7/4 dance, prompting the chorus’ joyous outburst of praise to Psalm 100.
The second movement is, for the most part, a serene, lyrical setting of Psalm 23, featuring a boy soloist (or countertenor) accompanied by the harp to represent David, the shepherd-psalmist. The sopranos of the chorus repeat the song, but the men’s voices violently interrupt it with verses from Psalm 2 recalling the warfare of nation against nation (Bernstein originally created this music for a scene of argumentation between the rival gangs in West Side Story, but the number did not survive in the final version; adapted to the Hebrew text, it works most effectively here). The upper voices return with the song of tranquil faith, though the tension of suppressed violence is never far away.
The orchestra introduces the last movement with an extended prelude built on the opening figure of the first movement. Suddenly the orchestra becomes hushed and the chorus enters with a song of comfort (the 10/4 meter, divided into 2+3+2+3, produces a wonderful rocking effect of utter tranquility). Unaccompanied, the chorus sings a chorale-like version of the opening figure to the psalmist’s plea for peace, and the orchestra quietly adds its “Amen.”
Psalm 108, vs. 2:
Urah, hanevel, v’chinor!
Psalm 100, entire:
Hariu l’Adonai kol haarets.
Iv’du et Adonai b’simha.
Bo‑u l’fanav bir’nanah.
D’u ki Adonai Hu Elohim.
Hu asanu, v’lo anahnu.
Amo v’tson mar’ito.
Bo‑u sh’arav b’todah,
Hodu lo, bar’chu sh’mo.
Ki tov Adonai, l’olam has’do,
V’ad dor vador emunato.
Awake, psaltery and harp!
I will rouse the dawn!
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness.
Come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord, He is God.
It is He that hath made us, and not we
We are His people and the sheep of His
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting.
And His truth endureth to all generations.
Psalm 23, entire:
Adonai ro‑i, lo ehsar.
Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini,
Al mei m’nuhot y’nahaleini,
Yan’heini b’ma’aglei tsedek,
Gam ki eilech
Lo ira ra,
I Ki Atah imadi.
Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan
Dishanta vashemen roshi
Ach tov vahesed.
Yird’funi kol y’mei hayai
V’shav’ti b’veit Adonai
And L’orech yamim.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk
Through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff
They comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of mine enemies,
Thou annointest my head with oil,
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life,
I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Psalm 2, vs. 1‑4:
Lamah rag’shu goyim
Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?
Yit’yats’vu malchei erets,
V’roznim nos’du yahad
Al Adonai v’al m’shiho.
N’natkah et mos’roteimo,
Why do the nations rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His annointed.
Saying, let us break their bonds asunder,
He that sitteth in the heavens
Shall laugh, and the Lord
Shall have them in derision!
Psalm 131, entire:
Lo gavah libi,
V’lo ramu einai,
Im lo shiviti
Naf’shi k’gamul alei imo,
Kagamul alai naf’shi.
Yahel Yis’rael el Adonai
Me’atah v’ad olam.
My heart is not haughty,
Nor mine eyes lofty,
Neither do I exercise myself
In great matters or in things
Too wonderful for me to understand.
Surely I have calmed
And quieted myself,
As a child that is weaned of his mother,
My soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the Lord
From henceforth and forever.
Psalm 133, vs. 1:
Hineh mah tov,
Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity.
On the Town: Three Dance Episodes
Bernstein composed On the Town in 1944. The show opened in Boston on December 13, 1944; its New York opening at the Adelphi Theater took place on December 28. The three dance episodes call for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), two clarinets (first doubling E-flat clarinet, second doubling bass clarinet), two horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, timpani and percussion (snare drum, bass drum, drum set, suspended cymbal, triangle, wood block, xylophone), piano, and strings. Duration is about 11 minutes.
At the beginning of 1944, the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein was a new celebrity, having shortly before made a dramatic stand-in for an ailing Bruno Walter to conduct a concert of the New York Philharmonic that was broadcast nationwide. By the end of that year he was known as a singularly successful composer of unusually wide range. In January his Jeremiah Symphony was premiered in Pittsburgh and the ballet Fancy Free opened in New York in April. By the end of the year, his first Broadway show, On the Town, was playing on Broadway, sparking the careers of a series of brilliant newcomers to the theater: Bernstein himself, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the words and music, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.
The plot of On the Town came from the scenario already developed for Fancy Free, a light‑hearted romp tracing the experiences of some sailors on leave for 24 hours in Manhattan. Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie each sets out with his own plan to enjoy their first visit to New York and to get a girl. But ultimately it is Gabey’s wishes that determine the course of the story: he falls in love at first sight with the photo of a girl on a subway poster, “Miss Turnstiles,” and he enlists the aid of his friends in locating her.
The songs capture equally the bustle and energy of New York and the loneliness of a stranger in the big city. And, unlike most Broadway composers, who turn the composition of the “ballet music” entirely over to an assistant, Bernstein composed brilliantly conceived, elaborate dance numbers.
In On the Town the hectic pace is wonderfully captured in the first of the three “dance episodes,” depicting “The Great Lover” searching for that perfect girl. One of Bernstein’s most beautiful and poignant melodies, “Lonely Town,” underlies the pas de deux. The lively depiction of Times Square that ends the three dance episodes was also the finale of the show’s first act (and it briefly quotes the most famous song in the show, “New York, New York,” where “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.” In this concert version, the dance episodes are dedicated to the three women who played the principal roles in the original show: Sono Osato, Betty Comden, and Nancy Walker.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Bernstein composed the score to West Side Story in 1957-58, in collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had the basic idea for a modern version of Romeo and Juliet. The show opened in New York on September 26, 1958. The concert selection of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was first performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Lukas Foss on an all-Bernstein program given in February 13, 1961. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (a large and varied collection), harp, piano, celesta, and strings. Duration is about 22 minutes.
At its appearance in 1958, the musical West Side Story was immediately recognized as a new high-water mark for the American musical theater—an extraordinarily powerful amalgam of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliantly unified, nervously jazzy score, Arthur Laurents’s book, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (his first Broadway credit), and Jerome Robbins’s electrifying dances. Though Bernstein had written successful shows before—On the Town in 1944 and Wonderful Town in 1953—this was his first show to produce songs that immediately became standards (though that happened only after it was filmed and seen by millions), and the dance music was sophisticated enough to find its way directly into the concert hall. This was in itself a remarkable feature. Ballet music from operas or excerpts from the scores of classical ballets have often become concert material, but the dance music of Broadway shows was almost never written by the composer of the main show.
Most composers for the musical theater were songwriters who, whatever their gifts in that area, simply did not have the training to conceive and score an elaborate dance number, so they turned the ballet music over to assistants. But Bernstein was not only a fully-trained composer who could conceive music on a scale larger than the 32 bars of the average popular song, but he had already written two formal ballets as well as elaborate dance music for his earlier shows, On the Town and Wonderful Town. So it was no surprise that he would craft remarkable dances for West Side Story.
As laid out in this orchestral selection, we hear the Prologue (rivalry between the Jets and Sharks); “Somewhere” (a visionary dance sequence in which the two gangs are friendly); Scherzo (a continuation of the vision, as they break out of the city into a world of open spaces); Mambo (a competitive dance between the gangs); Cha-Cha (Tony and Maria see one another for the first time); Meeting scene (a short musical underscoring for their first words together); “Cool” Fugue (the Jets practice controlling their hostility—and the fugue theme is a 12-tone row!); the Rumble (in which the two gang leaders are killed); Finale (love music and a procession that recalls “Somewhere,” but now in a tragic mood).
What was perhaps a surprise at the premiere is that the elaborate treatment of some of the songs in the show (especially Maria, which forms the emotional high point of the scene at the gym when Tony and Maria meet) passes far beyond the level of simple orchestral arrangement to become part of the dramatic unfolding of the tragic tale, the means through which the two rival gangs show off their style and challenge one another with aggressive vigor until the fateful meeting of Tony and Maria sparks a doom-laden love.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)