There has never been an American dynamo remotely like Leonard Bernstein. The composer, conductor, pianist, creator of musicals, educator, political maven and raconteur seemed to spin on his axis faster than any normal human being.
Bernstein was born 100 years ago, on Aug. 25, 1918. If he had left us with only West Side Story his place in history would be justly secure. But you could argue the same if he had left just his brilliant conducting or his groundbreaking Young People's Concerts and Omnibus television programs, or his compelling – yet uneven – catalog of symphonies, songs, operas, ballets and chamber music.
Bernstein was a musical evangelist, fearless in mixing high and lowbrow culture. He rescued the massive and neurotic symphonies of Gustav Mahler from obscurity, but was also obsessed with The Beatles. (There's a memorable photograph of him listening to Rubber Soul with his daughter Jamie and son Alexander.) Taking a page from the Gershwin playbook, he deftly wove jazz and pop into his most ardent compositions.
In many ways, Bernstein fulfilled America's classical music dream. He was a jack-of-all-trades, possessed by music of all stripes, past and present, who couldn't wait to show and tell the world all about it. He could be a "handful," as his daughter Jamie says in her new book Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, but there was a tender side as well. "If he could have, he would have hugged every person on the planet," she told NPR in a frank conversation about the book. "And he kind of did, through his music."
Below is a playlist — for Bernstein fanatics and first-timers alike — that includes many of his most amazing melodies, examples of his conducting prowess and a sampling of his serious compositions. Be on the lookout for surprises from Aretha Franklin, Jay and the Americans and Tom Waits.