Saturday, August 25, 2018

Reflections on Leonard Bernstein on his 100th birthday

Anno Domini 1990. I was born. He died. Naturally I’d like to think there’s some prophetic significance to that.

Naturally there isn’t. But as a teenager I remember thinking what a bummer it was that we “just missed each other.” He could still be here, I mused—entertaining the fantasy that we surely would be friends if he were. But no, lung cancer—the result of his excessive smoking—took him from us all too soon. Yes, Leonard Bernstein, the towering, larger-than-life figure, was just human. And, as humans do, he struggled. There were addictions, there were scandals, there was promiscuity—things my conservative friends took joy in pointing out to me during my own teenaged love affair with the maestro. They failed in dampening my enthusiasm.

Perhaps that’s because I struggled too. Don’t we all? And I found solace in his compositions—works that seemed to me to be very human, works that embodied both struggle and redemption. I thought of using the phrase “turmoil and triumph” here, such as we experience in the extremes of, say, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but that doesn’t quite fit. There is not a Bernstein work that I would describe as culminating in unbridled, Beethovenian triumph, but nevertheless there is redemption, there are glimmers of hope, of reconciliation—and these are things that were so often absent from 20th century art. The 20th century—“The Age of Anxiety”—apparently left a lot of people feeling like there was no redemption that could come out of the horrors that racked our little planet.

The redemption we experience in Bernstein’s music is less utopian (or should I say less Elysian?) than Beethoven’s or Schiller’s: it is redemption through and in suffering. You could say it is often a somewhat ambiguous redemption. Some examples from his best-known works come to mind:

At the end of the Mass there is a sense of reconciliation, but not in the sense than anybody has really triumphed, not in the sense that the big questions have been answered, but rather in the acceptance of the apparent truth: that the questions can’t really be answered—at least not in the way that everyone wants. There’s a certain resignation in it. There is still pain, there are still questions, but there is peace. We sense the peace in the music, but we also sense the lack of complete resolution, both in the dissonance-inflected canon that everyone sings (reprising the text “Lauda, laudé”) and in the reprisal of the very somber and enigmatic chorale “Almighty Father” that closes the nearly 3-hour-long work.

There is reconciliation in West Side Story, when the two gangs realize that violence wasn’t the answer to their problems. But we are still left with the reality that Tony is dead and that no amount of reconciliation between the gangs is going to bring him back. Bernstein captures this bitter-sweetness in an extraordinary way in the last bars of the score: he brings back motives from two of the show’s most heartfelt and tender songs: “I Have a Love”—now slightly disfigured by chromaticism—and “Somewhere,” with its hopeful leap of a 7th (a nod, perhaps, to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto). Underneath, we hear a slow, steady death knell, as it were: a repeated note played by the low strings and timpani. In the end, we are left, unexpectedly, with a very soft C-flat major triad, played high in the register by strings and woodwinds; the “death knell,” meanwhile, continues to sound on the note F, adding it’s dissonant sting to the pure triad above.

There is certainly triumph at the end of the film On the Waterfront, in that incredible scene—for me, one of the most spine-tingling moments in all cinema—when a bloodied and bruised Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) ignores his pain and the taunts of Johnny Friendly as he struggles to his feet and marches from the docks into the garage. In the increasingly intense music we hear his immense determination, immense resolve, and indeed immense triumph—but we also hear his immense pain. Bernstein manages to give us both pain and triumph in equal measure—something not many composers have achieved so convincingly.

We can even look at examples in Bernstein’s lighter, comical works. The music at the end of Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow,” seems almost too emotional compared to the silliness of the rest of the show. But this unexpected weightiness is really ingenious, in that it reflects the sort of “coming of age” that the characters finally experience. After all their disastrous wanderings in search of pleasure and adventure, the beleaguered and disillusioned main characters conclude to resign themselves to a simple, unglamorous life together. To Pangloss’s apparently rhetorical closing line, “Any questions?” the answer must actually be “Yes”—there are many unanswered questions, but we have decided to be content with the slight heaviness in not getting to know everything.

Bernstein was apparently regarded by many as a lightweight, and on the surface he did sometimes seem so—both in his flamboyant persona, his unapologetic showmanship, and the outwardly trivial affect of some of his compositions. But too many people failed to realize that there was depth hidden in the lightness. Bernstein embodied a kind of dualism, and that to an extraordinary degree: he was light and darkness, he was shallowness and depth, he was Eusebius and Florestan, he was a jazzer and a high-brow musician in tails. And it was almost as though he could be all of these things simultaneously. And the dualism of struggle and redemption, of conflict and peace in his music, well, I can’t help but think that it helped make the idea of peace seem less like a lofty, unattainable dream. No, peace must not be confined to the perfection of Elysian fields.

The man was truly an enigma, and yes, he had his problems, but this we can say for sure: he brought a down-to-earth, realistic brand of hope to the pessimistic musical climate of the 20th century, and his manifold “lightweightness” helped bring light into a lot of people’s lives. On a slightly sentimental note, about 15 years after his death, and fifteen years after my birth, I was one of those people. Honestly, I think the main reason Bernstein had such a big impact on me as a teenager was that he was both “cool” and into the same thing I was into—classical music (if you’ll pardon the overused term—one that seems to point us, again, to Elysium!). I didn’t see myself as cool, and always felt like an outsider. So I guess I’d started to assume that being into classical music just wasn’t cool. Unfortunately, being cool is of paramount importance to a teenage guy, so naturally I had self-esteem issues. But when I discovered Bernstein—the suave, hipster conductor who thought Beethoven was just as great as I did—well, that boosted my self-esteem immeasurably. I began to think, Being nuts about classical music actually is cool, these bozos around me just don’t realize it. They’re the ones who aren’t cool! That was a huge gift to me. So Leonard Bernstein became my hero, in the same way that the current rock stars and actors were for my peers. There are undoubtedly generations of classical musicians who could say the same.

Equally undoubtedly, there is so much more to be said about Leonard Bernstein, but since others who actually knew him can say it more eloquently, I leave you, dear reader with these, my own spontaneous, personal musings. And if you’re not very familiar with Bernstein and his many-sided musical life as a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and political activist, the time is ripe in this his 100th year to explore his legacy, to discover again the depth within the lightness, and to hope that some of the lightness will rub off on us. Heaven knows we need it these days! Bernstein believed in the power of music to help change people’s lives for the better. That’s a legacy worth celebrating and worth carrying forward.

Ethan McGrath
August 25, 2018

Portland, Tennessee

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Website under construction:

Hello friends! Thanks for visiting my page. My website,, is under construction and should be up by early November. In the meantime, here are some relevant links.

My published choral compositions are available from the following sources:

Schott Music
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Beckenhorst Press
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~Ethan McGrath, Composer

Composer Bio:
A composer of diverse influences, Ethan McGrath seeks to write music that will help break down barriers between people and have the potential to convey meaning to anyone who hears it. A requiem entitled That They May Rest, a Missa Brevis, and a Magnificat are among Ethan’s most significant compositions to date, as well as a Te Deum, which was commissioned for the 2018 Southern Division ACDA Conference. His compositions have been featured in workshops by Rodney Eichenberger and have been performed by such choirs as the Capitol Hearings in Washington, DC, the Taipei Chamber Singers, and the Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir. His Nunc Dimittis recently won first prize in the Musica Sacra Nova Competition in Poland and was premiered in July, 2018 by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Ethan holds a BMus in composition from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an MMus in Choral Studies from the University of Cambridge (UK), where he studied conducting under Stephen Layton, Timothy Brown, Graham Ross, and others.