As a composer Bernstein was a controversial figure. His large works, including the symphonies Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), are not considered masterpieces. Yet they are skillfully shaped and show his sensitivity to small changes of musical variety. He received more praise for his Broadway musicals. The vivid On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1952) were followed by Candide (1956), which, though not a box-office success, is considered by many to be Bernstein's most original score. West Side Story (1957) received international praise. Bernstein's music, with its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, determines the feeling of the show and contributes to its special place in the history of American musical theater.
Sir Thomas Allen sings "Dear Boy" from Candide:
In works that could be dubbed operas, his most notable roles for low male voice are the philosopher Dr. Pangloss in Candide who sings "Dear Boy" and Sam in Trouble in Tahiti who sings "There's a Law." Perhaps his most popular and frequently recorded work for baritone is "Simple Song" from Mass.
His role as an educator, in seminars at Brandeis University (1952–1957) and in teaching duties at Tanglewood are legendary and still watched by students today. He found an even larger audience through television, where his animation and distinguished simplicity had an immediate appeal. Two books of essays, Joy of Music (1959) and Infinite Variety of Music (1966), were direct products of television presentations.
Sebastià Peris sings "There's a Law" from Trouble in Tahiti:
Bernstein had his greatest impact as a conductor. His appearances overseas—with or without the New York Philharmonic—brought about an excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to Bernstein's energy and emotion. It is generally agreed that his readings of twentieth-century American scores showed a dedication and authority rarely approached by other conductors of his time. His performances and recordings also ushered in a revival of interest in the music of Gustav Mahler.
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his nature and the diversity of his activities that he sought new channels of expression. After leaving the Philharmonic Bernstein traveled extensively, serving as guest conductor for many of the major symphonies of the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. He became something of a fixture in those cities in the last few decades of his life.
Theo Hoffman's amazing rendition of "Simple Song":
Bernstein also became caught up in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. He angered many when he claimed all music, other than pop, seemed old-fashioned. Politically, too, he drew criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers in 1970, charges of anti-Semitism were leveled against Bernstein himself. Press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. Bernstein also brought criticism with his stance against the Vietnam War. His activism ultimately led J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to monitor his activities and associations.
Thomas Hampson sings "Lucky to be Me" from On the Town:
In 1971 Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was, according to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came to achieving a synthesis between Broadway and the concert hall." The huge cast performed songs in styles ranging from rock to blues to gospel. Mass debuted on Broadway later that year.
He died in New York City, on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema and other complications.