Leonard Bernstein exploded into music history on Nov. 14, 1943, when, on a few hours’ notice, the unknown 25-year-old was called upon to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a nationally broadcast concert from Carnegie Hall. He kept exploding for almost half a century thereafter, and by the time Bernstein died Oct. 14, 1990, he was far and away the most famous classical musician our country had yet produced.
Yet the word “famous” has been so degraded (Donald Trump is “famous,” and so is Miley Cyrus) that it cannot begin to sum up Bernstein’s accomplishment. Simply put, Bernstein really mattered. He composed symphonies and Broadway musicals (“West Side Story,” no less); he spoke as convincingly about rock and jazz as he did about 19th-century Viennese orchestral works; he led new pieces by American composers with the same passion that he brought to Beethoven and Brahms. Indeed, he came to seem a virtual embodiment of the art of music in all of its guises.
There have been several Bernstein biographies, some admirable, but no book has so forcefully and delightfully captured the man’s energy, intellect and genius for friendship as “The Leonard Bernstein Letters,” scrupulously and authoritatively edited by the English scholar Nigel Simeone. This is a more complete “portrait of the artist” than most collections of letters, as Simeone has managed to clear permission for letters to Bernstein was well as those from him (copyright law has insisted upon a separation of these rights since the 1980s).
And so it is not only Bernstein’s voice that we hear but the voices of family and friends, ranging from composers Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter to such theatrical collaborators as choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and polymath Stephen Sondheim to a brilliant and ambitious 10-year-old cellist named Yo-Yo Ma, who invites Bernstein to his recital at a New York private school.
Bernstein’s own ambition is there from the beginning, too. While still a Harvard student, he had already made himself a close correspondent with several of the leading composers and conductors of his time. It seems that everybody knew the youthful “Lenny”: You had no choice. And yet his social climbing is so eager, so obvious, so tied up in a hungry, deeply informed and exhilarated enthusiasm that it is easy to forgive and — yes — to love.
Indeed, love is the central emotion in this book. Start with Bernstein’s eternal loyalty to those close to him. The very first letter is to his piano teacher Helen Coates (written when he was 14; she would serve as his assistant until her death in 1989), and he managed to remain friends with the notoriously prickly composer David Diamond — who could (and did) make mortal enemies as the rest of us make our beds — until a final provocation ended a 50-year association. There are beautiful letters to his children, who respond with tenderness and occasional, appreciative amusement at their father’s latest adventures.
He himself was well aware of his unusual circumstances and never lost his wonder. After a spectacularly successful visit to Vienna in 1966, he wrote home to his parents: “One deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead.”
The book is candid about Bernstein’s complicated relationship with his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, who knew him better than anybody else. “You are a homosexual and may never change,” she wrote to Bernstein a few months after their marriage in 1951, with what now seems extraordinary empathy and sophistication. “You don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?. . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” As it happened, Montealegre died in her mid-50s, in the midst of an (unrelated) period of excruciating marital tension, and Bernstein blamed himself for the rest of his life.
Letters from Bernstein himself become scarce in the last years. By then, he was too famous, too distracted, too much in demand and, one suspects, often too depressed to bring himself to put pen to paper very often. He drank a great deal, he made public scenes, he finished few new compositions and, to an outsider, he often seemed to be in a state of astonished and unreachable pain, most of it self-inflicted. And yet he continued to conduct magnificently right up to the end and never lost his near-childlike interest in what might be coming next. A few days before he died, he started to draft his own eulogy with a friend. His suggested first line? “Cut down in the prime of his youth. . . .” Bernstein was then 72, but, on some rarefied, extraterrestrial level, he was telling the truth.
Page is professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California.
THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS
Edited by Nigel Simeone
Yale Univ. 606 pp. $38