Old artists like mountains

Some old artists are like mountains in the geography of our lives, and when we lose them everything changes – east is no longer surely east; west has lost its place; we don’t know quite where we are. I’m sure a lot of people felt this way when Frank Sinatra died. Although Elvis didn’t live long enough to become old, the effect of his death was at least as devastating for vast numbers of people. Some of us experience this phenomenon when not-as-famous people disappear: Bobby Short, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Bourke White ….

Leonard Bernstein was one of those mountains for many, many people. I was living in Vermont when we heard he’d died. Two people were visiting us on that early fall evening – a violist and the violist’s mother, who also happens to be an enthusiastic member of New York City’s large classical music audience. I remember it was hard to take in because he’d been larger than life, so why wasn’t he bigger than death?

Leonard Bernstein, 1971. In rehearsal of his "Mass." U.S. Library of Congress. Creative Commons.

The violist learned about it on the telephone, as if we were living then on some kind of cultural outpost. But even there, the world around us physically changed. I looked around; there was an emptiness where there had once been activity, confusion and music. A mountain.

I never had an especially profound connection to Bernstein. He just was. I come from the generation that discovered him as a child when we started watching television. Suddenly, there was someone besides my hopelessly unimaginative mother to teach me about music. I loved “On the Town” and eventually “Candide.” On my first day ever in New York City in the early sixties, I remember standing on a nearly empty street while someone, I have no memory who, told me that, at that very moment, an important rehearsal was being conducted in the undistinguished building in front of us. I learned later that the show was “West Side Story.”

The years passed and Lennie Bernstein conducted, played the piano, wrote, and wheeled and dealed. Like many people, I worried that he was spreading himself too thin and would never compose his Ninth Symphony, his Messiah – his work for the ages. But he did compose. He kept doing all of it. The years passed and he was there as surely as Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. I listened to gossip about his personal life – why not, it was always salacious and always interesting. Leonard Bernstein was New York in every way.

Composer Ned Rorem, who, by the way, is still writing songs and books at age 87, wrote in his 1990 essay “Lenny is Dead:”
Was he too young to die? What is too young? Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 years old but 288. Was he, as so many have meanly claimed, paying for the rough life he led? As he lived many lives, so he died many deaths. Smoking may have been one cause, but so was overwork, and especially sorrow at a world he so longed to change but which remained as philistine and foolish as before. Which may ultimately be the brokenhearted reason any artist dies. Or any person.


So what was he really like? Lenny was like everyone else, only more so. But nobody else was like him.

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