The National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Choral Music initiative is designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and their works of the past 250 years. Stanton’s Sheet Music is proud to present this series highlighting the composers and their works featured in this groundbreaking project.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a media phenomenon as well as a great musician. From the momentous night when he substituted for an ailing Bruno Walter as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943, he was news. The dashing, flamboyant youth was in the papers the next day, and ever since.
He was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His father, Sam, a Russian Jewish immigrant, wanted his son to join him in the beauty supply business, but from age ten, when his aunt Clara gave the family an old upright piano, Bernstein had ears only for music. He later studied at Harvard University (with Walter Piston), The Curtis Institute (with Fritz Reiner), and at Tanglewood (with Serge Koussevitzky) – in other words, with three of the greatest musicians within a thousand miles.
From 1944, when he wrote the ballet (and later musical) Fancy Free, to 1957, the year of his triumph with West Side Story, Bernstein was most active on Broadway and in films (e.g., On the Waterfront). After 1958, when he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, his activities veered more towards classical repertoire, both in composing and conducting.
Chichester Psalms is an uplifting choral composition commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals’ Festival at Chichester Cathedral. This piece, in which a chorus sings texts in Hebrew, has become Bernstein’s most famous choral work and one of America’s most-performed choral masterpieces.
His Mass, commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, is an amalgam of Broadway, classical, jazz, gospel, rock, Jewish chant, swing, and virtually every other musical tradition Bernstein had experienced. Though initial reaction was hostile, within a year New York Times critic Donal Henahan deemed it “a minor miracle of skillful mixing.”