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Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives)
Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives)
Allen Shawn
Yale University Press, 2014
360 pp., $25.00

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Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Broadway Legacies)
Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Broadway Legacies)
Carol J. Oja
Oxford University Press, 2014
416 pp., $29.95

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The Leonard Bernstein Letters
The Leonard Bernstein Letters
Leonard Bernstein
Yale University Press, 2013
624 pp., $38.00

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John H. McWhorter


Music as Story-Time

The genius of Bernstein’s theater scores.

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Rather, it is reasonable to suppose that a Bernstein who came of age in the Sixties or afterward would have applied his talent more assiduously to theater writing, especially as it underwent a reconceptualization as true art with the efforts of figures such as Stephen Sondheim, who penned the lyrics to West Side Story. Freed of antique notions that theater music could only qualify as "middlebrow" because it gave pleasure too readily to too wide a swath of humanity, Bernstein may well have given us more of his intelligent, arresting, and splendid theater music, and measured his success on the basis of how many such scores he got produced, rather than how many symphonies he wrote.

Little remarked is that with his theater music Bernstein achieved an immortality on the level of Bach's, Beethoven's, or Stravinsky's. At no point will the sublime music for Candide or West Side Story ever sound "old-fashioned." From his counsel in that first Young People's Concert we know that Bernstein measured music's true transcendence according to its independence from the bounds of narrative and reference. Interestingly, it can be argued that it was his work most intimately connected to narrative and reference which was the most transcendent.

John H. McWhorter is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford Univ. Press).

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