Leonard Bern­stein: The Polit­i­cal Life of an Amer­i­can Musician

Bar­ry Seldes
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011

When Bar­ry Seldes, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, exam­ined the FBI’s files about Leonard Bern­stein, he came to see the musician’s pol­i­tics as the key to under­stand­ing Bernstein’s life and career. Seldes’ book is rich in new details about Bernstein’s polit­i­cal engage­ment, but the writer’s con­clu­sions tell us more about him than about Leonard Bern­stein. His account bor­ders on melo­dra­ma as he invests small details with exag­ger­at­ed significance.

Dur­ing World War II, Bern­stein answered affir­ma­tive­ly to an appeal by [singer] Lily Pons to lend his pres­ence to an exhib­it of pho­tos of Nazi atroc­i­ties”; for Seldes this is an exam­ple of an active polit­i­cal life.” Seldes reports as fact that CBS Radioblack­list­ed Bern­stein in 1950, and then cites only cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence: what the author dark­ly calls the con­gru­ence of cor­po­ratein­ter­ests” between CBS and the New York Phil­har­mon­ic, and a state­ment that some peo­ple list­ed as Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers in the noto­ri­ous pub­li­ca­tion Red Chan­nels were lat­er black­list­ed. To Seldes it was noth­ing less than a liv­ing hell” when Bernstein’s pass­port was not renewed for a few weeks until he signed an affi­davit that he was not a Com­mu­nist. Decades lat­er, Seldes is cer­tain that Bern­stein would have been sub­ject to gov­ern­ment pros­e­cu­tion had J. Edgar Hoover lived longer and had Richard Nixon remained in office.

The writer often uses neo-Marx­ist lan­guage, talk­ing for instance about the Viet­nam War as a means to ensure the free flow of glob­al cap­i­tal.” No won­der he imag­ines that a Bern­stein opera would have had a nar­ra­tive of injus­tice with­in the Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry,” and that Bern­stein failed to leave behind a major opera for lack of the right, polit­i­cal­ly ground­ed” text in a social­ly frag­ment­ed era. But great com­posers have often writ­ten mem­o­rable operas with rou­tine libret­tos, and the unsta­ble decades before World War I yield­ed great, social­ly engaged art. Seldes’ polit­i­cal beliefs aside, he often falls short in his under­stand­ing of music and Judaism. He mis­con­strues the ori­gins of the Din-Torah” in Bernstein’s Kad­dish Sym­pho­ny, and his writ­ing about instru­men­tal music is detached and gener­ic com­pared to his com­ments about musi­cal texts and about lit­er­a­ture gen­er­al­ly. These are small reser­va­tions, how­ev­er, com­pared to a reduc­tion­ist approach that con­tin­u­al­ly con­founds more than it clar­i­fies. Index, notes, photographs.

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