Commentary Magazine

The Lettered Bernstein

By the time Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, he was unquestionably America’s best-known classical musician. Yet his achievements were viewed with persistent skepticism by critics and scholars. They acknowledged his wide-ranging talents—he was equally gifted as a conductor, a pianist, and a composer of music for both the concert hall and the musical-comedy stage—but his underlying seriousness was always in question.

A quarter-century later, Bernstein is no less famous, and no more respected. Yale University Press has just published a fat volume of his correspondence, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, but it was edited not by a prominent American academic but by Nigel Simeone, a British musicologist whose dust-jacket bio identifies him merely as a “well-known as a writer and speaker on music.” Simeone is, in fact, an authority on the music of Olivier Messiaen and has also written a monograph on West Side Story (1957), Bernstein’s most successful Broadway show. It says much about the way Bernstein continues to be viewed by this country’s classical-music elite, however, that his letters were not previously thought worthy of attention by an American scholar.

Whatever the ultimate value of Bernstein’s work as a composer and performer, the historical value of the 650 letters reprinted here is incontestable. They include selections from Bernstein’s correspondence with (among many others) Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Adolph Green, Serge Koussevitzky, Francis Poulenc, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Igor Stravinsky, and Thornton Wilder, as well as a sprinkling of less significant but nonetheless interesting letters sent to Bernstein by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bette Davis, Miles Davis, Jackie Kennedy, Harpo Marx, and Frank Sinatra. In addition, Simeone has reprinted a large number of purely personal letters from now obscure correspondents, some (though by no means all) of which illuminate Bernstein’s ever-complex interior life.

The Leonard Bernstein Letters would be more valuable if a fair number of the letters sent to Bernstein had been omitted, and if Simeone had ruthlessly pruned his verbose annotations. It serves no purpose, for instance, to be informed that Stravinsky was “a dominant figure in 20th-century music,” or that Sid Ramin, who helped to orchestrate West Side Story, “is best known for ‘Music to Watch Girls By,’ originally written for a Diet Pepsi commercial and subsequently widely recorded.” And while many of the letters reprinted here are extremely readable, they do not paint a portrait of Bernstein that is substantially different from the one Humphrey Burton supplied in his 1994 biography.

What The Leonard Bernstein Letters does do surpassingly well is show us Bernstein as he saw himself at any given moment in his eventful life. His was a many-sided personality, by turns affectionate and imperious, arrogant and obsequious, effusively juvenile and unexpectedly thoughtful, and it is in his letters, especially the voluble ones written in the first half of his life, that we encounter it with a clarity denied to those who knew only his more guarded public persona.

For some, the most noteworthy aspect of Bernstein’s correspondence will be the candor with which he and his friends, Aaron Copland in particular, discuss his sexuality. Indeed, Copland appears to have destroyed several letters in which Bernstein described his hectic sex life with a frankness his older friend found at once amusing and imprudent. “What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames is what they are,” he told Bernstein in a 1940 letter. “Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter 40 years from now when you are conductor of the [New York] Philharmonic.”

Bernstein’s bisexuality is no longer a secret, but both men knew quite well that it could have endangered his then nascent career as a conductor were it to become generally known that he had sex with men—many, many men, judging by his correspondence. Nor is it now possible to doubt that he was primarily homosexual. Felicia Montealegre, who became his wife in 1951, certainly thought as much, informing him in a letter written around the time of their marriage that “you are a homosexual and may never change—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?”

Montealegre alludes here to the fact that Bernstein, as his letters reveal, underwent psychoanalysis in the 40s in what appears to have been a genuine effort to become exclusively heterosexual. “I can almost look at the problem now as a problem instead of as a Fascist enemy ready to strike,” he told one of his youthful lovers. While it is impossible to know whether he acted purely out of a sense of guilt or because he also feared the professional repercussions of being exposed as gay, it is clear that he was ill at ease with the louche world to which he was so powerfully drawn. As he explained to a college friend in 1940:

I have been made sick by the depravity of the Greenwich Villagers, the totally degenerate homosexuals, the equally degenerate heterosexuals, the foolish and destructive attitudes, and the frantic attempts to preserve the atmosphere of postwar bohemianism…it is this great horror of taking my place with these people, and becoming an “artist” that half kills me.

Either way, his sexual attraction to men remained constant, though he appears to have been (mostly) faithful to Montealegre during his tenure as music director of the Philharmonic, during which time his increasingly frequent TV appearances made him a highly recognizable public figure, thereby increasing the risk of extramarital sexual encounters.

Copland, with whom Bernstein may have had a brief romantic relationship in his youth (their surviving correspondence is inconclusive on this point) and who later acted as his professional mentor and most enduring confidant, seems to have taken an even-handed view of his protégé’s equivocal standing. Himself a homosexual who was by all accounts at ease with it, Copland neither urged Bernstein to come to terms with his own attraction to men nor urged him to seek help for it. He seems, rather, simply to have accepted it as a given, something that Bernstein found hard to do.

In any case, Copland was at least as interested in Bernstein’s career as he was in his sexuality. He even informally tutored the younger man in composition, though he is known to have harbored lingering doubts about Bernstein’s gifts as a composer. About his abilities on the podium, by contrast, Copland had no doubts whatsoever. In a 1943 letter inexplicably omitted from the present volume, he went so far as to tell Bernstein that “you’re heading for conductoring [sic] in a big way—and anybody and everything that doesn’t lead there is an excrescence on the body politic.”

Moreover, Copland recognized early on that it would be professionally advantageous not only to him but to American composers in general if Bernstein were to become a top-tier conductor. And so it was: Bernstein stalwartly championed American music throughout his career, performing it with a burgeoning vitality and rhythmic swing that no European-born conductor of his generation could come anywhere near matching.

No less important, though, is that Copland was in no way hostile to Bernstein’s parallel interest in popular music. Unlike Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian conductor who was his other great patron and who dismissed jazz and pop as unworthy of the attention of a serious artist, Copland encouraged Bernstein to write whatever kind of music best suited him. As a result, his career simultaneously branched off in two sharply contrasting directions. Bernstein made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943, then collaborated with Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jerome Robbins the following year on a Broadway musical, On the Town.

The success of On the Town and Fancy Free, the jazzy ballet score that preceded and inspired the show, presented Bernstein with a problem he found difficult to solve. On the one hand, he was in demand as a Broadway songwriter. On the other hand, he was also in growing demand as a symphonic conductor, and the American classical-music establishment, dominated as it then was by European émigrés like Koussevitzky, took for granted that he had to choose between the two. Mainly for this reason, Bernstein turned away from popular music after On the Town, writing no more shows until Wonderful Town (1953), which opened two years after Koussevitzky’s death.

Instead, he wrote jazz-inflected “classical” pieces like his first two symphonies (1942 and 1949), a second ballet score for Robbins (Facsimile, 1946), and his most impressive concert work, the Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” (1954). But most critics dismissed these attractive, emotionally direct pieces as slick and superficial, and it was not until Bernstein returned to Broadway in the 1950s with Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story that he was once again taken seriously as a composer.

His letters from this period dramatize his professional indecision. As his friend Shirley Gabis warned him in 1944: “Your driving ambition to be the most versatile creature on earth will kill any possibility of you becoming a truly great artist in any one of the talents you possess….Is your mission in life to be the greatest of all dilettantes??”

It was not, but he was intensely aware from the start of his career that many kinds of success were available to him. Moreover, he enjoyed being a well-paid celebrity—at one point he was approached to star in a biopic about the life of Tchaikovsky—and his reluctance to settle on a single line of work was and is understandable.

In the end, life chose for him: The New York Philharmonic appointed Bernstein its first American-born and trained music director not long after West Side Story opened on Broadway, and the unrelenting demands of that job soon made it impossible for him to compose other than sporadically, either for Broadway or for the concert hall. Within a year he was ruefully confessing to Copland that he was “thinking about those inside wheels of me that compose music, and are so rusty now (I wrote a bar today!), and how long I can go on being an all-time maestro without writing.”

The answer, it turned out, was that he could do so for the rest of his life. After 1958, Bernstein produced only one artistically successful large-scale concert work, Chichester Psalms (1965), and his lone post–West Side Story musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), was a disaster that closed after seven performances. Though he would continue to dabble in classical composition, it was orchestral conducting to which he thereafter devoted most of his creative energies.

To suggest that Bernstein’s later career was for this reason a failure is a mistake, and not only because he was a major (if uneven) conductor. As I said when I last wrote about him for Commentary in 1994:

Anyone capable of composing Fancy Free, reviving the music of Mahler, and introducing millions of Americans to the joys of classical music deserves to be praised for what he did, not criticized for what he failed to do.

For his own part, Bernstein often appeared, at least in conversation with friends, to be no more capable of accepting his inability to establish himself as a classical composer of the first rank than he was able to live an exclusively heterosexual life. Suffering as he did from what his friend and sometime collaborator Stephen Sondheim called “a bad case of important-itis,” he could not help thinking that conducting failed to make the fullest possible use of his talents. “The obvious fear is that I’ll be remembered—however vaguely—not as a composer but as a conductor,” he admitted a few days before he died.

True enough—and yet there is surprisingly little evidence in his correspondence that he was haunted by that prospect. After 1959, one encounters only rare and passing acknowledgements that composing had become for him a secondary pursuit (“I don’t feel like performing much these days: I’d rather be quietly composing”). So far as can be divined from his letters, he was fulfilled by conducting, at least as much as he had it in him to be. As for the ambitious compositions that Bernstein never managed to bring to fruition, which included musical versions of Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and a Holocaust opera called Babel that appears never to have gone beyond preliminary sketches, one suspects that they were all manifestations of his “important-itis” that were better left unwritten.

Had he been content to go on working in the more modest but genuinely engaging vein of smaller-scaled pieces like Chichester Psalms and Fancy Free, which have yet to be generally recognized at their true value by most critics, Bernstein’s failure to overcome the distractions of a performing life lived in public would have been, if not quite a tragedy, then at the very least a disappointment. But if there is anything that The Leonard Bernstein Letters tells us, it is that he mostly led the life he wanted to lead and did the things he wanted to do. Whatever else it may or may not be, such a fate is not the stuff of tragedy.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, out this month from Gotham Books.

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