'He was high-brow, low-brow, every-brow!' – the genius of Leonard Bernstein

Interviews by Imogen Tilden, Fiona Maddocks - The Guardian
July 12, 2018

Composer, conductor, inspiration, FBI suspect … Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this August, and this summer’s Proms will celebrate his work. Musicians, critics and his own family remember an astounding talent.

Jamie Bernstein: Bernstein the father
He was an incredibly attentive and affectionate father. Of course there were many prolonged absences when he was travelling, and sometimes I found it frustrating to share him with the rest of the world, but when he was at home he was always really present. We’d have big dinners and play word games and have proper family time, my parents, my younger brother and sister and I. He loved to share anything he was excited about, and that was everything from Lewis Carroll to Gilbert and Sullivan to vaudeville routines he remembered from his childhood.

It was like he was two different people trapped in one body. There was the gregarious side who was always the last one standing at the party – that was the conductor and teacher in him; but then there was the composer side – and to compose you need solitude. Composing was always a tortuous process. He hated being alone, but he had to do it. 

He thought of himself primarily as a composer and I think he’d have been particularly thrilled to find how his music is being performed and celebrated around the world in this centenary year. And it sounds better than ever - as fresh as a daisy. During his lifetime a “serious” composer was supposed to write 12-tone music - but because he kept writing those pesky melodies he was never embraced by academia and recognised as the great composer that he was. He’d have liked to have been celebrated more for his music during his lifetime but it wasn’t to be - it used to sometimes make him mad, but never for long. He accepted how things were, and he spent his life trying to make the world a better place. He wanted to use his music to say what was true, to raise consciousness and be an advocate for peace. Today’s young musicians are so different from their predecessors – there is no longer the premium on their being in the ivory tower, and they’re so much more involved in the world about them. They’re called citizen artists – an expression I love, and I think my father was Citizen Artist No 1.

Jamie Bernstein is the author of Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.

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Jamie Bernstein