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Celebrating Leonard Bernstein at 100: An exploration of his solo piano works


Bernstein's Musical Legacy
As the Leonard Bernstein centennial draws to a close, it is an ideal time to consider the extraordinary career of one of the most significant musical figures of the last century. A prodigious multi-talent, Bernstein became a renowned composer, conductor, pianist, author, teacher, and humanitarian. Although some counseled him to focus on a single pursuit, his calling would be to explore and synthesize all facets of his art and to share his passion with others. While a global presence with an affinity for the great European composers of the past, particularly Mahler, Bernstein's expertise in both popular and classical vernaculars, and in combining them, helped him to define American music of the time. He wrote not only for opera and choir, but also for Broadway and film. Indeed, his serious instrumental works are often imbued with jazzy and witty elements.

Over the past year, Bernstein's music has been featured on concert series internationally; new recordings and texts have been produced; and a fresh audience has rediscovered his work. Bernstein's eldest daughter Jamie has written an engaging new memoir,1 and she and others have penned insightful essays at This current multimedia attention seems appropriate for such a charismatic mid-twentieth-century media superstar. Bernstein made hundreds of recordings and took advantage of every kind of stage and screen, including the newly developing medium of television, which brought his face and his excitement for music education into living rooms throughout the world.

Bernstein's best-known works—West Side Story, Candide, Mass, On the Waterfront, etc.—are large-scale and reflective of this larger-than-life personality. His piano music, however, generally overshadowed, is small-scale, intimate, and personal. "Bernstein began musical life as a pianist, and he composed for piano during most of his career."2 It is fitting that he dedicated one of his last works, Touches, to his "first love, the keyboard." According to the composer, he did not begin lessons until age ten, when his Aunt Clara Goldman sent the Bernstein family her upright piano. Bernstein's most "influential teacher Helen Coates, to whom two Anniversaries were dedicated, was to become a lifelong friend and personal secretary. Later studies were in Boston with German-American pianist Heinrich Gebhard and at Curtis with the celebrated Isabelle Vengerova."3 Although better known as a conductor, Bernstein was an excellent pianist, playing Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall and Schumann's Piano Quintet with the Juilliard String Quartet at the Library of Congress. Sony's recently released 11-CD boxed set Leonard Bernstein: The Pianist includes piano concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, and Gershwin, the Copland Piano Sonata, and songs with Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Jennie Tourel, among others. From solo piano pieces, to chamber music with piano, to The Age of Anxiety symphony/piano concerto, the piano remained a significant means of expression and collaboration throughout Bernstein's life.4,5

Overview of the Piano Works
In total, Bernstein composed some two hours of piano music, including larger works such as the Sonata for the Piano and Touches. But, most are highly imaginative miniatures, many appropriate for younger students. Among these, the twenty-nine Anniversaries, when taken as a whole, represent a major contribution to the piano repertoire, not unlike sets of preludes by Chopin or Debussy.

Bernstein's very first published work of any kind was an exceptionally successful piano transcription of Aaron Copland's El Salón Mexico, composed in 1936. A protégé of Copland, who was eighteen years older, Bernstein had learned Copland's thorny Piano Variations, performing them to great admiration by the composer. With El Salón Mexico, Copland sought to capture a certain popular New World spirit, and Bernstein created a version that is equally effective and idiomatic, making use of special color effects, such as forte passages muted by the una corda pedal, and a chord cluster at the end.

A Massachusetts native, Bernstein, like fellow composers Copland and George Gershwin, was a first-generation American, from Eastern European Jewish roots. How interesting that it was composers such as these, sons of immigrants, living in New York or Boston and writing such works as Billy the Kid, Rhapsody in Blue, or West Side Story and On the Town, who would eschew European tradition and come to represent Americana.

While refining this new style, Bernstein did continue to honor his Jewish heritage by way of the Jeremiah and Kaddish Symphonies, a ballet The Dybbuk, Chichester Psalms, with Hebrew text, and the Four Sabras for piano, written sometime in the 1950s but not published until 2010. The Sabras are delightful miniatures, appropriate for teaching. Referring to native-born Israelis, each movement is dedicated to a child: Ilana the Dreamer, Idele the Chassidele, Yosi the Jokester, and Dina the Tomboy Who Weeps Alone. Bernstein reworked the tune from Ilana as "Candide's Lament." The conversational Idele seems to hint at Mussorgsky's "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Bernstein had a rapport with children, and he was a born teacher. Following study with another great mentor, the Russian-born Boston Symphony conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, who would take the young musician under his wing and instill in him a strong interpretive passion, Bernstein would go on, after famously filling in for an ailing Bruno Walter, to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Several years later he would feature the Philharmonic in the acclaimed fifty-three Young People's Concerts, the first such televised music appreciation series to reach out to young audiences across the U. S. and abroad.

Bernstein's Sonata for the Piano is dedicated to Gebhard and, although not published until 1979, "dates from 1938, when Bernstein was an undergraduate at Harvard. Although at times austere and derivative, the work is powerful, well crafted, and motivically unified. The first movement alternates between animated rhythmic sections and freer cadenzas. The contemplative second movement begins hypnotically then grows to a climax played with forearm clusters, eventually merging into a finale by means of a conventional, yet effective, fugato. The work ends with a dreamy cadenza to be played with "approximate" time values."6

Jumping over forty years ahead to Bernstein's final major work for piano, Touches was composed on commission for the Sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1981. Consisting of a Chorale similar to the short Virgo Blues composed for daughter Jamie's twenty-sixth birthday just a few years earlier, plus eight Variations, and a Coda, the work is reminiscent of Copland's Piano Variations. How appropriate that one of Bernstein's last works would pay tribute, consciously stated or not, to his life-long mentor. Within a mostly earnest context, lighthearted, jazzy surprises, perhaps suggestive of West Side Story, reveal themselves here and there. The unusual title has multiple meanings: a caress on the keyboard, a dash of this or that, or even the French word for piano keys.

Bernstein's other solo piano works tend toward the miniature, but they are as a whole ingenious and attractive. The short single-movement Non troppo presto, also known as Music for the Dance I, along with the three-movement Music for the Dance II, are his earliest known piano works, composed in 1937-38 for friend and fellow Gebhard student Mildred Spiegel. Although the compositional style is nascent, these first pieces already display a rhythmicity and use of tone color that would become hallmarks of the composer's later approach.

Remaining are the twenty-nine Anniversaries, in four sets, perhaps his best-known piano works. Each dedicated to someone important to Bernstein, they are succinct yet eloquent. From the exquisite "For Felicia Montealgre" to the virtuosic "For Helen Coates" to the all-too-short "In Memoriam: William Kapell," this is some of Bernstein's most inspired writing. Heeding Bernstein's dual interests in classical and popular, we find here dedications to Copland, Koussevitzky, and William Schuman, as well as to Johnny Mehegan and Stephen Sondheim.7 Some would become sketches for later works, including Mass, Peter Pan, Jeremiah Symphony, and Arias and Barcarolles. Composed between 1942 and 1988, the short, clever, and approachable works provide an excellent window into mid-twentieth-century American music as well as a glimpse into Bernstein's personal and professional lives.

Integrating Many Styles
Boosey & Hawkes, in its 2010 collection of Bernstein piano music, includes a previously unpublished bonus work, for piano duet. Bridal Suite was composed in 1960 as a witty and charming wedding gift for actress Phyllis Newman and lyricist/playwright Adolph Green, who with Betty Comden wrote Singin' in the Rain and collaborated with Bernstein on Wonderful Town and On the Town. The suite begins with an updated rendition of Bach/Gounod's famous "Ave Maria," now replaced by Green's "Just in Time," from the 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing, played over the Prelude in C Major. A quote from Strauss's Don Juan appears near the end, followed by an "And Many More!" Next come delightful "Variations on Adolph F#yllis Green," the serious and beautiful "Bell, Book, and Rabbi"—undoubtedly inspired by the James Stewart/Kim Novak romantic comedy of the era—wedding dances, including both a cha-cha-cha and a hora, and three "obligatory encores," which conclude with a serene Hungarian lullaby.8

A survey of Bernstein's piano works takes us from serious to popular, youthful to mature, traditional to innovative. All allow us not only to explore this twentieth-century American repertoire in an accessible way, but also to commune intimately with one of the most important musical icons of the last century. Happy 100, Leonard Bernstein!

1 Jamie Bernstein, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018).
2 Andrew Cooperstock, Leonard Bernstein: The Complete Music for Piano, performed by Andrew Cooperstock Bridge 9485A/B (2 compact discs), liner notes, 6.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 A wealth of information about Bernstein's life and career can be found at: Timelines of his life are readily available online including at:; and
6 Cooperstock, Bernstein: Complete Works for Solo Piano, 9-10.
7 Ibid., 7.
8 Ibid., 9.

Editor's Note: For more information on Cooperstock's CD Leonard Bernstein: The Complete Music for Piano, please see the review in Clavier Companion's January/February 2018 issue, First Looks: Recordings.

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