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Double Lives – Leonard Bernstein’s Letters

First published in the Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 2014

Nigel Simeone, editor
THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS
606pp. Yale University Press. $38.
978 0 300 17909 5

“Dear Pupil,” writes Aaron Copland, already America’s best known composer, to his 22-year-old protégé Leonard Bernstein in 1940.

“What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames is what they are. Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter forty years from now when you are conductor of the Philharmonic. Well it all comes from the recklessness of youth, that’s what it is. Of course I don’t mean that you mustn’t write such letters (to me, that is), but I mustn’t forget to burn them.”

Bernstein was just beginning his conducting studies with Serge Koussevitzky, the longtime master of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but those who knew him had already singled out as the great white hope of American music. “The Big Boys here,” Bernstein wrote a year earlier, “have it all decided that I am to become America’s Great Conductor. They need an Apostle for their music.” It took him only seventeen years, not forty, to become music director of the Philharmonic, frequently performing the work of American composers. Confirming Copland’s warning, one unbalanced young musician would indeed try to blackmail him with his letters, to no avail.

Far from burning Bernstein’s gossipy, indiscreet letters, Copland crossed out a few names and saved these lively effusions for some future archive, for this volume in fact, a rich selection of letters to and from Bernstein, meticulously edited by Nigel Simeone. The book is a mine of research and helpful information. Every detail that needs explaining is tracked and annotated and every correspondent receives a capsule biography, enabling us to follow his life in vivid bits and pieces, especially in tandem with Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography of 1994, where some of these letters first appeared.

Copland assumed, quite sensibly, that his reckless young friend was destined for greatness. Bernstein’s gifts already on display when they met at a party in 1937. It was Copland’s thirty-seventh birthday and the Harvard undergraduate, a gifted and showy pianist, sat down at the keyboard and played Copland’s difficult Piano Variations from memory. By 1939, when he graduated, Bernstein had also begun writing music and he wondered whether the Big Boys, by fastening on him as a future conductor, wanted to “to keep a rival composer out of the field.” Soon he was studying conducting with the formidable Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the best student Reiner ever had.

Copland became a mentor and lifelong friend – their correspondence is central to the first half of this collection – and he in turn would become the master interpreter of Copland’s music, especially as it took a popular turn with sparkling ballet scores like Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Bernstein’s first published work was his piano transcription of the infectious Latin rhythms of Copland’s El Sálon México. But Bernstein’s own story – his open grid of possibility, his ambition and lusty appetite for life, his largely gay sexual adventures, even his self-absorption – fascinated Copland as much as the young man’s plentiful gifts. “What a letter!” he writes from Hollywood in 1943. “I had a wonderful time with it – better than any novel. But now I want to read the next chapter.” Ever determined to plumb his own depths, Bernstein was seeing a psychotherapist, as he would through most of his life; his musings about his unconscious motives make the more placid Copland wonder whether he too has “an inner psyche doing funny things without my knowing it.”

The wunderkind was just on the cusp of being discovered by the world at large. In late August 1943 he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and just two months later, when Bruno Walter was suddenly taken ill, Bernstein, without benefit of rehearsal, made headlines with a sensational performance broadcast on national radio. The press had been alerted, his devoted Boston Jewish family was in town, and the adulation he enjoyed became a drug he would always crave. A pattern was established: though he looked to composing as his deepest aspiration, taking frequent sabbaticals to pursue it, he could ever give up the podium for any length of time. He’d long since pinpointed one symptom of his problem, “my love of people. I need them all the time – every moment. . . . I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed.” Yet all his relationships seemed like one-night stands, transient, superficial. “I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular,” he wrote to Copland in 1942. “You’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water.”

His newfound celebrity would put Bernstein at the center of a whirl of attention wherever he went. Composing, like any other writing, demanded solitude. By the time of his Cinderella debut with the Philharmonic, Bernstein had already written a symphony, Jeremiah, and a fine sonata for clarinet and piano yet he felt restless, unfulfilled. Now In 1944, his annus mirabilis, his work took an unexpected turn. First he collaborated on a heady, rambunctious new ballet, Fancy Free, with the young choreographer Jerome Robbins. Its success soon led to a musical, On the Town, with dances by Robbins, book and lyrics by two of Bernstein’s closest friends, Betty Comden and Adolph Green – four effervescent, try-anything newcomers in their twenties reined in by one veteran director, George Abbott. The wartime setting, as in Fancy Free, was urban and contemporary – three sailors on shore leave in New York, looking for girls. The dancing was winningly fresh, the lyrics witty, and the vibrant jazz-inflected score ranged from the bluesy to the frenetic. The most memorable number, “New York, New York,” buoyant with irrepressible energy, would serve as an enduring anthem for Bernstein’s adopted city. The show ran for 463 performances.

Writing for the theatre, for a popular audience, brought out the best in Bernstein even as it kept solitude and depression at bay. Unlike many prima donnas he relished the fun of collaboration, especially with men as talented as Abbott or Robbins. He loved learning from them, sponging up what they knew, with an astonishing facility. This cross-pollination became one key to his success. The jaunty spirit of George Gershwin, dead in his prime, seemed to have settled on Bernstein’s shoulders. Gershwin’s lyrical Rhapsody in Blue, with its jazz borrowings, had long been one of Bernstein’s specialties at the piano. Like Gershwin he worked with sophisticated lyricists who steered clear of the clichés of the musical theatre, particularly those soggy boy-meets-girl love songs. Following the triumph of Oklahoma!, the Broadway musical was shifting direction when Bernstein arrived. The slapdash shows of the twenties and thirties, composed loosely of song, dance, and spectacle, were giving way to the book musical, with song and dance embedded in character and integrated into the story. In Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein had replaced Rodgers and Hart, just as Bernstein and his collaborators were paving the way for Hammerstein’s protégé, Stephen Sondheim, who kicked off his illustrious career by writing the lyrics for Bernstein’s strongest musical, West Side Story.

Bernstein, like Sondheim, would be blamed for not writing hits, hummable tunes that could be extracted from their context and take off on their own – in recordings and jukeboxes, in sheet music and on the radio, where so much money lay. In The Joy of Music (1959), Bernstein responded defensively with an imaginary dialogue, “Why Don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?” Gershwin, he says, “really had the magic touch. Gershwin made hits, I don’t know how. Some people do it all the time, like breathing.” His imagined accuser persists: “Your songs are simply too arty. . . . A special little dissonant effect in the bass may make you happy, and maybe some of your highbrow friends, but it doesn’t help to make a hit.” (Hollywood had been leery of Gershwin for being too artful; this made him swear, tongue in cheek, that his only goal was to write hits.) The charge points to Bernstein’s strength as a theatrical composer. What he lacks in sheer melodic invention he makes up for in harmonic subtlety and complexity. For Paul Bowles, a composer before he became a writer, On the Town had “an epoch-making score” and “its instrumentation was phenomenal in its cleverness.” To Bernstein, a Gershwin showpiece like Rhapsody in Blue remained a collection of moveable parts, lacking the structure and organic development that was the glory of the symphonic tradition. “Composing is a very different thing from writing tunes.” Yet Bowles saw him as Gershwin’s heir: “No other composer combines the same kind of nervous energy and the same incredible degree of facility.”

As music drama West Side Story may be Bernstein’s Porgy and Bess, the crossover work, hard to classify, in which each writer transcended himself. Gershwin came to this territory from Tin Pan Alley, having gradually mastered orchestral writing along the way. Bernstein arrived from classical composition, passing through musical comedy and operetta (Candide, 1956) in his progress. It’s no accident that dance looms large in Bernstein’s best shows. He provided the musical ground for Robbins’s choreography in Fancy Free, On the Town, and West Side Story, orchestral writing with strong, syncopated rhythms, almost palpable drama, and a strikingly vernacular sound. The fierce urban tension in his music for West Side Story also infuses his excellent score for Elia Kazan’s movie On the Waterfront, both of which he adapted into symphonic suites. His most frequently performed concert work actually originated on Broadway, his four-minute overture to Candide.

Both the ingenious yet troubled Candide, musically rich (too rich, some said), haunted by book troubles, and the succès fou of West Side Story came at the end of the freelance years that followed Bernstein’s sensational debut at Carnegie Hall. After On the Town Koussevitzky read him the riot act, insisting that he stick to conducting and the concert hall, and Bernstein, ever deferential to his first patron, stayed away from the theatre as long as Koussevitzky was alive. (He died in 1951.) Instead he became everyone’s favorite guest conductor, building his repertoire, preserving some of his freedom to compose, sometimes leading as many as a dozen orchestras in a single year. For him conducting was a form of ardent lovemaking, an overflow of passion, and he took pleasure in seducing yet another set of players as well as a new audience.

Two urgent commitments influence Bernstein’s conducting life during these years. As the first American-born conductor to gain wide acceptance in many European cities (or American cities, for that matter) he proselytizes for American composers whose work was still only rarely given a hearing, making good on the hopes projected on him before he had turned twenty. Sometimes he oversteps, as when he programs one of his own pieces for a Boston Symphony concert and Koussevitzky, who prefers Bernstein’s conducting to his composing, turns on him.

“May I ask you: do you think that your composition is worthy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston organization? Can it be placed on the same level as Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Bartók or Copland?”

As usual with Koussevitzky, Bernstein sends a humble, breast-beating reply. “Why do these misunderstandings happen? Is there an evil element in my nature that makes me do and say immoral things? . . . Whenever I conduct in Boston I am conducting for you, deep inside, and whatever I may do well is a tribute to you. My main concern is to make you proud of me, and justified in all your efforts for me.”

Yet Koussevitzky himself was a prime supporter of contemporary composers, and within a few years he would commission and premiere Bernstein’s second symphony, loosely based on Auden’s Age of Anxiety. Bernstein had eaten humble pie out of deep respect, even reverence, but also a canny self-interest, for the older man had taken him under his wing and done more than anyone to forward his career.

The other highlight of his conducting Wanderjahre was his excited discovery of Israel; it seems to have triggered a renewal of his Jewish identity. He had grown up in a family in which religion mattered – his father was a Talmud student who came from a long line of rabbis – but cultural identification mattered even more. He had already set Hebrew texts from Lamentations in Jeremiah and would deploy biblical and liturgical texts in major compositions such as his Kaddish and Chichester Psalms. He was drawn to Israel and its musicians, many of them refugees from Nazi Europe, even before the state was declared. As early as 1947 he writes to Koussevitzky:

“If you ever wanted to be involved in a historical moment, this is it. The people are remarkable; life goes on in spite of police, bombs, everything. There is a strength and devotion in these people that is formidable. They will never let their land be taken from them; they will die first. And the country is beautiful beyond description.”

He returned in 1948 , during the first Arab-Israeli war, to conduct forty concerts in sixty days, sometimes with artillery fire booming in the background. He wrote home of the beauty of Jerusalem, the heroism and privation of the people, and was tempted to sign on as principal conductor of the newly renamed Israel Philharmonic. He always maintained a link with the orchestra, a kind of family connection that meant the world to him, yet he would also perform with former Nazis in Vienna, one of the adopted cities of his later years. For them he was the exceptional Jew, a salve to whatever guilt feelings they harbored. For him it was the music that mattered most, the music and the tumultuous acclaim he invariably received.
In these years, questions of family and identity loomed large for him. Writing from Israel in 1950 to his sister Shirley, he describes them as “years of compulsive living, of driving headlong down alleys of blind patterns, dictated by God knows what vibrations.” In 1946 he had met a striking woman, Felicia Montealegre Cohn, a Chilean piano student and aspiring actress, half Jewish, but educated by nuns and raised as a Catholic, and they’d gotten engaged, much to his parents’ distress. Always close to his parents – and especially to his sister and brother, with whom he spoke an affectionate private language – the footloose Bernstein felt the pull of home and family. But Bernstein was bisexual, ambivalent, and the engagement foundered within a year. Still, he reckoned that his career, if he were ever to head a major orchestra, demanded a proper spouse, whatever his sexual inclinations. Three years latere, though she had fallen in love with another man, he found himself thinking of Felicia again, testing himself. As he tells his sister, who has kept in touch with her, “I have been engaged in an imaginary life with Felicia, having her by my side on the beach as a shockingly beautiful Yemenite boy passes – inquiring into that automatic little demon who always springs into action at such moments.”

Within a year Felicia’s lover had died, and she and Bernstein were engaged again and soon married. He wonders “what security she will manage to find in a marriage contracted in insecurity.” How much she knew about his past life is never clear, but after some difficult months she lays out the groundwork of their relationship:

“You are a homosexual and may never change. . . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar. (I happen to love you very much – this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?) . . . . A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express – our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?”

Apparently, what stabilized their marriage and turned it into more of a love story was the arrival of their children, eventually three of them, bringing out the exuberant paterfamilias in him, besides replicating the cherished nuclear family in which he had grown up. It also provided the social respectability he needed, both professionally and psychologically. She became his closest friend, the indispensable anchor of his peripatetic life. She replaces Copland as his confessor and when they’re apart he writes some of his best letters to her, warm, loving, and keenly observant, though also rife with self-dramatization.

“I miss you terribly, and love your letters. They carry a whiff of something warm and joyful and familiar. Imagine – after three years: joyful! Is it wonderful: home has always been the spot in which I happened to be: now it is a place, with all that one place connotes. . . . A new experience.”

This idyll would come to an end after twenty-five years, in 1976, when he initiated a separation and left her to be with another man. “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man,” she reportedly said to him. They reconciled after she fell ill with cancer, but her death soon afterward left him rudderless, plagued by feelings guilt and remorse for the rest of his life.

Though it left him little time to compose, Bernstein’s rock-star fame only increased when he became conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. Some said his gestural and emotive conducting style was directed more at the audience than at the players, but no one was better at shaping an orchestral interpretation or enabling ordinary concertgoers to grasp it. He inhabited the music as if possessed by it. Though he never satisfied the Times critic, Harold Schonberg, or the atonal avant-garde, his tenure was a success by any measure: more American and contemporary music, ambitious touring and over two hundred recordings, a younger, more enthusiastic audience. In preview performances and in televised Young People’s Concerts, he demonstrated that he could expound music colloquially to laymen as well as he could perform it.

Bernstein’s genius as an educator had been evident earlier, especially in Koussevitzky’s summer music programs at Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts. In 1954 he had taken on a new role that would make him the voice and face of classical music in America. As part of a television series called Omnibus funded by the Ford Foundation, he took viewers through the intricacies of Beethoven’s Fifth, using the composer’s discarded sketches to show them exactly the kind of development he found missing in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a symphonic progress in which every note feels inevitable. Bernstein was soon acknowledged as one of the best village explainers ever to set foot on the classical terrain. Seven of these Omnibus scripts can be found in The Joy of Music; they work on the page even without the apt musical examples with which he illustrated them. He was able to think from the audience’s point of view, asking – and answering – questions that were at once simple and fundamental: What makes modern music modern? What were the musical constituents of jazz? How had the American musical evolved into a great indigenous form? Never talking down, instead he breaks things down, always focusing on the notes, not merely the circumstances. It’s hardly a surprise that the best of these visual essays was on the art of conducting, which ranged from the use of the baton to “the intangibles, the deep magical aspect of conducting,” the passion, the timing, the sculptural sense of proportion that will enable a single intelligence to mold so many disparate players and instruments into a satisfying whole.

After eleven years with the Philharmonic, Bernstein spent the best part of his life doing just that, refining his conducting into utter mastery. The jury is still out on which of his own classical compositions might survive. Copland himself, early on, was of two minds about it, praising his “vibrant rhythmic invention” and “immediate emotional appeal” but seeing it, at its worst, as “conductor’s music – eclectic in style and facile in inspiration.”  His Broadway musicals, even the ill-fated Candide, have been repeatedly revived, sometimes by altering or updating the book. He became too famous, too busy, too set in his ways to write the kind of fluent, arresting letters he once did. The later letters lack the appeal of the gifted young man’s self-absorption. “Some day, preferably soon, I simply must decide what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he writes in 1955. Working at La Scala, working on Candide, he says, “I learn, I learn, all the time.”

From the 1980s, his last decade, when he continued a frenetic round of international travel, lionized everywhere he went, there are hardly any letters at all. One thing was not in doubt: his conducting became ever more personal and probing, especially with the composers with whom he identified. His role in the Mahler revival was critical. He felt akin to Mahler’s grandiosity and spiritual ambition, his Jewish origins, his role as a culminating figure in the Austro-German symphonic tradition, testing its outer limits, but above all what Bernstein described as his “doubleness,” his “straddling,” as a man split between composing and conducting, between large, resonant emotions and kitsch. As early as 1950 Bernstein had written, “Sometimes I feel clearly that his difficulties were the same as my own. Mahler was also ‘possessed’ by music and his compositions, too, originated during his occupations as a conductor. . . . With works by Mahler I seem to be playing some of my own.” In his last decades, as he wrote to Karl Böhm, though “born in the lap of Gershwin and Copland,” he became an “adopted son” of European music, as much at home in Vienna and Amsterdam as in New York and Israel.

Bernstein’s letters reveal more about his protean personality than about his work. Strictly musical discussions are rare, for the letters are often the fruit of his travels, while his creative collaborations were usually face to face. The editor’s impeccable notes and introductions make this a virtual biography but key moments, such as his separation from Felicia, barely figure, perhaps because they’re too fraught, too sensitive, to be written about. But what the letters lack in narrative continuity they make up for in an immediacy of feeling, voice, direct exchange. The violinist Isaac Stern loved it when the two of them talked “about life and music, about ideas, about family. . . . The greatest times I had with him were always alone. You could never talk with Lenny this way if one other person entered the room; [he] immediately went on stage.” Alive with spontaneous intelligence, Bernstein’s letters display exactly this unforced intimacy, though there were moments when he no doubt knew that posterity was listening in.

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