Bernstein or Debussy: Who won the centennial war?

Bernstein or Debussy: Who won the centennial war?


norman lebrecht

August 15, 2018

A great composer died in March 1918.


A great musical personality was born in August 1918.


Which of them is getting more performances, more hype, more TV, more online?

And can anyone offer an explanation why?


  • Jean says:

    The other one is American, more documented and many remember him conducting.

  • CYM says:

    The dictatorship of marketing wins, regardless of quality, artistic values.

  • The View from America says:

    In these times, it’s all about what gets more butts in seats. Bernstein gets more butts in seats.

    … Not that that’s my own personal preference …

    • Meal says:

      The hype is more about Bernstein, sure. But I am not to sure about the number of attendees. Which works from Bernstein are regularly played? West Side Story and Candide Ouverture. The complete musical Candide is played rarely, for good reasons; even after its revision it is still boring. Also other works are played quite rarely (Tahiti, Town) to never. His symphonies are more or less only played now during the centennial and will be forgotten thereafter. There will be more performances – even during the centennial of Bernstein – of works by Debussy (L’après-midi, La mère, Pelléas), not to forget all those piano works. So, I think Debussy gets more butts into the seats (to use your expression).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Debussy’s mother never figured in any of his works.

      • The View from America says:

        Chichester Psalms. Mass.

        The Age of Anxiety pops up on concert programs pretty regularly.

        • Meal says:

          Agreed for Chichester Psalms and Mass.The symphony no. 2 (The Age of Anxiety) might be the most popular of his symphonies. However, _I_ did came across this in recent years (but this year) when flipping through the programs of German concert venues (probably my fault).

  • Bogda says:

    Celebratied are usually anniversaries someone’s birth not death. So it’s very logical to be more hype about Bernstein this year than about Debussy.

  • Marc t'Kint says:

    Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune

  • Caravaggio says:

    Speaking of Debussy, do not miss Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say’s recent French disc. It is sumptuous.

  • Alexis HAUSER says:

    I will conduct BOTH in the same program in November in Montreal:
    Bernstein “Chichester Psalms” (before that Berio’s “For Lenny” at the 70th birthday, and Debussy “Trois Images” after intermission.

  • Basia Jaworski says:

    Actually: one of the best Debussy cd’s this year comes from the Netherlands!

  • John Borstlap says:

    The music of Debussy was always meant for a minority, for discerning people not interested in the hype of the world. It is even arguable that it was not meant for the world at all, because he was himself not quite of this world.

  • Furzwangler says:

    It seems to me that any comparison of Bernstein with Debussy is just risible, if not impossible.

  • Rob says:

    I’ve never warmed to west side story. The tunes are not Richard Rogers standard.

    • M2N2K says:

      Music is more than just “tunes”. And most of the music in WSS is better – more sophisticated, more expressive, more exciting – than “Richard Rogers standard”.

  • Cardoso Peres says:

    I don’t get this. There were a ton of Debussy CDs released in the last few months, from practically every known pianist. It’s not like his centennary has been forgotten.

  • M2N2K says:

    In the USA the differences in celebrating the two centennials can be explained by the fact that only one of the two men was American, but there are other obvious reasons for the disparity that are more universal and several of them have already been mentioned by other commenters above here:
    1. a century since birth is usually a more festive occasion than a century since death;
    2. only one of the two was a rather famous public figure besides being a musician, becoming nearly a household name thanks to his TV programs, educational work and political activities;
    3. only one of the two had a regularly visible presence throughout the world because of his highly successful conducting career that included traveling to and performing in many countries on several continents;
    4. only one of the two was so eclectic in his compositional styles that much of his music appeals to devotees of musicals and other “popular” genres whose numbers are by definition greater than those of classical music connoisseurs alone;
    5. if in addition to orchestral concerts we include solo and chamber recitals too, works by Debussy are being performed worldwide far more frequently than those by Bernstein (for a good reason of course) and therefore this year seems like a kind of payback attempt to decrease such imbalance at least temporarily just a little bit.
    Not to worry – music by Debussy will be just as great and as appreciated after this year is over as it has been for over a century now.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. And it is indeed a bit strange to celebrate someone’s death after a nice number of years, as if one is happy to finally have got rid of him.

  • Thomasina says:

    I imagine the majority of woodwind instrument players (Is there any shorter name??) vote for Debussy.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I think we’re still coming to terms with Bernstein the composer, and my feeling is that Bernstein the conductor and public presence had to be safely dead and gone before that reckoning could commence in a thoughtful and unbiased way. He was too distracting while alive. And yes, he wrote more than his share of stinkers — so many (and SO stinky) that it is likely he’ll always have a “yes, but ….” reputation. Debussy has nothing to fear.

    It took decades but I think the Serenade for Violin can now be said to be standard repertoire — I am confident it is programmed more often than Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and that would have been unthinkable when I started fiddle lessons in 1962. The Age of Anxiety Symphony also seems to have a firm place in the repertoire. Chichester Psalms, Fancy Free, On the Town, Candide Overture of course, perhaps Facsimile, perhaps Jeremiah Symphony. West Side Story is another category, although the Symphonic Dances will outlast the musical itself I think.

    There are still works by Bernstein which I myself have never heard in concert, on radio, or on recordings — the latter obviously by choice — and I suspect others are in the same boat. I just cannot bring myself to listen to Mass … can’t do it. Ever.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    At least in the US, Bernstein has won the centennial war by a large margin. It seems that every orchestra out there – pro, amateur and everything in between – is doing something. Candide overture, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and the Mason arrangement of tunes from WSS lead the way, but the symphonies have been quite popular, too. Plus, Turner Classic Movies ran the Omnibus series (an exceptional one on Beethoven 5) and many of the Young People’s Concerts. There have been new books. The steamy On the Road and Off the Record is incredibly revealing.

    Meanwhile, Debussy waits. Yes, a nice couple of more or less “complete” cd sets, but his music shows up no more or less than usual. Most all of it is beyond the ability of amateurs. When the dust settles, most of Bernstein’s music will be put aside, and Debussy’s masterworks will still be played and loved. That’s Bernstein’s problem: there’s a lot of flashy music but not much to love.

    • Terence says:


      LB always reminds me of Mark Anthony (Marcus Antonius) – flashy but Octavian/Augustus won the day.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Dear Publius Terentius Afer,

        You may be right but who here knows about Gaius Octavius Thurinus, or Marcus Antonius Marci filius Marci nepos and their quarrels at Mutina, Brundisium, and Actium.

  • Alan says:

    It is like comparing an apple with an avocado.
    (I like both of these foods, BTW.)
    CD, IMHO, was one of the two greatest composers of the 20th c. (the other being Bartok), and of all time. His music – and his musical ethos – was influential beyond question.
    LB was a genius recreative musician who was a great and important populariser of classical music to the “masses”. He also composed some excellent works, in a number of genres.
    Let’s celebrate them both!

  • Simon Brown says:

    My impression is that I have heard Bernstein concert works fairly regularly in live concerts in the UK since his death in 1990 plus I’ve seen musicals like On the Town and Wonderful Town. Whereas my impression is that the “Dean of US composers” Aaron Copland has faded from view in live concerts, as has most other US composers’ work of that era accept for one or two works by Gershwin, Barber and Ellington.

    Off the top of my head the only living US composer who crops up fairly regularly in live concerts I attend is John Adams.

    So I think you have to see Bernstein in this overall programming landscape. We’ve had a very strong Russian music-Mahler axis in UK concert halls over the last decades and American music is not so central.


  • BillG says:

    A war, surely you jest. Who declared it? With the universe of musicians to chose from the two you mentioned stand in their own place. One no greater than the other. Each stands forth in his own right.

  • Edward says:

    And nobody has bothered at all with the 200th anniversary of Gounod’s birth, or the centenary of Parry’s death.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      That’s not entirely true. There’s a new recording out of some of Gounod’s piano music, previously unrecorded. And the Musica Nova orchestra in Arizona, USA, is giving the Parry 3rd symphony a live performance this fall.

    • John Borstlap says:

      And what about Joachim Alzheimer? He died exactly 253 years ago and everybody seems to have forgotten about him.

  • her royal snarkiness says:

    Wow, I did not think about Debussy. Adds meaning to my practice (Preludes, vol II, the ones woth not too many 32nd notes)