By Jim Rees

What would writers do without William Shakespeare? It’s not just the number of world class plays or poems he wrote, it is the influence he has had on visual art, literature and music over the 400 years since his death.

The titles of hundreds of novels and plays have been lifted directly from his body of work. Agatha Christie, Noel Coward and many other household names have done just that. So have composers of operas – Othello and Hamlet being particular favourites.
A relatively modern composer took the storyline of Romeo and Juliet, transferring the action from 16th century Verona to mid-20th century New York. His name was Leonard Bernstein and his musical was West Side Story.

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on 25 August 1918 and he was to become one of the most important composers of the age. He even managed to pull off that most difficult of tasks of having his talents recognised by both musical classicists and the general public.

At the age of 25, he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic orchestra. It was the start of an outstanding career that brought new life – and new audiences – to the often staid world of classical music.

He became the first American conductor to take the baton in the renowned La Scala theatre in Milan, the spiritual home of opera. From 1958 to 1969, he was the principal conductor with the New York Philharmonic – another first for an American – which he brought on tour through South America, Russia, Europe and Japan.

Somehow, he retained the common touch, making what is often considered ‘high-brow music’ accessible to ordinary people. He was particularly good at teaching children about how an orchestra works, how to identify the sounds of the various instruments, and what to listen for.

His own favourite instrument was piano, and he was an accomplished performer. He also composed pieces and, for many, this is where his legacy lies.

It is often said that the most often overlooked contributor to a successful film is the composer of its musical score. Even in non-musicals, the underlying music can heighten tension, move the listener to laughter or tears and generally help the director to manipulate the audience.

In musicals, of course, it is the entire point of the film. Bernstein showed that he could do both.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own