Remembering Leonard Bernstein -- The legacy left behind by one of the greatest American classical music conductors

The New York Times, seeking the right word for the headline on his passing, used ”monarch.” Good choice. Within the world of music, the monarchy of Leonard Bernstein lasted just short of half a century. It reached its end last week with his death at 72, from a heart attack brought on by progressive lung failure.

There can be no successor; there doesn’t have to be. Every time a young musician appears on the scene — a conductor incomparably skilled but still under 30, a composer out to cast bridges across the chasm between the classic and popular arts, an eloquent essayist on the power of music to stir the soul — he or she will reach the pinnacle through a door unlocked by Bernstein.

Sure, there was life before Lenny. There were symphony concerts in most major cities: obeisances to a largely arcane, dead repertoire, presided over by elderly European maestros who took messages only from Beethoven and God. Just the first few years of the Bernstein monarchy were like a blast of fresh air blowing away the dust.

That blast was first felt on Nov. 14, 1943. The scene was pure Hollywood: The understudy — implausibly young, good-looking, and, stranger yet, American-born and -trained — steps in for the ailing Bruno Walter, leads the New York Philharmonic on coast-to-coast radio, and does an outstanding job. Before the next year was out the dazzler from Lawrence, Mass., had extended his conquest / further, composing an important ballet (Fancy Free) and a hit Broadway musical (On the Town).

The triumphs came thick and fast. By 1947 he had his own orchestra, the New York City Symphony, with unusual programs and cheap tickets that attracted young, cheering audiences. There were eye-moistening guest spots with the Palestine (later Israel) Philharmonic in 1947 and in Munich in 1948 with an orchestra of concentration-camp survivors. He was not yet 30. ”Call me Lenny,” he used to say. Try to imagine Toscanini urging, ”Call me Artie.”

In 1958, at the age of 40, he conquered television with a way of talking about music that cut through the jargon and revealed the inner life of even the most daunting masterpieces. (Some of his early TV scripts were published — and are still available — under the splendidly appropriate title The Joy of Music.) That same year he became the New York Philharmonic’s youngest-ever music director. His Broadway success had been assured in 1957 with his searing musical score for West Side Story.

At the Philharmonic, Bernstein broadened the horizons of even the most somnolent subscribers by showing them passion and substance in the hitherto- neglected music of Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives, and by cautiously championing a conservative middle ground of new American works. And he broadened horizons for the Philharmonic as an institution, too. Unique among American cities, New York supports its major orchestra only when that orchestra deserves support. (Zubin Mehta’s current leadership, for example, has not quite made the grade.) The Bernstein Philharmonic deserved support — and got it, thanks at least in part to Bernstein’s own lifestyle. His easy hobnobbing with social as well as cultural leaders gave the Philharmonic, and classical music generally, a new cachet. Beyond question it was Bernstein’s accessibility, no less than his talent, that enabled New York in the 1960s to build the ambitious Lincoln Center cultural complex.

Yet it was during the Philharmonic years that the cracks in Bernstein’s armor began to appear. For all the flamboyance of his Mahler symphonies, the standard repertoire of established masterworks fared less well under his sometimes slick conducting. And he never gave his all, despite his sympathies for the new and the unexplored, to the cause of truly progressive new music.

He ”retired” from the Philharmonic in 1969, ostensibly to take on some major composition projects — an opera (never written) based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, for one. Nobody knows why, but the creative energy that had made West Side Story devastating, and some early symphonic compositions at least respectable, was now fatally drained. The 1971 Mass to inaugurate the Kennedy Center; the bicentennial Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; and A Quiet Place, a serious 1983 sequel to Bernstein’s delightful 1952 operatic comedy Trouble in Tahiti: Each in turn seemed a milestone on a downward path. One night, in a guest stint on his onetime podium, he all but asked a New York Philharmonic audience to give him his old job again. ”This is my orchestra,” he said, ”and somehow, I’m coming back.” Zubin Mehta must have loved that!

Still, despite his failures, Bernstein’s public image was strong enough to let him go on reigning as monarch. He owned the world — even hard-nosed London, where by the 1980s he had the critics eating out of his hand. He also conquered Vienna, an even more implausible feat considering his sometimes ponderous readings of that city’s most beloved classics, Beethoven’s opera Fidelio worst of all.

The years wore on; his health wore down. Nobody could make him realize that the famous lifestyle — the cigarettes, the booze, the late hours — threatened to destroy him. But he never gave up; last December he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth at the ruins of the Berlin Wall, and the performance was inflamed by his old high-flying spirit. He was the Lenny we all knew and adored. Impetuously, he changed one crucial word in the choral finale: Freude (joy) became freiheit (freedom), and the symphony Beethoven conceived as an Ode to Joy became in Bernstein’s hands a stirring celebration of the Cold War era’s end.

That change might have alarmed purists in the classical music world, so consumed in recent years by a drive for authenticity — precisely rendering exactly what a composer wrote, on the instruments that would have been used in the composer’s time. But Bernstein transcended all that. He was authentic in the best and highest sense. He delivered the qualities that matter in music: the virtuoso’s dazzle, the creator’s white-hot energy, the giver’s joy.