Leonard Bernstein once called his friend Aaron Copland after Copland had employed the increasingly popular atonal, 12-tone techniques in a composition to ask, "You, too, Aaron? You're becoming a 12-tone composer?"
At the time, in the 1960s, many Americans were looking to Europeans like Arnold Schönberg and Anton von Webern and "thought they could create a music here using those techniques," says Maurice Peress, whom Bernstein appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1961. The 12-tone style ignored traditional harmonic structure and created new sounds and forms.
But Bernstein wanted "an American voice," Mr. Peress says, music "which reached people," not the cold intellectualism of atonality, which "seemed very, very narcissistic."
Today, the move toward 12-tone music has failed, Peress says. "And I think he was able to see that ... before others [could]."
As Peress writes in notes for a new collection of Bernstein works: "Bernstein remained firmly committed to tonality, believing that the chords and scales derived from the overtone series in nature ... are eternal as are the colors of the rainbow."
Bernstein, a gigantic presence in the last half of the 20th century as a composer, conductor, author, and media personality, died in 1990. He would have been 85 this year. To mark the occasion, this month Sony Legacy issued two three-CD collections, "Leonard Bernstein - A Total Embrace: The Conductor" and "Leonard Bernstein - A Total Embrace: The Composer." They span the heart of Bernstein's career, from 1950 to 1975, when he recorded for Columbia Records.
Musical historians have a tough call trying to decide if Bernstein should be known for his conducting or composing, says Peress in a recent phone interview, noting that Bernstein was also a brilliant pianist and "a consummate orchestrator."
Bernstein the composer is best remembered for his scores for musical theater: "West Side Story," "Wonderful Town," "On the Town," and "Candide." Because of them, Peress predicts, curiosity will remain about his serious concert works. Those include the symphonies "Jeremiah" and "Kaddish," and "Mass (A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers)" - all represented on the new CDs.
As a conductor, Bernstein left "no dead moment" in a piece under his baton, Peress says. He championed American music of all kinds, bringing jazz musicians like Maynard Ferguson and Louis Armstrong on stage with an orchestra, following Duke Ellington's dictum that "there are only two kinds of music: good and bad."
When he conducted works by foreign composers, such as the 20th-century Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, "he breathed such life into them," Peress says. "I think he even shocked the Russians when they heard [his Shostakovich] over there," because of the "American energy" he brought to it.
Bernstein remains perhaps America's only classical music TV star. Viewers in the 1950s and '60s, Peress says, tuned in to find "Lenny telling them all about classical music in a nice way - not looking down on them - saying, 'This is not some kind of European medicine you have to take in order to be a fully cultured human being. This is something wonderful and good, and part of your heritage.' "
In 1971, Bernstein asked Peress to conduct the world première of "Mass" at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
"Lenny was actually composing ["Mass"] until the last minute," he recalls. The complex work called for a string orchestra, two organists, a stage band, three choirs, and a soloist. But Peress wasn't shaken.
"I felt we were a team. Rarely did he say to me, 'Do this faster or slower,' " says Peress, who writes about the experience in his book "From Dvorak to Duke Ellington," (Oxford University Press) to be released this winter.
As is typical of Bernstein compositions, "Mass" rose at the end to "a great prayer for peace," Peress says. The audience was moved to tears, he says. "That night was "magic."