Leonard Bernstein, by Paul Myers

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Leonard BernsteinLeonard Bernstein, by Paul Myers. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998. 240 pp. ISBN: 0-7148-3701-6.

Leonard Bernstein led the kind of life that both thrills prospective biographers and causes them to suffer sleepless nights. He led an extraordinarily full life as a conductor, composer, television personality, educator, and celebrity. Indeed, a complete chronicle of just Bernstein's conducting would fill a large volume, and beyond his professional life lies a colorful personality full of profound contradictions. His life story becomes rather unmanageable as early as 1943 and 1944, when Bernstein began his conducting career and made his first splashes as a composer, of both concert music and a Broadway musical.

The best recent biographies have been Humphrey Burton's Leonard Bernstein (Doubleday, 1994) and Meryle Secrest's Leonard Bernstein: A Life (Vintage Books, 1994), both works with extensive detail. Burton, whose book was commissioned by Bernstein's estate, had the most access to materials and interview subjects, and wrote a balanced study of Bernstein the man and musician. Secrest was denied access to many documents and interview subjects, but still managed to produce a fine biography most useful for some personal details gleaned from interviewees.

Paul Myers fills a niche that neither Burton nor Secrest approaches: a shorter description of Bernstein's life, covering all important areas, but readable in several hours. This combination of concision and biographical inclusiveness is a trademark of this book's series, Phaidon Press's Twentieth-Century Composers.

Myers benefits from personal knowledge of Bernstein. He is now a freelance record producer, but met Bernstein in 1962 as a representative of Columbia Records. Bernstein worked exclusively with Columbia until 1980, and Myers collaborated with him often. However, Myers remains fairly objective throughout the volume. His writer's distance is most tested when dealing with more sensational aspects of Bernstein's personality, such as his excessive drinking, almost superhuman sexual drive, and occasional lack of sensitivity. Myers rightly believes that some biographers have written too much about these parts of Bernstein's life and he tries to focus on the music-making. At times, however, some might find that Myers makes too many excuses for Bernstein.

Myers skillfully outlines his biographical approach in his introduction. He opens with mention of the varied perceptions Bernstein's contemporaries had of him: "You either loved him or hated him; nothing much in between" (p. 6). Despite almost constant work as a conductor, Bernstein considered himself a composer, all the while fearing that he would be remembered only for West Side Story. Myers takes Bernstein the composer seriously and openly admits that he hopes "this book may persuade readers to rediscover or explore that music more fully" (p. 10).

The introduction continues with exploration of Bernstein as a man of huge contradictions, but also of great charisma. He notes that Bernstein was first and foremost a communicator, a man who reached out to an audience in a special way. Myers writes a short but telling description of Bernstein's personality, identifying a number of important areas effectively discussed in more detail in the body of the text. Destructive aspects of Bernstein's personality led to dissipation and somewhat desperate behavior in his last decade, described here by Myers with some detachment. He concludes the introduction by recounting his own relationship with Bernstein, which was usually professional, but which after several drinks sometimes became confessional. Bernstein told Myers of his frustration as a composer who never created a true masterpiece. Here Myers becomes self-indulgent, noting his regret that he could not "offer greater solace" (p. 10). Elsewhere, however, his objectivity is notable, especially in his sensitive treatment of Bernstein's complicated relationship with his wife, Felicia.

A biographer writing on Bernstein confronts a major challenge of organization. Bernstein's sprawling life resists easy categorization since he simultaneously pursued projects in a variety of fields. Myers uses a chronological approach in five chapters. He makes breaks in the narrative in 1945, when Bernstein became music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra; in 1957, when he began his association with the New York Philharmonic as co-director with Dimitri Mitropoulos (one year before Bernstein became sole music director); in 1969, when he left the Philharmonic; and in 1979, one year after Bernstein's wife Felicia died and he entered his final decade, a period of extraordinary music-making but erratic behavior. In each chapter, Myers moves effectively among the symphony orchestras, Broadway musicals, television appearances, Bernstein's personal life, and other areas. Myers has a fine sense for necessary detail, providing the reader with adequate background to more or less understand every situation, but avoiding, for example, long descriptions of important figures such as Copland or Koussevitzky. Indeed, Myers at times assumes considerable knowledge from the reader, but no biography of Bernstein that is a little more than two hundred pages can fully explain every issue. A Bernstein specialist must read this book to appreciate Myers's informed stance on major issues, but will learn little that is new. Myers targets the reader who simply wants to learn more about Bernstein. That reader might also have to be willing to read more about American music of the twentieth century and its key figures to understand better Bernstein's life. To this end, Myers included a useful "Further Reading" section. The book includes no footnotes or endnotes.

Myers serves as a good advocate for Bernstein's compositions. The best-known works, such as West Side Story, are adequately described, but Myers clearly is more interested in championing works he considers under-appreciated, such as the Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety), the Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish), and Bernstein's film score to On the Waterfront. Such works are given good background histories and non-technical musical descriptions. Myers does not appear to be a sophisticated musical analyst, but he does know why he likes Bernstein's music, and he gives the non-musician a reason to listen to it. A good example is Myers's consideration of the Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) (pp. 132-34), which he calls a "masterpiece" that is poorly understood. The symphony is a telling reminder of Bernstein's commitment to tonality. Myers believes that writing such a score in 1963, when atonality and serialism were all the rage, makes Bernstein seem today "a voice in the wilderness and a prophet in his time" (p. 133). Myers's description of Mass (1971) shows his ability to criticize Bernstein's music as well. In a famous review, New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg called the work "cheap and vulgar," the result of Bernstein's desperation to be "with it." Many have tried to deflect such criticism, but Myers finds truth in the remarks, citing several faults with Bernstein's foray into popular music. One might quibble with details of Myers's consideration of Bernstein's music, but his thoughts are honest and well presented. Myers has made a useful contribution to our understanding of Bernstein's music, at least at the level of a good music critic. His basically optimistic appraisal of the music continues in the volume's "Epilogue."

Myers's Leonard Bernstein is a well-produced book that will be especially helpful to anyone desiring a genuinely readable biography with serious consideration of the man's life, work, and personality. Undergraduate music majors and those simply interested in music seem to be the true target audience, but some will need to read more about the twentieth-century musical scene to make sense out of the many figures who appear in Bernstein's life. The apparatus includes a number of useful black-and-white photographs, a "Classified List of Works," the above-mentioned "Further Reading" section, and a "Selective Discography."

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018

Paul R. Laird

Paul R. Laird is Professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses on Baroque music, twentieth-century music, and directs the Instrumental Collegium Musicum. 

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