The centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein will occur later this year – on the 25th August – and celebrations are already well underway. One of the 20th century’s most popular composers, Bernstein was also a gifted concert pianist, an A-list conductor, an inspirational teacher, excellent writer and flamboyant character. He should be remembered for many things but even those who don’t necessarily recognise his name will know of his work, if only for the tumultuous and lasting impact of his operatic score for West Side Story; the retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that has achieved an iconic status to stand alongside the play that inspired it.

Joseph Gordon and Tiler Peck of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' <i>Fancy Free</i> © Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Joseph Gordon and Tiler Peck of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free
© Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)

Despite a limited output of classical compositions (his legacy includes three symphonies, three operas, a violin concerto, a cycle of orchestral songs and three ballets), Bernstein’s significance is emphasised through the golden thread that conjoins his classical and musical theatre compositions; achieving a legendary status, thus far reserved for very few composers of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Bernstein’s close friend and mentor, Aaron Copland). In common with all of those great composers, Bernstein’s ballets are an important part of his musical legacy.   

It is worth noting that Bernstein was always a great advocate of Stravinsky’s work, writing an effusive tribute to the composer’s musical styles, levels of profundity and orchestral sonority; and citing, during a 1946 symposium, Les Noces (choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska) in his list of classical music’s most neglected works. 

Bernstein composed for dance in eight musicals (a few of which are long-forgotten) plus incidental music for another five theatrical works. Only two complete scores, written specifically for ballet, figure in his musical legacy, plus what he described as a choreographic essay for orchestra (Facsimile, 1946), which had a notably short life in dance. However, Bernstein’s other music has subsequently been recycled for the purposes of choreography, particularly his Second Symphony (The Age of Anxiety).

Mimi Staker and Chase Finlay of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' <i>West Side Story Suite</i> © Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Mimi Staker and Chase Finlay of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite
© Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)

Leonard Bernstein at 100 is a two-year global celebration, which opened at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on 22 September, 2017 and currently includes more than 2,000 events, taking place over six continents, including a programme of work by The Royal Ballet, choreographed to Bernstein’s music, including premières by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, plus an early revival of Liam Scarlett’s The Age of Anxiety. The programme opens at The Royal Opera House, on the 15th March.

Bernstein worked only with one ballet choreographer, Jerome Robbins, whom he met at Carnegie Hall, in 1943. They were both born in 1918, seven weeks apart, and were similar in temperament.  In a quote that resonates with their respective personalities, Christine Conrad (author of the 2000 Jerome Robbins – that Broadway man) noted that Bernstein was “the more Dionysian, Robbins the more Apollonian”.  “Lenny” and “Jerry” were ambitious young men searching for success and they found it, together, aged 25, at the first attempt, although their collaboration on Fancy Free occurred only after Robbins had received several rejections from other composers. In a 1980 interview, Robbins alleged that Bernstein was unknown at that time, although the composer was already Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and had recently completed his First Symphony, Jeremiah. Just a year later, he was to become Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra. Not bad for an unknown!

Robbins described his working relationship with Bernstein in another interview, in 1986: “We both liked each other’s ideas and that was it.  We were off and running…[Lenny] was writing the music while I was touring…and he would send me records…and then I’d either write or call him and say, “Variation 3 is much too long,” or “this is too fast”, or “this is wonderful”.”  

A one-act ballet set in a wartime New York bar, Fancy Free features three sailors enjoying a day’s shore-leave; on the lookout for girls. It premiered on 18 April, 1944, just three months after the first performance of Jeremiah, and Bernstein’s score was another immediate hit.  It is a symphony in all but name with the ballet’s seven sections merging into a cohesive entity, each movement informed by elements of the exciting opening theme. 

Daniel Ulbricht in Jerome Robbins’ <i>Fancy Free</i> © Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Daniel Ulbricht in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free
© Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)

Shortly after the ballet’s premiere, set designer Oliver Smith persuaded Robbins and Bernstein to expand the ballet into a Broadway show, which became On The Town. Bernstein arranged for his friends, Betty Comden and Adolphe Green to write the book and lyrics. The musical opened at Broadway’s Adelphi Theater, on 28 December, 1944, enjoying a run of 462 performances. Enduring fame – prompting many revivals – was assured by the Hollywood film (1949), starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

The Robbins/Bernstein collaboration reached its pinnacle with West Side Story which, despite the prominence of Robbins, Bernstein and playwright, Arthur Laurents (not to mention the involvement of a then-unknown Stephen Sondheim) was initially rejected by several producers, taking eight years’ from Robbins’ initial idea (in 1949) to come to fruition. 

To the principal collaborators, West Side Story was not an attempt to change the future of the musical genre, even if it succeeded in doing so, but their combined effort to extend the envelope of quality.  Speaking at a Symposium, in 1985, Robbins said: “What was important about West Side Story was our aspiration… how far we, as ‘long-haired artists,’ could go in bringing our crafts and talents to a musical. Why did we have to do it separately and elsewhere? Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet? Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theater in this work? That was the true gesture of the show.” 

Brittany Pollack and Justin Peck of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' <i>West Side StorySuite</i> © Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Brittany Pollack and Justin Peck of NYCB in Jerome Robbins' West Side StorySuite
© Paul Kolnik (Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)

Bernstein foresaw his role in changing the face of the American Musical during a TV broadcast, on 7 October, 1956, wherein he compared American Musical Comedy to Grand Opera, concluding by saying that what American Musical Comedy needed was for “…a Mozart to come along and take the genre to the next level.” West Side Story was to premiere, just a few days’ less than a year after that broadcast, at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, on 26 September, 1957.  Ironically, given that it was to become one of the most acclaimed musicals of the twentieth century, some initial reviews found the songs “neither memorable, nor hummable.”   

Creative roles were inter-connected. It was Bernstein’s idea, in response to some contemporary gang problems in New York, to change the original lower East Side Capulet/Montague equivalents of Italian and Irish gangs to incorporate the Puerto Ricans and move it to the West Side. Without Bernstein, we might all have grown up knowing the East Side Story!

Bernstein and Robbins were never to replicate anything close to the successes of Fancy Free and West Side Story, with future collaborations leaving both parties dissatisfied. Robbins choreographed an interpretation of Age of Anxiety, for New York City Ballet, in 1950, described by critic, Walter Terry as ‘an experience rather than a story’; and Bernstein created his second (and final) complete ballet score, for Robbins’ Dybbuk, which opened in New York on 19 May, 1974. Written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, the ballet concerns a spirit’s determination to honour a forgotten pledge between two men that their (as-yet unborn) son and daughter would marry.   

Dybbuk was received by the critics as Bernstein’s best work for a decade yet the ballet (as with Facsimile) failed to become established in the repertory. Robbins wanted “a very hard diamond of a ballet”  and he felt that Bernstein wanted “a big dramatic thing”; or, in other words, a symphony. It seems clear that their collaboration was never harmonised in the way of their earlier successes, no doubt because of their fame and the consequent demands upon their time. Following the ballet’s demise, Bernstein arranged the music into two separate orchestral suites, which he premiered, with the New York Philharmonic, in April 1975.  

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's <i>The Age of Anxiety</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2014
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2014

Bernstein’s music continues to inspire a new generation of choreographers. In 2014, Liam Scarlett – The Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence – trod the same path, as Robbins, more than sixty years’ previously - and John Neumeier, in 1991 - by composing a ballet to Bernstein’s entire Second Symphony (Age of Anxiety), which was linked thematically to W.H. Auden’s eponymous 80-page poem.

Auden’s poem was published in 1947 and Bernstein’s symphony premiered, in Boston, on 8 April, 1949 (with the composer himself on solo piano). Bernstein’s symphony parallels the structure of the poem; essentially a series of conversations between three men and a woman in a New York bar, a structure replicated in the dramaturgy for Scarlett’s ballet.

Leonard Bernstein at 100 has also brought the Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor, and its Artistic Associate, Christopher Wheeldon, to work with Bernstein’s music.  McGregor is using the Chichester Psalms (1965) and Wheeldon, the Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” (1954), for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion.     

Tristan Dyer of The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's <i>The Age of Anxiety</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Tristan Dyer of The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2014

Wheeldon can be seen as a modern-day equivalent to Robbins, a man of both ballet and Broadway who shares Robbins’ New York City Ballet heritage, having been both a dancer and Resident Choreographer. there. “I danced West Side and Fancy Free for Jerry”, he tells me, while preparing his new work for The Royal Ballet. “I also created a pas for Robbie (Fairchild) and Tiler (Peck) to Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata. I love the rhythmic play and the quintessentially American feel to his music. This, in combination with the lyricism of his writing for the solo violin in the Serenade was a huge draw for me when choosing my music for this programme. There is such a great depth of emotion: bombastic at times and feathery at others.  There is so much to play with.”

The variety of Bernstein’s output merits a similar effusive tribute to the one he wrote, himself, as a young man, to celebrate the diversity of Stravinsky’s output. But, despite his immense range of composition, Bernstein famously wrote of himself: “I have a suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way.”