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Book Review

Leonard Bernstein, American Original

Leonard Bernstein, American Original by Bernstein & Haws

How a Modern Renaissance Man Transformed Music and the World During His New York Philharmonic Years, 1943-1976

Burton Bernstein & Barbara B. Haws
New York: Collins. 2008.
ISBN-10: 0061537861
ISBN-13: 9780061537868
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: Who is Lenny? What is he?

I think we're still trying to get the measure of Leonard Bernstein's achievement. Bernstein attracted a mountain of uncomprehending print during his lifetime. In many ways, he's still too hip for the room. Joan Peyser's biography – a compendium of factual error, lousy prose, and downright stupid speculation – should have embarrassed her, but probably didn't. Tom Wolfe's brilliant Radical Chic tagged Bernstein's political involvement as superficial (and added a new phrase to American politics). It also ignored Bernstein's solid commitment – both before and after the immediate context of the article – to fostering and, more importantly, hiring minority musicians. It also got one important fact wrong. Humphrey Burton's biography, despite its good reviews, constitutes little more than tentative first steps. Burton was a friend of the composer and seems to have been intimidated by the bogeyman of objectivity. His conclusions are safe ones and come nowhere near giving Bernstein his full due.

Objectivity doesn't enter into Burton Bernstein's writing at all: he's the composer's brother. But that's the genius of this book, in that it mixes outsider opinions with personal reminiscence. None of the outsiders were particularly close to Bernstein, and many have achieved distinction in their field. Some never cared for Bernstein's music-making. The list of contributors consists of:

  • music critic Alan Rich
  • historian Paul S. Boyer on Bernstein's social activism
  • musicologist Carol J. Oja on Bernstein's musicals
  • Tim Page on Bernstein's educational TV mission
  • historian Jonathan Rosenberg on the Philharmonic's Berlin, Soviet Union, and Berlin tours
  • culture historian Joseph Horowitz on Bernstein's programming at the Philharmonic
  • conductor Bill McGlaughlin on Bernstein's conducting style
  • James M. Keller, program annotator of the Philharmonic, on Bernstein, New York, and Mahler
  • John Adams on Bernstein as an iconic American composer.

Interspersed among these essays, one finds Burton Bernstein's reminiscences on related matters. So you get an "inside-outside" point of view throughout the work. It also helps that you get so many viewpoints. Right now, Bernstein is still too big and multi-faceted to be comprehended by any one perspective.

This book appears under the imprimatur of the New York Philharmonic and thus heavily emphasizes – over-emphasizes, really – Bernstein's years as director. That's its chief drawback. I'd agree that under Bernstein's leadership, the Philharmonic became the major-league face and voice of American music, as Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony had been between the wars. Bernstein, the musical omnivore interested in just about everything and brilliant enough to understand what was going on, gave us a valuable snapshot of the musical energy of the country. If you wanted to know what was happening in classical music in America, you had to look at what the Philharmonic was doing. Although he didn't pioneer Mahler, he brought that composer into mainstream symphonic programming, both in the United States and abroad. He did the same for Copland and Nielsen. But while Koussevitzky's Boston was probably the finest American orchestra of its time, Bernstein's New York Phil lagged behind both Cleveland and Chicago in at least sheer playing. Part of this was due to Bernstein's attraction to risk, to pushing up to and past the limit of credibility. New York has improved tremendously since. However, it has lost its representative place among first-rank American orchestras, and I'd say it lost it to Bernstein protégé Michael Tilson Thomas's San Francisco Symphony.

My three favorite essays in the book come from Alan Rich, Bill McGlaughlin, and John Adams. Rich marvelously describes what it was like to be young and struggling in New York during the postwar period. McGlaughlin takes on Bernstein's controversial "corybantic" conducting. Harold Schonberg, chief music critic of the Times, famously lambasted what he considered Bernstein's egomaniacal podium antics, which could cause more sensitive souls, used to, say, the elegant of Fritz Reiner or Vladimir Horowitz, to cringe. However, in all my years of reading about Bernstein, nobody ever seemed to ask a conductor. McGlaughlin provides the insight: Bernstein's writhings weren't meant for the audience, but for the players. McGlaughlin actually asked for the opinions of the orchestra members, and they seemed to have appreciated the gestures. Bernstein's gyrations signaled not only his intent but the sense of extraordinary occasion. John Adams, a favorite prose writer and a favorite composer, contributes an essay on Bernstein as an American archetype. While I don't agree with all his conclusions, he at least shows me how he has arrived at them. He beautifully captures the essence of the Bernstein mystique:

I recall in sharp clarity an afternoon broadcast of a piece called "The Right of Spring," or so I thought was the title. It was my first dose of modern music, and I remember how very strange the harmonies and sonorities sounded coming over that tiny, crackling radio. The broadcast included Bernstein speaking to the audience before conducting the music. That was a shock, because classical music up to this point had been the province of mysterious, remote foreign-born "maestros." These were unknowable, almost alien, frequently tyrannical authority figures, crystallized in the public's mind by iconic images of Toscanini, Stokowski, or Fritz Reiner on record jackets and program books. These forbidding "maestros" certainly never would chat with their audience, least of all in the relaxed, familiar style of this young, handsome, and brainy upstart. It was a shock and a delight, then, to turn on the radio and hear the voice of an American speaking in the common vernacular, but with vivid images of the music of such daring and radical composers as Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. And then I saw on a magazine cover the face that went with this charming voice – Bernstein's face – and I thought "this guy looks more like James Dean than he looks like Toscanini."

The actual fabrication of the book may delight some and infuriate others. To me, it's handsomely designed – a coffee-table book with lots of pictures and graphical type and photos and glamorous hoo-ha – but it also has substance. It's not the last word on Bernstein and doesn't pretend to be. The price runs 15-20 dollars on Amazon, which, for such a quality production, amazes me. Nevertheless, I borrowed my copy from the Public Library. You may want to do the same.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.