Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Bernstein Effect: Leonine and Lionized Lenny

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger

A fifty-something friend who conducts a small Midwestern orchestra often bypasses his musical training in bios, simply stating that he once studied with Leonard Bernstein. Well. It was one master class. Once. For like, a week or two.
Leonard Bernstein occasioned a legitimate case of lionization, yet somehow remained earthy and real and connected to his passion. Seriously, who is equal to Bernstein today, in personality, verve, or versatility? [Are you hearing silence?]
 Bernstein’s brother, Burton, likens him to the Jackie Robinson of Jewish classical musicians in Leonard Bernstein: American Original, which the younger Bernstein co-authored with the New York Philharmonic’s historian and archivist, Barbara Haws (2008). Burton wrote for the New Yorker from 1957 to 1992 and has published on flying, the Sinai, and James Thurber. He provides eight insider 'recollections' to the essays of nine less familial commentators. Born fourteen years after Lenny, Burton never fails an opportunity to parallel his brother’s natural teaching ability and vivacious optimism to the family’s rabbinical lineage. Not sure what the rabbis would have thought of Leonard’s use of television to promote classical music (e.g., 53 Young People's Concerts), or his tendency to kiss both men and women deeply on the mouth when so moved.
The latest wave of Bernstein books begs certain questions, such as, "Who needs another book about Lenny Bernstein?” or on the other hand, "Why is Bernstein still so interesting that publishers cannot seem to get enough of him?" In fact, so many Bernstein books have come out since 1990 that Routledge published a 320-page annotated bibliography, Leonard Bernstein: A Guide to Research, in 2002 (it sells for $56 to $130 at present). So many Bernstein books issued after his death in 1990 bypass the leftist wrinkle. Facts are, Bernstein was blacklisted by both the State Department and CBS—CBS?! He had to sign what is often described as a ‘humiliating affidavit’ attesting to his patriotism just to get his passport back in 1953. Some conclude that Bernstein battled the 'differentness' of being a socialist just before the Cold War began, and a Jew in a WASP society, and a gay man working in the arts before Stonewall. If he did, it made him stronger. Tom Wolfe famously coined the term ‘radical chic’ to roast Lenny when he hosted a Black Panthers fundraiser in his Park Avenue apartment. Or was it really just a case of ‘radical cheek’?
Professor Barry Seldes brings out Bernstein’s left-wing leanings in Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician (University of California Press, 2009). Seldes, who teaches politics, was inspired by a 700-page dossier collected by the FBI on Bernstein that was only released in '95, as well as a relatively untouched cache of Bernstein’s personal archives at the Library of Congress. Seldes makes an interesting observation that the magnanimity and ambition of Bernstein’s compositional projects trail off during the Reagan era, just like Norman Mailer or Arthur Miller’s prose, partly because the strident and righteous progressivism of the postwar era dribbled away into a kind of sociological glop, fueled by cynicism and complaisance. Bernstein managed to survive, after all, the ire and absurdity of McCarthyism as well as the bland self-contentedness of the Reagan era. How did he do it?
With Marian Anderson in NY, 1947
Look at the pictures (and there are tons of them in American Original): Bernstein followed Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini as director at the New York Philharmonic, and rubbed padded shoulders along the way with Koussevitsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. His peers in the conducting biz were mostly crumply grumpy ol’ white-haired white men in suits and sock garters!
Here was this guy championing Marian Anderson and Andre Watts one minute, and then moving on to Gustav Mahler, feminism, gay rights, and anti-Vietnam protests the next! Here was this classically trained guy cavorting around with screenwriters and librettists like Adolph Green and Betty Comden [biggest hit of oh so many: Singin’ in the Rain], putting together an unforgettable score with three other incredibly talented gay Jewish men who were all working at the top of their form to create a Hell’s Kitchen gangland version of Romeo and Juliet. (See West Side Story, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, aka Rabinowitz). Did you know that the compositions for “One Hand, One Heart” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” were initially scored for Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, based on Voltaire? I am not making this stuff up.
The West Side Story guys
Here was this transmitter of high culture, directing the NY Phil at at Lincoln Center with Rudolph Bing at the Met and George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, concurrently brainstorming about the template for "Omnibus" (a CBS series that put football players and ballet stars through gait studies together, or compared how Loretta Lynn and Luciano Pavarotti sang about a woman scorned on live TV sitting next to each other and each barely to read their cue cards in comprehensible English). Don’t try to tell me that any of the old school composers wrote as much as Bernstein.
His operas,  symphonic works, musicals, piano ├ętudes, divertimentos, film scores, love songs, and ditties for TV add up to over 70 compositions, in the most cursory review. Who can dismiss the foaming-at-the-mouth orchestral energy in West Side Story (1957), the Kaddish Symphony dedicated to JFK (1963), and the ponderous curtain of textured sound from the Mass (1971)? Who can forget the man with the leonine mane and huge head hopping around maniacally on the podium, or barking frothily at tenor Jose Carreras for 'hispanicizing' the pronunciation of Tony's lines, as a Polish-American character, in the operatic (and problematic) version of West Side Story in 1989?
The man’s flaws eventually became just as transparent as his brilliance. On his own terms, perhaps Bernstein’s most tragic shortcoming was his inability to create an undeniably significant major opus. Like Gershwin and his pal Aaron Copland, geniuses of another kind, Bernstein’s American origins may have skewed the critical response on that score. But can anyone fault his his output, or his campaign to leverage his position for the sake of culture? Whatever you read about him, you are bound to discover something about a man who literally dined on huge swathes of culture so he could share the best tastes of it all with the public. All told, Bernstein really is a one-off…a 'oner,' as Burton puts it. Truly, an American original.


  1. I've listened to the Kaddish Symphony once before, so beautiful and sad. The narrator in the opening really brought it home for me, asking why bad things happen and what not,questioning one's faith. Super heavy!!!

  2. A fascinating guy indeed. I think that his score for West Side Story is the first music I ever really loved. (The original cast recording, not the reorchestrated film soundtrack, which to my mind is much lesser in quality.)

    p.s. Tom Wolfe’s classic 'Radical Chic' article, now over 40 years old, is available online at the New York magazine website.

  3. Leonard Bernstein looks like a rock star most of the time.

  4. Karen replies: Hambone...that is so APT!

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  6. I have also listened to his massive and yes they are always sad, but no doubt it delivers a strong message too. Thanks for sharing.