Leonard Bernstein
The Gift of Music
An Intimate Portrait
Dir: Horant H. Hohlfeld
DG 00440 073 4336 (DVD)
The Little Drummer Boy
An Essay on Gustav Mahler
By and with Leonard Bernstein
Dir: Peter Butler
DG 0040 073 4350

I can remember as if it were yesterday when I first got the conducting bug. It was December 4, 1955. I was fifteen years old, watching television on a Sunday afternoon. Television was still a novelty in our household and we would watch almost anything. But this was something special: Leonard Bernstein explaining The Art of Conducting on the CBS arts program called Omnibus.

I already knew something about music – I had studied guitar and I was playing double bass in my high school orchestra – but what Bernstein did was make classical music come alive as never before in my experience. He demonstrated with energy and clarity how conductors could make a piece sound different – sometimes better sometimes worse – by varying the tempo, dynamics or phrasing. It was amazing what a conductor could do to lift the music off the page and make if exciting or sad. I was electrified.

I had never seen anyone like Bernstein, on or off television. He was different from any conductor I had ever seen. He was young, he was Hollywood handsome, he obviously knew everything there was to know about music, he played the piano, he conducted, and he spoke my language. An excerpt from that Omnibus program is included in this new DVD from DG. Actually, it is a film made in 1993 and only now being made available. It is an important contribution to the Bernstein record with excerpts from interviews with Bernstein, excerpts from rehearsals and concerts with various orchestra and even some home movies.

The film captures the range of Bernstein’s talents as a conductor, pianist, educator, composer and political activist. The director of the film, Horant Hohlfeld, produced most of the concert films made by Bernstein in the last fifteen years of his life. This means that he knew Bernstein well and had immediate access to a vast library of film on Bernstein, much of it never before released. Unfortunately, it also means that the film is uncritical. Bernstein’s life and achievements are presented only in the best possible light. As great a musician as Bernstein was he had his detractors and their criticism often had merit. The film makes the point that the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t understand Mahler and resisted Bernstein’s efforts to teach them. We see Bernstein in rehearsal with the VPO losing his temper over their lack of commitment. The trouble with this story is that it is not entirely true. The Vienna Philharmonic had played most of the Mahler symphonies in the years immediately before Bernstein came to conduct them and they were certainly playing Mahler as often as any orchestras around the world at that time. The real problem was Bernstein’s personality and his view of Mahler. The VPO players were not used to him nor to his insistence on extremes of dynamics. That was not their style and they resisted any conductor’s attempt to change it. Over the years Bernstein and the VPO worked out their problems and became a winning combination. Bernstein learned to respect their refinement and tradition and they learned to stretch themselves. Bernstein could be raw and vulgar with other orchestras but never with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Not only is The Gift of Music uncritical it is also superficial and less than candid. There are illusions to his personal life, and problems in his marriage to Felicia Montealegre. But there is no mention of his bisexuality. At one point in his life Bernstein left his wife and lived quite publicly as a gay man. Nor does the film ever touch on Bernstein’s hard-driving lifestyle. He smoked too much, he drank too much and he partied too much. In the end he was a physical wreck and died before his time. There were also the artistic tensions in his life which tore him apart. He saw himself primarily as a composer. But most of his compositional successes came early. He often tried to recapture the spark but it was not to be. His autobiographical opera A Quiet Place was supposed to the great work of his maturity but it proved to be a major disappointment. Bernstein always had his great conductor status to carry him through but he often felt he had wasted his talent and never achieved what he wanted from music. This is a major theme in any Bernstein biography but it is hardly touched on in this film.

As it happens there is another Bernstein film, Reaching for the Note, directed by Susan Lacy in 1998, which offers a far richer and more penetrating portrait of Bernstein. It uses many of the same film clips but adds interviews with Bernstein’s children and perceptive colleagues such as Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents. The film is particularly good on the genesis of West Side Story. It helps that this film is more than a half hour longer than The Gift of Music, but it is also simply a better film. It is available on DVD from WinStar Home Entertainment (WHE73019).

The best biography of Bernstein remains Humphrey Burton’s 594-page Leonard Bernstein (Doubleday, 1994). Like Hohlfeld Burton was a Bernstein colleague – he directed most of the films of Bernstein’s later years - and a great admirer. But he does not hesitate to tell it the way it was, and his account of Bernstein’s last years is almost too painful to read. 

Speaking of Humphrey Burton, he was the executive producer for The Little Drummer Boy, a BBC-Television program done in 1985 and also just released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon. It was one of Bernstein’s characteristically provocative film essays on a subject close to his heart. In a way, it is an introduction to Mahler’s music by one of its foremost exponents. But it is a highly personal introduction which sets out to uncover the “Jewishness” in Mahler’s music. This is a subject which has not been widely or deeply explored by Mahler scholars but it is a fascinating one. Mahler was born Jewish but converted to Christianity in order to become the director of the Vienna State Opera.

On the basis of an examination of his music most scholars have accepted at face value Mahler’s preoccupation with Christian themes. But as Bernstein points out in his essay there is no life after death in Judaism and so Mahler’s preoccupation with and celebration of resurrection in his symphonies shows a wholehearted embrace of Christianity.

Bernstein claims that Mahler was a tortured soul in matters of faith: he was ashamed of being Jewish, but also ashamed at being ashamed of being Jewish. In fact, the evidence for this claim is rather thin in Mahler’s writings and in the music one must accept the sincerity of Mahler’s celebration of Christian liturgy. Bernstein is interesting in uncovering elements of Jewish music in Mahler but readily admits that these elements should be taken as typical of the diaspora – and so can be found in the music of many other composers of the time - rather than being Israeli or Hebrew.

My own view is that Mahler was obviously wrestling with religious faith his whole life and preoccupied with the fact and meaning of death. He certainly drew on Christian texts and symbols but he also never lost his love of folk poetry and music, and toward the end of his life discovered the possibility of truth in Chinese poetry and religion.

As always, Bernstein is a stimulating guide to some of the greatest music ever written and we are reminded that there has been nobody like him before or since. He was not only an important composer and conductor but a writer on musical subjects and an educator without equal. This DVD will be treasured by music lovers and students for generations to come. Incidentally, the usually meticulous DG has allowed an egregious error to creep by them. The DVD box lists all the orchestras involved in the project, among them the “London Philharmonic Orchestra.” In fact, this orchestra was not involved at all. It was the London Symphony (in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2).