Leonard Bernstein’s Anniversaries

Sheet Music Review

Among 2018’s musical anniversaries, the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth in 1918 has offered an opportunity for musicians and music lovers to reassess his extraordinary contribution to music over the last century.

How fitting that Boosey & Hawkes music publishers in conjunction with the Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company and Hal Leonard have celebrated with the publication of Selected Anniversaries for Piano, a superb new collection of Bernstein’s solo piano music featuring 16 pieces suitable for players of around UK Grade 5-7 level, and including excellent support material and online tuition videos, all the work of editor Michael Mizrahi.

Let’s take a closer look…


The Publication

The cover design and illustration immediately identifies this new publication as the younger sibling of Immanuela Gruenberg’s outstanding edition of Bartók’s The First Term at the Piano, published by Boosey & Hawkes and Hal Leonard last year, and given an enthusiastic review by me here.

Bernstein-Anniversaries.jpg

Happily, the likeness is not skin deep; within, the publication follows the same superb aesthetic as its predecessor. The glossy and sturdy cover opens to a 48 page book printed on cream paper, with outstanding presentation throughout.

The initial contents pages and information about the online video tutorials are followed by a nine-page introduction crammed with useful information about the composer and his music. A two-page biography offers a suitably detailed celebration of Bernstein’s life and career. Next there’s the “Historical and Pedagogical Commentary”, which begins with a two-page overview of the composer’s relationship with the piano and the background to the Anniversaries.

The remaining five pages offer more detailed observations and advice about each of the 16 pieces selected for the publication. The advice here is well-written and genuinely useful; it will be welcomed as much by teachers and students as by musicians discovering these pieces on their own.

The music itself, newly researched, edited and engraved for this publication, is beautifully presented, with crystal clear, well-spaced notation. Fingerings are included throughout.

Only three of these pieces, brief as they are, stretch to three pages and so require turns; the rest of the material has been helpfully organised to avoid page turns by using a few “blank” pages (which actually include the image of Bernstein’s signature to add visual appeal.

The Pieces

Bernstein’s Anniversaries are miniature masterpieces of the 20th century piano repertoire, and an essential milestone in modern American music. These short homages became a regular part of Bernstein’s creative life, each written in honour of someone important in his life: mentors, friends, students and teachers. Except those titled ”In Memoriam, they were mostly gifted as birthday presents to their namesake.

The first set of Seven Anniversaries appeared in 1943, and was followed by the Four Anniversaries of 1948, the Five Anniversaries of 1951 and finally the Thirteen Anniversaries of 1988, each collection comprising occasional pieces written in the preceding and intervening years.

From Bernstein’s total of 29 Anniversaries, Mizrahi made his selection of 16 based on both technical and musical considerations, and in this publication they are presented roughly in progressive order of difficulty.

That selection is as follows:

  1. In Memoriam: Ellen Goetz
  2. For Shirley Gabis Rhoads Perle
  3. In Memoriam: Helen Coates
  4. For Leo Smit
  5. For Susanna Kyle
  6. For Stephen Sondheim
  7. For Elizabeth Rudolf
  8. For Lukas Foss
  9. For Craig Urquhart
  10. For Aaron Copland
  11. In Memoriam: Alfred Eisner
  12. In Memoriam: Nathalie Koussevitzky
  13. For Sergei Koussevitzky
  14.  For William Schuman
  15. For Felicia Montealegre
  16. For Johnny Mehegan

This final piece will already be particularly known to many readers, having been a popular choice when it appeared on the ABRSM Grade 7 list a few years ago, subsequently included in their Encore Book 4. That it appears as the last item in a collection of progressive difficulty underlines the overall accessibility of the selection.

According to Michael Mizrahi,

“A core challenge in playing these “tiny tributes” lays in capturing the mood of each piece with often only a few measures to do so. A singing tone is essential, song-like as many of these Anniversaries are. A sense of orchestral colour is similarly essential; Bernstein was ever the symphonist even in these works for solo piano. Finally, a strong sense of rhythm and pulse is necessary in many of the Anniversaries which are laced with explosions of jazz and Stravinskian meter changes.”

The Videos

The modest price of the book (£10.20 at time of writing) includes access to eleven companion video lessons online for download or streaming, using a unique code printed inside the book itself. I found that the method of access was easy to understand and use, although downloading worked better for me than streaming.

The videos are presented by editor Michael Mizrahi, who writes,

“In some of the video lessons, I cover general topics that apply to playing several of the Anniversaries. I also chose to highlight several specific Anniversaries in order to guide students and teachers towards an approach to technical and musical challenges found in those particular pieces. In several of the videos, I give suggestions on how to practice specific passages. I tried to strike a balance between covering technically simpler Anniversaries and those requiring a more advanced technique.”

Given that some of the videos touch on several of the pieces, it is a helpful consideration that the score references which videos to watch.

The presentation here is again very helpful and I would say that these videos add considerably to the value, offering interesting and expert insight into how this music should be studied and performed.

Conclusion

There has been a succession of excellent music publications throughout 2018, but this new Bernstein edition may well prove to be one of the most useful and enduring.

No musician looking for a varied and enjoyable collection of classical pieces from the mid-twentieth-century should hesitate to acquire a copy of this excellent publication; they will undoubtedly relish exploring these delicious, quirky and characterful pieces.

Having this judiciously selected and wonderfully presented publication at our disposal should also significantly simplify teachers’ selection of accessible repertoire, particularly as we seek to cover a broad and balanced programme of musical study with the early advanced student.

Bernstein’s Anniversaries are a hugely significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire, and this brilliant new edition from Michael Mizrahi will I hope quickly establish itself as a standard musical text.

OUTSTANDING


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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