Leonard Bern­stein: An Amer­i­can Musician

Allen Shawn
  • Review
By – January 15, 2015

Leonard Bern­stein was a tow­er­ing fig­ure in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry music — con­duc­tor, com­pos­er of both sym­phonies and Broad­way musi­cals, teacher, spokesman for the val­ue and joy of music, pub­lic pres­ence. His unbri­dled per­son­al­i­ty on the podi­um, on tele­vision, and in pub­lic appear­ances and his vast ener­gy as a per­former all over the world have some­times over­shad­owed Bernstein’s work as a com­pos­er. Draw­ing on his knowl­edge as a com­pos­er and edu­ca­tor and on exten­sive archival research as well as per­son­al inter­views, Allen Shawn looks at Bern­stein and his music from a fresh per­spec­tive and presents the man and the musi­cian as a cre­ative and very human whole. 

Bern­stein syn­the­sized all the pieces of his many-sided life, often express­ing them in his music. The son of a bad­ly matched mar­riage, Bern­stein sought the warmth and sta­bil­i­ty of fam­i­ly life. With a broad back­ground in Jew­ish tra­di­tion and syn­a­gogue music and an elite Boston edu­ca­tion, Bern­stein looked to both as sources of inspi­ra­tion. Steeped in clas­si­cal music, Bern­stein also heard the con­tem­po­rary rhythms of the streets and of the Caribbean and South Amer­i­ca. Over­flow­ing with love for music of every kind and will­ing­ness to exper­i­ment in his com­po­si­tion and pro­grams as a con­duc­tor and as music direc­tor of the New York Phil­har­mon­ic, Bern­stein intro­duced new and often chal­leng­ing sounds to the con­cert stage. In his Young People’s Con­certs and tele­vi­sion series, he explained music to chil­dren and untrained view­ers with the same inten­si­ty and clar­i­ty as he did to orches­tra mem­bers, instill­ing in gen­er­a­tions of lis­ten­ers the rich plea­sures of music. Beyond music Bern­stein was an activist in pol­i­tics and civ­il rights, attract­ing the atten­tion of the House on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee, the FBI, and the barbs of the press. 

It is this dynam­ic and cre­ative force that Shawn brings alive in his sym­pa­thet­ic and ap­preciative biog­ra­phy. Bern­stein emerges as a com­plex com­bi­na­tion of con­tra­dic­to­ry strands. A lov­ing and devot­ed hus­band and father, Ber­nstein had homo­sex­u­al rela­tion­ships through­out his life; an over­whelm­ing and charis­mat­ic pres­ence, he enjoyed the stim­u­la­tion and com­pan­ion­ship of col­lab­o­ra­tion; an extro­vert who thrived on audi­ences and their response, Bern­stein craved soli­tude to work and think. Bernstein’s pres­ence on the world stage comes alive on these pages, in Israel mark­ing the end of the Six-Day War with an out­door con­cert, at the demol­ished Berlin Wall con­duct­ing Beethoven’s Ninth with an Ode to Free­dom” in the last move­ment. Bern­stein per­formed at Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s inau­gu­ra­tion and was com­mis­sioned by Jacque­line Kennedy to com­pose a mass to memo­ri­al­ize the pres­i­dent; he set to music a series of psalms in the orig­i­nal Hebrew for the reded­i­ca­tion of the Chich­ester Cathe­dral. Shawn draws all these aspects of Bern­stein into a full-scale and attrac­tive human por­trait, and an equal­ly full-scale por­trait of Bernstein’s music. With his knowl­edge­able analy­sis of Bernstein’s vast out­put, Shawn sends read­ers rush­ing back to lis­ten, whether to West Side Sto­ry, Kad­dish, Can­dide, or any num­ber of oth­er works. Well-paced and high­ly readable,Leonard Bern­stein brings alive both the man and his music. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, notes on sources.

Relat­ed content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions