Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician

Yale University Press  2014


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.

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