Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old this August. As one of the foremost composers of the postwar era, his legacy has resounded into modern times. Among his most famous works are Candide, Symphony No. 1, and his scores to Peter Pan and West Side Story.
His son, Alexander Bernstein, discussed his father's legacy with Windy City Times.
Windy City Times: You're president of Artful Learning, which was founded by your father. How large a part of his legacy is that, and how concerned are you with carrying it on?
Alexander Bernstein: It's a crucial part of his legacy. Education was such a big part of his life's work, and it's been sort of a line through everything. He had to communicate everything he felt and knew. He always said that he hated to be alone. He had this need to share everything, and that was at the core of his teaching. [Toward] the end of his life, he was thinking more and more about the arts in general being the great connector of all disciplines, seeing teaching and learning as basically creative forces. ... Sadly, he died right at the beginning of [Artful Learning], but I was teaching and getting my master's in education at the same time, and thinking along many of the same lines. The trustees of the estate and my sisters and I decided to keep it going. To this day, it's very successful and doing wonderful work in many schools around the country.
WCT: He sounds to me like someone who might handle fame well. Do you think he had to adapt to fame, and did his relationship with it evolve as he grew older?
AB: I think he enjoyed it so much for a long time. He wasn't shocked or unready for it at the beginning. I remember growing up, [that] he loved meeting new people. My sisters and I often say that his mission was to meet every person in the world. As he got older and, in the '80s particularly, the fame became a little more of a burden. It became kind of an industry more than fun, and the entourage got a little bigger. I remember him saying at one point, "I'm sick of Leonard Bernstein."
WCT: Did he protect you from the public eye when you were growing up?
AB: Not so much; I don't think he thought of it that way. He made it fun. It was occasionally cringe-worthy. On the rare occasions when he would come to my school for a performance, he would act up. I wanted to run and hide somewhere but, apart from that, it was very positive.
WCT: What was he like as a dad?
AB: He was a lot of fun. He loved being around his kids. We never felt that we couldn't go into his studio or that we couldn't bother him. He had an office to go to and sometimes he was up very late composing. Whatever he was doing, he never slept.
I never saw [my mother and father] fight. For all the tension that we learned about later, they never displayed it in front of us. He was a terrific dad and he was always teaching us about anything: politics, history, language. Any dinner table conversation always wound up being a lecture about something.
WCT: He was so public and loved people, but at the same time he didn't come out until much later. Why do you think he kept [his sexuality] concealed for so long?
AB: In those days it was very difficultespecially if you were a public figure. He was the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He certainly wouldn't have gotten that job, or very many others, if he'd been out. He was a man with a family. I think it was just unthinkable for him. He thought about his mother all the time, and what that would have meant for her. I'm sure that was true in those days for so many gay men. So when he did come out, it was a big deal for him and for my grandmother.
WCT: How has his legacy changed over the years?
AB: His compositions ... have been growing in estimation around the world, which is really gratifying. I think for a long time, certainly while he was alive, if you weren't a 12-tone, atonal composer you weren't taken seriously by academia, or the world of music.
Now, more and more people appreciate and miss his educational abilities. People are always asking me, "Who do you think can be our Leonard Bernstein? Who is that extraordinary mix of personality, knowledge and the ability to teach?" And of course, there's nobodyhe's sui generis.
WCT: Do you think there are any misconceptions people have about him?
AB: A little bit about his being a showboat on the podiumthat he was just showing off and being a ham. But, it was all to a purpose. He didn't choreograph himself. It was all very spontaneous. No two performances were alike.
WCT: Is there a piece that he wrote that you're particularly glad has grown in esteem recently?
AB: Serenade is getting played by the world's top violinists, which is wonderful, as it's really such a great piece. Candide is our surprise star of the centennial. It has been done all over the world in many versions.
Mass is being done a lot as well, but mostly in concert versions because it's so enormous and hard to produce. It has a cast of hundreds and hundreds involved: various choirs, an orchestra, a marching band. It's very wonderful to know that Mass is out there and being done so much, and I've seen some wonderful performances.
See the work Alexander does with Artful Learning at ArtfulLearning.org .