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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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Overall, even Bernstein's pieces beyond the musicals suggest a gift most fully realized when applied to narrative. His Chichester Psalms choral suite in biblical Hebrew often touches people without especial interest in classical music, and it is likely that part of the reason is that most of the material originated as melodies for theater songs, either discarded from West Side Story or from an aborted musicalization of Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth. Might the music have been even more effective in a narrative work with lyrics in English? Hearing a Bernstein musical signature in an instrumental piece, such as the plangent use of the fourth and the minor seventh in a section of his score for On the Waterfront, one senses that the musical statement was even more effective when set to words in Candide's "Make Our Garden Grow" and West Side Story's "Somewhere."

It bears mentioning that theater music also allowed Bernstein to express his commitment to social justice in a way that the classical music medium could not have. Sadly, this facet of the man was most resonantly aired in the form of Tom Wolfe's famously caustic New Journalism piece "Radical Chic" on Bernstein and his wife's fund-raising party for the Black Panthers. As shallow and self-involved as that article made Bernstein's liberal politics seem, his concern with racial justice was sincere and sustained. Oja documents that even as far back as jolly On the Town in 1944, Bernstein assured the hiring of a black violinist in the pit who later became the conductor, essentially the first black person to conduct a white pit in Broadway history. There were also several black chorus members, and the stage manager's materials show that these chorus members often interacted and even danced with white ones, quite unusual in musicals of the period. Bernstein's final Broadway musical was directly couched in sociological concern to the point of compromising it as art. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), written with Alan Jay Lerner, depicted the sweep of American history through two actors playing various First Couples while two black actors played the couples' servants. The show ran five days; good intentions couldn't redeem a thin premise. Yet in-house recordings of the performances reveal a touchingly earnest, not to mention lovely, work. It is not compromised in not being a voiceless symphony composed in thrall to the format Beethoven excelled in—that form could not have expressed what Bernstein had to say.

Yet Bernstein considered all of this theater work filler, ever bemoaning that his duties as the Philharmonic's conductor kept him from writing a massive body of "serious" pieces. But what he was doing instead is gorgeously illustrated in a scene Shawn describes: Bernstein at the piano during a wearying rehearsal of West Side Story, composing quirky, complex, and often bebop-inflected dance music as choreographer Jerome Robbins works out the steps. Dance music in musicals is typically worked out by an assistant; for the composer himself to create the dance music is almost unheard of, especially dance music so rich that it can stand on its own as instrumental music (and does, in a suite Bernstein arranged). Still, despite this protean talent, Bernstein felt ever oppressed by the narrow assessments of people like his mentor, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, disappointed that he never truly "got serious." This was due ultimately to his having been born too early.

To be sure, a Bernstein living today could not have had the classical career he did have. Bernstein was minted in an era in which classical music had such a cultural cachet that the question "Do you like music?" was assumed to refer to classical music specifically. Bernstein's talent for piano playing, conducting, and composition was on a genius level, and yet today no one with such a talent could become world-famous. Michelangelo and F. Scott Fitzgerald would be stars today, but Bernstein would be at best a respected conductor or obscure composer. Today's New York Philharmonic conductor, Alan Gilbert, is not what most would consider a celebrity.

Yet, ironically, the narrowing of the space for classical music in today's culture would have been good for a Bernstein born fifty years later. Not in that he would have gone into pop writing—the almost mysterious knack required for that was not really his. One squeezes oddly few truly demotic, Man-on-the-Street take-home melodies from his Broadway scores: even the West Side Story tunes now so familiar took a while to catch on. Bernstein actually considered pop insubstantial. Oja documents that in 1947 he told Esquire, "The 'popular song' has had, and can have, no influence whatsoever on serious music. It is created for money, sung for money, and dies when the money stops rolling in. It is imitative, conventional, emotionless."

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