West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” - Leonard Bernstein
Welcome back, POW readers—my name is Gauri! Today I’m going to be discussing a composer and conductor close to many American hearts: Leonard Bernstein. Best known for West Side Story, Bernstein created work that has kept its charm and relevance even as much else changed. He was appointed as director of the New York Philharmonic, and made recordings there that also lasted the test of time. Musical critics, regardless of their opinions on his behavior, continue to agree that his mark on conducting and music culture was prolific and had an international impact.
But today, we’re talking about more than his significance to the music world—we’re looking at the man who was also an emblem of queerness at a time where being anything but straight was a blacklist from success in society. Even though he was married to Felicia Montealegre for more than 2 decades, his affairs with men were well-known, both with Felicia and the music community. Felicia’s understanding of his sexuality is debated, but a letter penned by her just before their marriage shows that while she knew about his homosexuality, she believed they could still foster a family together. The love between them was apparent throughout their relationship, but the conflict of his sexuality remained an aging elephant in the room, to say the least.
However, by 1976, he decided his sexuality was not something he could continue to suppress. By this time, the acclaim and respect that he got for his musical success was enough so that his affairs with men were often looked past. But the guilt and confusion Bernstein himself experienced was much more frenzied and ingrained. This shines through in the musical theatre piece Mass (1971) and the opera A Quiet Place (1983), which feature themes of spiritual confusion and acceptance of sexuality respectively. The impact of feeling like you live in a world in which you are too flawed to belong is prominent in Bernstein’s work.
His approach to this internal strife was unconditional and complete love. Bernstein offered a welcoming embrace to many who dreamed of being like him, giving voice to and featuring new composers. He offered his support to any social cause he could find that encouraged progression, either through his money or his music. For over 50 years, he rallied with music—in 1939, he put together a performance of an opera at Harvard University to protest corporate greed, and in 1989, he celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall with his conducting of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin. He welcomed the “outcasts” and fought for their causes, knowing the pain of being one himself.
Leonard Bernstein’s musical beauty is applauded by many, but, looking at his life, you start to understand the special element in all of it. The inspiration he got from the suppression of his sexuality in an unkind world is seen throughout his most beautiful works, and grasped the attention of a whole new generation of artists.