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Bernstein's Music Reveals Much About The Composer's Personal Struggles — And Joys

Leonard Bernstein in a candid photo during rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York, Dec. 31, 1957.

 

Leonard Bernstein is best known as the composer of "West Side Story," the immensely popular musical that overshadows most of his other works. But he also wrote three other musicals, a pair of operas, three symphonies, a trio of ballets, a film score, and much more.

It’s been noted that throughout this wide-ranging work was an exploration of the crisis of faith and the difficulties in achieving meaningful relationships. And yet with Bernstein these themes are always counterbalanced by the certainty of love, joy and pleasure in life.

In turning its back on melody, much 20th century music had — in Bernstein’s view — also lost its faith in humanity. It no longer expressed human feelings and aspirations. Bernstein rejects this notion completely. His music is melodic, and ultimately, uplifting.

Bernstein’s life was full of personal and professional conflict. Music was his way of working through that, speaking primarily to what he saw as a crisis of faith: his own and humanity’s.

His stormy relationship with his father, his worries about international conflicts and intolerance at home, his complicated sexuality and relationships with friends, family and colleagues — all play a huge role in his music.

And yet, by the end of these works, faith is slowly restored — even in the face of continuing challenges to it.

Crisis or no, Bernstein never lost faith in music. In its ability to entertain, to calm, to excite, to express emotions simple and profound, to bring peace, a smile — even joy.

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