Few composers have a canon as diverse and far-reaching as Leonard Bernstein, whose influence can still be heard in the opera, Broadway musicals, ballet, chamber music, and film. As the youngest conductor ever to lead the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein breathed new life into the classics with modern arrangements, but his own writing and innovations in music have left a lasting legacy across genres.
To celebrate what would have been the composer’s 100th birthday, Google created a short film in its Google Doodle on Saturday, offering a glimpse into Bernstein’s life set to the music of West Side Story, his most iconic score.
“I want to conduct,” Bernstein was quoted by Google. “I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all.’’
In addition to his tenure at the New York Philharmonic and his work in education, Bernstein was also the host of Young People’s Concerts, a television show to teach music and introduce orchestral works to children. Through both his innovation and instruction, Bernstein worked tirelessly to make the classics more accessible to the public and reveal the power of music to young people. These three iconic masterpieces from the composer are a great starting point for anyone wanting to hear his legacy.
1. West Side Story
The tragic musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is easily his most well known. Bernstein wrote the score for the musical that made it to Broadway in 1957, including the widely popular songs “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “America”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Cool.” The original cast can still be heard on Spotify.
While Mass is still considered one of Bernstein’s most controversial pieces, his daughter Jamie Bernstein has argued that it’s a “self-portrait” of her famous father. In an interview with NPR, she shared how the staged work was written when her father was in “such dire emotional conflict all the time — about his wife and about his sexuality.” Staged as a traditional Catholic Mass that goes awry, Mass gave Bernstein a space to explore morality, spirituality, and sexuality, culminating in “A Simple Song,” a pure moment in an otherwise distraught setting. The entire theater piece can streamed on YouTube.
The 1956 operetta is the best example of Bernstein’s work in both opera and comedic satire. Based on Voltaire’s famous philosophical satire on the nature of humanity, the score blurs the line between opera and musical, thanks in part to a libretto from Lillian Hellman but also lyrical input from satirical poet Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim, his lyricist and writing partner for West Side Story. Bernstein often conducted the piece with his signature animated gestures, turning up the drama for his song “Glitter and Be Gay,” a fabulous and frivolous number that stands out for its vocal feats, requiring three high E-flats above high C, two staccato and one sustained. Listen to the soundtrack on Spotify
“I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself,” Bernstein is famous for saying. “I want it to sound like the composer.” These three compositions, while divergent in genre, reflect the complexity and versatility of their author.