Academic journal article The American Music Research Center Journal

The Songs of Leonard Bernstein and Charles Stern in 1942: Toward the Origins of Bernstein as a Dramatic Composer

Academic journal article The American Music Research Center Journal

The Songs of Leonard Bernstein and Charles Stern in 1942: Toward the Origins of Bernstein as a Dramatic Composer

Article excerpt

"I have a suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way," wrote Leonard Bernstein in the preface to his 1949 Symphony no. 2, 'The Age of Anxiety" Bernstein's legacy as a composer of dramatic music is well established, beginning with Fancy Free and On the Town in 1944, but how Bernstein developed as a dramatic composer has received far less attention than the works themselves. His trajectory as a creator of musical theater began when he was a teenager, directing performances of Bizet's Carmen (with new libretto and lyrics) and several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, followed by a production of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock in 1939 during his senior year at Harvard. That same year witnessed Bernstein's first effort at original theater composition: incidental music for a student production of Aristophanes' The Birds.1 He returned to Harvard two years later to compose music for The Peace, another Aristophanes play. One of the actors in this play was a Harvard senior named Charles Stem, whose subsequent songwriting collaboration with Bernstein would constitute an important laboratory for Bernstein to experiment with techniques of dramatic depiction in music, and this partnership was a significant steppingstone from Bernstein the promising student and emerging professional to Bernstein the mature stage composer.

The brief career of the Bernstein/Stern songwriting team has been almost completely overlooked by Bernstein's biographers and by modern scholarship.2 This collaboration might never have seen the light of day if it were not for Stern's sale of four manuscripts of songs written by them ("There Had To Be a Revolution," "It's Not So Hotsy Totsy Being a Nazi," "I Wanna Grow Up To Be Yours," and "Now I Know") to the Library of Congress in 1998.3 The former pair have probably not been performed since 1942, while the latter two songs have likely never been heard in public at all. The following essay draws on my own interviews with Stern and a number of other primary sources, including contemporary newspaper articles, correspondence, and the music manuscripts themselves.

Charles Herman Stern (born in Boston on 7 October 1919) had the background and skill set for working with Bernstein on dramatic music. He studied piano as a youth, and attended Phillips Exeter Academy before matriculating at Harvard in 1937. While at Harvard, he was a member of Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which presented student-written theater, acted in Harvard Student Union productions, and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. During the summers of his university years, he was an actor with regional companies, including the Straw Hat Theater and the Dorset Players, in Dorset, Vermont.4 Published reviews document his performances with the Cambridge Summer Theater in 1941.5 Stern's later activities in the music business also show the requisite skills. After serving in the Army from 1942 until 1945, Stern wrote lyrics for works by Albert Hague and Paul Crestón as well as material for comedians Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis.6 Stem left the entertainment industry in the early 1950s for academia, teaching English at Cornell University, Hunter College, and other institutions over the course of a long career that changed spheres again after his retirement, when he became a drug addiction counselor in New York City, where he continues to reside.

The brief performing career of the Bernstein/Stern team establishes their working environment as theatrical. As noted above, Stem was an actor in Aristophanes' The Peace, with an original score by Bernstein. A Harvard Student Union production, the play was performed at the Sanders Theatre on 23 and 24 May 1941 . According to the program forthat performance, The Peace was one of a "series of social plays" that "experimented freely with production techniques." Stern played the role of Old Man.7 The antiwar message was made explicit by, among other things, a handbill advertising the performances: "You Don't See It In The Papers Any More But The Greeks Had A Word For It: Peace. …

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