Experiencing Leonard Bernstein: A Listener’s Companion by Kenneth LaFave

February 29, 2016


Experiencing Leonard Bernstein: A Listener’s Companion

Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015, 197 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4422-3543-4

Despite Leonard Bernstein’s death over a quarter-century ago, it seems that his popularity has continued to increase. This polymath American musician of the twentieth century has served as the subject of numerous biographies, “coffee table books,” and analytical tomes. Furthermore, with the centennial of Bernstein’s birth approaching in 2018, it is quite likely that we shall be treated to a plethora of additional books, recordings, documentaries, and conferences. However, Kenneth LaFave’s new work, Experiencing Leonard Bernstein: A Listener’s Companion, promises a different approach to the ubiquitous composer/conductor/pianist. LaFave informs us numerous times that his work is not a biography, but rather, it “is intended [as] a guide to understanding [Bernstein’s scores], and to grasping something of Bernstein’s life as a composer . . . If there were a weeklong festival of the music of Leonard Bernstein, I’d like to think of this book as the program note” (xxi).

LaFave is active as a jazz musician and composer, and although he is currently pursuing a doctorate, his writing style is decidedly more popular than academic. He writes for the average person who lacks a musical background, but who is interested in learning more, especially through a focus on listening. Indeed, the book is the latest in a series entitled “The Listener’s Companion;” other books in this series give similar treatments to the lives and music of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Stravinsky, and Mozart, an unusual grouping. In his goal, LaFave is relatively successful; his congenial writing style is very accessible, and he explains unfamiliar musical concepts without talking down to his audience. In addition, he focuses on some Bernstein works that have had attracted little attention except for dissertations and other specialized books. Despite LaFave’s intentions, however, he does focus on biographical details, as it is really impossible to examine the music of any composer without considering the context in which it was conceived.

Experiencing Leonard Bernstein is organized into ten chapters, each of which focuses on specific compositions and milestones in Bernstein’s life. The book also provides a list of selected reading and listening, both of which are helpful to the non-specialist. However, these lists only offer a smattering of the many Bernstein resources available, perhaps because LaFave does not wish to overwhelm the novice. Noticeable omissions include Joan Peyser’s Bernstein: A Biography (1987) and Paul Laird’s Leonard Bernstein: A Guide to Research (2002). A few of the suggested sources are also questionable, such as Donald Broadrubb’s An Attempt to Delineate the Characteristic Structure of Classical (Biblical) Hebrew Poetry (1995), because these works do not relate to the larger Bernstein oeuvre. A useful feature about these lists is that they are annotated, some more extensively than others. The lists of recordings and CDs likewise favor the most popular Bernstein works, including Candide, West Side Story, and Chichester Psalms. Missing from these lists are recordings of Bernstein the conductor, likely because this book focuses more on Bernstein the composer; there are a few recordings of Bernstein conducting Bernstein. LaFave also includes a useful timeline of Bernstein’s life in the beginning of the book, although it curiously omits some important milestones, such as his tours of Israel.

The first two chapters, more than any others, focus the most on biography. Chapter 1, entitled, “Father, Son, and Music,” begins with a list of Bernstein’s accomplishments, but LaFave quickly reminds us that “Leonard Bernstein was first and foremost a composer” (2), thereby setting up the main focus of the book. LaFave correctly explains that understanding Bernstein’s complicated relationship with his father is an important framework to understanding his music. This chapter discusses Bernstein’s early works, such as his Clarinet Sonata, Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah), I Hate Music, and the Anniversaries in detail. Chapter 2, “Celebrity,” outlines a turning point in Bernstein’s life, both in terms of composition and conducting, and shows the relationship between these twin passions. During this time, he had his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic and the premiere of many of his important early works, such as Fancy Free and On the Town; LaFave painstakingly explains musical analysis of these works for the layman, offering details regarding formal design and harmonic structure.

Chapter 3, called “Age of Anxiety,” refers to the subtitle of Bernstein’s second symphony, the focus of the chapter. As in Chapter 1, LaFave plays the amateur psychologist, analyzing Bernstein’s relationship with another father figure, Serge Koussevitzsky, his conducting mentor at Tanglewood. LaFave explains that Koussevitzsky tried to force Bernstein to choose between his two passions of conducting and composing, but ultimately, he could not.

Some of Bernstein’s mid-century works, Trouble in Tahiti (1951) and Wonderful Town (1953), form the backbone of Chapter 4. These years also include lesser-known works such as Peter Pan (1950) and Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949), which, unlike more traditional jazz, is not improvised. Curiously, for a pedagogical text, LaFave does not really explain the structure of a fugue. During this time period, Bernstein also initiated and starred in the television programs Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts, featuring the New York Philharmonic.

Chapter 5 showcases Bernstein’s talents in the early 1950s, specifically the score to the film On the Waterfront and Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. LaFave explains that good film music should be “heard but not listened to” (73), but in the case of On the Waterfront, the music remains at the forefront of the movie; he observes that Bernstein’s music, while appropriate for opera, is not so for film, or at least, this film. LaFave notes that Bernstein’s Serenade is “the most widely performed of his non-theater scores” (84). This author must respectfully disagree, as there are other equally “widely performed” works such as Chichester Psalms or the three symphonies. LaFave frames the Serenade against the backdrop of the musical style of the 1950s, which, he says, is “called variously ‘twelve-tone,’ ‘serial’ and ‘atonal’” (91). These terms all represent different, although related harmonic languages; they are not synonymous. LaFave spends considerable time analyzing the various movements of Serenade, but these analyses are interrupted by explanations of technical terms. He asserts that Serenade is unusual in that it is not atonal or twelve-tone, as are many of other composers’ works from that period.

Candide and West Side Story represent the apex of Bernstein’s compositional prowess; these works form the bulk of Chapters 6 and 7, respectively. Candide has seen the most revisions of any of Bernstein’s pieces, and therefore, to speak of a definitive version is problematic. LaFave does a fine job of untangling the various stagings and the reasons for them as well as which songs belong to which version. He also ties this work together with Bernstein’s crisis of faith: our love of material things, greed, is faithless, but love requires faith. He enumerates the many inconsistencies in Voltaire’s original plot in an entertaining manner. He also tackles the thorny question of Candide’s genre: musical comedy or opera/operetta? He ultimately concludes noncommittally that it is “anything a director wants to make it” (114). LaFave narrates the history of the American musical and explains West Side Story’s place within this genre. As with Candide, West Side Story teeters between musical and opera, but it ultimately lands on the side of the musical. LaFave includes a lengthy discussion of the interval of the tritone and its significance in this musical. He states that the tritone ultimately stems from Bernstein’s early exposure to synagogue music; this assertion cuts to the heart of this author’s dissertation.1

During the mid-1960s, at the height of Bernstein’s tenure with the New York Philharmonic, he composed only two works: Kaddish and Chichester Psalms; these two pieces are the featured compositions in Chapter 8. Bernstein completed Kaddish just before the death of President Kennedy, so he dedicated this work to him. LaFave discusses Bernstein’s questioning of God in this work and briefly mentions that there are Jewish elements present without clarifying which ones or how they are used. Chichester Psalms is labeled the Kaddish Symphony’s “happy little brother” (146). Some of the music from this piece came from Bernstein’s failed Broadway play, The Skin of Our Teeth, written by frequent collaborators Adolph Green and Betty Comden.

In Chapter 9, LaFave ties together two diverse Bernstein projects: Mass and the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The Norton Lectures evolved from an essay in Bernstein’s book, The Infinite Variety of Music, which concludes with the idea ”that the crisis in tonality is a throbbing symbol of the broader crises in faith” (151). LaFave explains that just as the absence of tonality in the late twentieth century causes us, as listeners, to feel adrift, so, too, does the absence of faith in a higher power, as shown in Mass. Unfortunately, LaFave takes too much time to connect these ideas; however, he does present some interesting new notions, such as calling “Fraction” the “Mad Scene” that Bernstein did not write for the conclusion of West Side Story. LaFave concludes the chapter by saying, “Only when the Celebrant [in Mass] can find his way back from the unreality of that ‘atonal’ tangle . . . can he regain his innocence and sing again the ‘Secret Songs’” (168-9), thereby making clear the connection between Mass and the Norton Lectures.

In the final chapter, LaFave discusses Bernstein’s marital troubles and his wife’s untimely death. Bernstein had a “compositional lull” at this point and several “flops,” such as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, the 1980s saw a renewed energy, with such works as Divertimento, Halil, which continued Bernstein’s search for faith, A Quiet Place, Arias and Barcarolles, and Concerto for Orchestra. LaFave notes that these later works are “edgier, somewhat more removed and cerebral, and certainly less extroverted than the earlier compositions” (172).

As previously noted, LaFave’s writing style is decidedly less academic, bordering on “chatty,” but at the same time, it makes this book accessible to more people. However, at other times, he uses more scholarly language, which seems somewhat out of place and spirit with the rest of the work. There are three major flaws of this book: the surprising number of grammatical errors, the conversational tone, and the attempt to explain and analyze without the appropriate foundation for such. Words are often omitted in a sentence, a practice that could easily have been fixed by better proofreaders. The conversational tone sometimes feels like a monologue because LaFave interrupts his narrative to explain an idea, and then he takes too long to refocus. His ambitious goal to provide a theoretical analysis while explaining concepts is rather difficult to achieve in this format, and non-musicians might struggle to comprehend the theory. Perhaps unfamiliar terms could be explained more easily in a glossary. As a final consideration, an enclosed CD with musical excerpts would help elucidate his explanations, especially since the book’s focus is on listening, but copyright restrictions probably preclude this suggestion.

Ultimately, we need to ask if LaFave has achieved his goal and that of the Listener’s Companion Series: “to give readers a deeper understanding of pivotal musical genres and the creative work of its iconic practitioners” (ix). This author submits that the book does achieve that goal because of the manner in which LaFave organizes his work and caters to those lacking extensive musical backgrounds but interested in learning more. In some ways, LaFave attempts to emulate the manner in which Bernstein himself enlightened his television audiences a half-century ago. However, LaFave lacks the suavity and finesse of Bernstein, and thus Bernstein specialists and twentieth-century scholars will likely find few new insights to the multifaceted composer/conductor. For musical novices, though, Experiencing Leonard Bernstein offers good personal, compositional, and analytical inroads to a complex subject. As a practical book with a congenial tone, it succeeds in reaching a larger audience.


1 For more information on Bernstein’s early exposure to synagogue music, see the author’s articles, “Lenny Was Family. . . at Mishkan Tefila: The Importance of Leonard Bernstein’s Synagogue,” American Jewish Archives Journal 67, no. 1 (2015): 27-56; and “Leonard Bernstein’s Hashkiveinu,” Journal of Synagogue Music 40, no. 2 (September 2015): 66-77.

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