Last American Maestro The professional, political, and personal lives of Leonard Bernstein make new music on the page.

Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives)

Allan Shawn (Yale University Press, 2014) 360 pages with notes, bibliography and index

Allan Shawn’s biography of Leonard Bernstein is a volume in the ambitious Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. With upwards of 40 volumes in print or commissioned, all of a modest length, Jewish Lives is intended to offer “interpretive biography designed to illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences.” Bernstein—composer of the Broadway musical West Side Story, the first American-born conductor of international stature, and arguably the only classical musician to attain star status in postwar American popular culture—is an ideal subject for the series. His long career, dating from the late 1930s to the end of the 1980s, spans crucial mid 20th-century transformations in American life, encompassing major shifts in art and pop music styles, in the technology of musical life and the musical marketplace (television and the long-playing record arrived just in time for Bernstein to exploit both), in the place of art music in American culture (the rise of rock directly impacted his career and Bernstein tried, like few figures his age, to respond sympathetically), in politics (he was a thoroughly political animal; Barry Seldes’ Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician [2009] deals solely with this side of the man), and in sexual mores (his story traces gay American history on both sides of Stonewall).

Shawn offers a mostly chronological treatment of Bernstein’s life and work, folding into one narrative his subject’s professional, creative, political, and personal lives. All the key events are included—the unexpected conducting debut on live radio with the New York Philharmonic; the dust-up over excessively slow tempos taken for a performance by Glenn Gould of the Brahms First Piano Concerto; reporter Tom Wolfe’s coining of the term “radical chic” in an article about Bernstein and his wife Felicia entertaining members of the Black Panther Party in their Park Avenue apartment; Bernstein’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in East and West Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, during which he substituted the word “Freiheit” (freedom) for “Freude” (joy) in the choral finale.

Shawn matter-of-factly discusses Bernstein’s sexual life—his attraction to men and women; his increasingly open homosexuality from the 1970s onwards—using letters from his wife dating to early in their marriage to illustrate that Felicia had no illusions about Lenny.

All of Bernstein’s compositions are considered, most in descriptions that avoid technical terms. Shawn, himself a composer, states his aim clearly in the introduction: to place “an emphasis on [Bernstein’s] music and [the] musical thinking at its heart.” Concert works are given preference to the theatre works, except in the case of Bernstein’s late opera A Quiet Place, which receives the strange, ambivalent final comment, “Most operas are flawed.”

Shawn covers all this ground in fewer than 300 pages. Many abrupt transitions result, with sudden shifts of topic between paragraphs from musical to personal to political matters. Unfortunately, no unified view of Bernstein emerges. He remains a figure of lively anecdotes and a maker of a string of works, none extolled as a major achievement. Indeed, Shawn dutifully records and sometimes seconds the mostly tepid reaction of Bernstein’s peers to his music.

The enduring “problem” around assessing Bernstein as a composer remains reconciling two spheres—the concert hall and the Broadway stage—that for Shawn (and most likely most of his readers) still map on to notions of highbrow art music and middlebrow commercial music. Shawn does not dismiss the musicals, nor does he make a strong argument for the unity of Bernstein’s creative musical mind. That view of the man’s work remains to be explored.

As a kind of interpretive frame, Shawn borrows from Bernstein the facile notion that he was a man of two natures: the extrovert conductor, pianist, and explainer of classical music, always eager for attention; the introvert composer, capable of creating carefully conceived musical works. Shawn describes Bernstein’s “apparent unruliness” as balanced by a “fastidious mind,” from his youth “an inveterate show-off at a party, but on paper he was precise and serious.” What Shawn does not do is go beyond this notion of the man’s dual nature to assess Bernstein’s success and failure in unified terms as “An American Musician”—the book’s subtitle. Perhaps the goal is to allow the reader to reach his or her own conclusion.

The facts of Bernstein’s story—the scope of his talents, the velocity of his ascent—still amaze. His natural gifts were embarrassingly rich: ferociously intelligent, musical, and social in equal measures. But Bernstein was also lucky—in the right place at the right time again and again and again. The string of “fortuitous meetings” during his undergraduate years would strain credulity in a novel: for example, finding himself at age 19 seated next to composer Aaron Copland at a dance concert in 1937 on the older composer’s birthday, only to be invited to Copland’s loft for a party where Bernstein could display his full knowledge of Copland’s Piano Variations. Born and raised in Boston—a city devoted to classical music, with Harvard and Tanglewood hometown options and New York a train ride away—Bernstein built his career before rock and roll upset cultural hierarchies, when a dashing young conductor could be a national, network television—and not just a niche, public television—star, when jazz was popular music and earlier Jewish composers (such as Copland and George Gershwin) had already demonstrated how art and vernacular music could be combined to delight old and young listeners with something uniquely American and uniquely exciting in the concert hall.

The opportunity to forge his compositional voice and public identity before the emergence of rock and roll arguably made all the difference for Bernstein’s lasting place in art music: his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story sit beside Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in a small canon of concert works that manage to remain freshly American even as they have become classics. West Side Story dates to 1957, just about the last year anyone—even older audiences—might reasonably accept a stage full of working-class juvenile delinquents dancing to jazz. (The 1955 film Blackboard Jungle showed these same sort of kids gleefully destroying the jazz record collection of their teacher—a man about a decade younger than Bernstein at the time.) Lyricist Stephen Sondheim has critiqued his words for “I Feel Pretty” as too clever for the young Puerto Rican immigrants who sing them; Bernstein never seems to have acknowledged that the American Jets gang was unlikely to blow off steam during “Cool” by dancing to a quasi-bebop, quasi-twelve tone groove. It is hard to imagine getting away with West Side Story even five years later—by which time the phenomenally successful film version had locked the show into place as an expression of a ’50s whose middle-brow currency seemed a thing of the past.

Bernstein largely stopped composing just after West Side Story, allowing his public self to take precedence arguably to the end of his career. Having taken up the baton of the New York Philharmonic just weeks after West Side Story opened on Broadway, over the next decade he would produce but two pieces: the Symphony No. 3, subtitled Kaddish, and the Chichester Psalms, a choral work lasting but twenty minutes. After leaving the New York Philharmonic in 1969, Bernstein occupied much of his time with guest conducting around the world and making recordings. No composition from these later years made a lasting impact, although Mass, his uniquely unclassifiable, two-hour work for the dedication of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. made a splash.

The supposed failure, even “tragedy” of Bernstein was remarked upon during his later decades, most famously by Leon Botstein in a Harper’s article from 1983 which Shawn leverages to offer a larger perspective on Bernstein as a composer. It is a curiously qualified view. Shawn insists Bernstein could orchestrate, then notes he could not do “the lush big-band sound of Broadway.” Betraying a professional’s bias towards craft, Shawn—author of a study of Arnold Schoenberg—argues that “Bernstein’s music is theatrical but it is not merely a music of effects … it is just as interesting, sometimes even more so, when it is played at the piano, apart from the orchestration.”

Shawn’s analysis of the music traces how the composer consistently mined his own works, “carrying forward” musical ideas from one work to another, often crossing from more private works—Bernstein’s many small-scale Anniversaries composed to mark friendships—to larger public projects. Shawn notes that “None of the [Broadway] shows are without music adapted from earlier classical projects, and few of the major concert pieces lack material derived from the musicals.” The enduring “problem” around assessing Bernstein as a composer remains reconciling these two spheres—the concert hall and the Broadway stage—that for Shawn (and most likely most of his readers) still map on to notions of highbrow art music and middlebrow commercial music. Shawn does not dismiss the musicals, nor does he make a strong argument for the unity of Bernstein’s creative musical mind. That view of the man’s work remains to be explored. It might lead to a view that Bernstein was a “failure,” but it would be a different sort of failure than that posited by Botstein (and others devoted to art music such as Bernstein mentor conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos) that Bernstein failed because he ventured into Broadway at all.

Failure is always relative to an attempted goal. Tragedy assumes a foreknown but lost trajectory of triumph. Can we understand Bernstein outside preconceived notions of what a composer is or should be and instead envision him simply as a success at being himself—arguably a way to think of him as a quintessentially American musician?

Bernstein seems to have followed his love of music along the easiest routes. He flourished in collaboration with others: West Side Story being the best example. He excelled as a conductor, that public figure between the players and the listeners. Conductors inspire and coach musicians in rehearsal, move their bodies to cue performance, and—in a practice largely set by Bernstein and now required of American conductors—talk to audiences in lively fashion about music and why it matters. Bernstein went further along this last line and innovated the lecture-concert, often aimed specifically at young people, where there was more talking than playing. (Pianists have to practice and Bernstein seems to have lost interest in this avenue over time: Shawn notes his performances at the keyboard declined in quality as he aged and he never played really tough repertoire.) Behind all these activities lay an urge to communicate with others—crucially with a lot of others. Shawn relates a telling anecdote with Bernstein expressing wonder at a young musician wanting to trek across Greenland, supposedly replying “But there’s nobody to talk to down there.” What if Bernstein’s activity as a composer and the worth of his compositions were understood as part of this urge to communicate with as many as possible?

Bernstein’s music has an instantly recognizable sound: inviting to the ear, rhythmically vital, tuneful in a modern art music sort of way. These qualities made it easy for his peers and other professionals in the composing game—such as critics—to dismiss Bernstein. As Shawn insightfully notes, there was little in Bernstein’s music to intimidate such folks. But this was not Bernstein’s realm. As he reportedly told a friend while just a freshman at Harvard, Bernstein “wanted everyone in the world to love him”—not the vision of the typical 20th-century art music composer. He set out to do this by insisting that the music he loved—chiefly the symphonic canon of the European concert hall, which had only just locked into place about a generation before his birth—had deep meaning. He strived for depth in his own music but seems not to have attained it. As Shawn notes somewhat frowningly, Bernstein appended spoken or sung texts to most of his symphonic works, a fair admission the music’s deep meaning could not speak for itself. Rather than depth, it is the play of brilliant surfaces that most marks Bernstein’s output, especially his brash willingness to juxtapose and crossbreed musical styles, done to perfection in West Side Story’s mix of classical, jazz, and Latin; reaching its endpoint in Mass, which even attempted to reconcile rock to the concert hall (a cultural project left unfinished and rendered unnecessary by the juggernaut of rock and soul and the collapse of “good” music into a kind of elite underground). Shawn resists Mass, refusing to let it be an expression of Bernstein’s deepest urges to shock and awaken the sensibilities of his audience and, perhaps, insist to himself that he was still relevant, still alive in the moment, still potentially able to reach the whole world. (Carol J. Oja’s recent book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War [2014], a detailed study of the musical On the Town, briefly advances this argument about Mass, finding in the work a continuity of collaborative exchange engaged with contemporary social issues reaching back in Bernstein’s career to the 1940s.)

No matter—after the fall of jazz as popular music and the eclipse of quality programming on network television, Bernstein was content to be an advocate for deep meaning in the music of others, turning towards Europe and the warhorses of the classical canon, churning out a huge discography of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and others, including especially Mahler, for whom Bernstein was an important advocate. Mahler had all the hallmarks of depth Bernstein craved but never quite achieved in his own work. Perhaps it was easier to conduct and record Mahler’s symphonies than try to write another of his own. That he had the option to spend so much time in the recording studio was yet another happy accident—the 1970s and ’80s were a heyday for classical recording—or, perhaps, simply another instance of Bernstein finding a welcoming place where he could share his love of music with and feel the adulation of, if not the whole world, then as many as listeners possible.

The above reading of Bernstein relies on hearing his music and placing his career in a larger context than art music, the concert hall, and music history narratives that privilege the composer as the great hero of Western classical music. Bernstein was bigger than that world—a world he saw shrink in importance during his lifetime. He tried, with much success, to refashion the composer/conductor as a television personality and recording artist who reached a truly mass audience. He had no heirs.