Leonard Bernstein's daughter recalls a man of letters

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

It’s 13 years since the death of the multi-talented composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein. But recent events have kept Bernstein’s prodigious talents in the public eye. His elder daughter, Jamie — who travels the globe as a concert narrator to Bernstein’s work — addressed a packed London Jewish Cultural Centre audience, en route from Berlin, where there had been a two-week festival of his music.

“There was a performance of my father’s famous version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where he changed the words from ‘Ode to Joy’ to ‘Ode to Freedom’ when he conducted it on the fall of the Berlin Wall — once in West Berlin and once in East Berlin. There were recitals, a cabaret and a version of West Side Story. And I am going back because they are doing a version of my father’s opera, A Quiet Place, in a new chamber version which has never been heard before.”

Then there was the publication of an extraordinary archive, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited meticulously by Nigel Simeone. The 650 letters span the years from 1932 to 1990 and show the young and enthusiastic Bernstein and some of his early friendships, which endured for much of his life. The letters also cover his co-operation with fellow musicians and conductors, such as Aaron Copland and Stephen Sondheim; his frequent trips to Israel, often playing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; and, by no means least, the copious correspondence with a who’s who of international musical theatre, from Lauren Bacall to Frank Sinatra. Not forgetting a lovely letter from a young Maureen Lipman after she had starred in Bernstein’s musical, Wonderful Town.

An overwhelming message from the letters is the sheer volume of his work, much of which failed to achieve critical or commercial success in its day. But Jamie Bernstein is in no doubt that there is a renewed interest in her father’s symphonic work — aside, that is, from the failed musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “It was wildly ambitious and it had book problems,” she recalls. “The score is amazing, there are some fantastic songs from that show. But the concept was very difficult. The two of them, my father and Alan Jay Lerner, had a terrible time trying to wrestle it into shape. It’s a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs of the White House, showing successive presidents and the family that works for them, who at the beginning are slaves, and then are not. To have two middle-aged Jewish white guys working on this was just a powder keg. And it was very difficult to have character development — it almost got to be a pageant. You could almost feel this sinking feeling in the audience.”

She also points out that her father “was composing music for the symphonic world in the mid-20th century at a time when if you were going to be taken seriously by the academic community as a composer, you absolutely had to forfeit writing tonal music. My father would have liked to be considered a serious composer of worth in the halls of academe. But he was not willing to forfeit writing melodies. He was really good at writing tunes but that meant — and he knew — that he was not going to get the imprimatur from all those academic folks. And it hurt him a lot.

“Looking back, I think we are really glad that he didn’t give up writing a tune. The Bernstein music is holding up very well and there is a resurgence of interest in my father’s works. They sound great now.” She still loves West Side Story but regards it as a point of entry for discovering his other work.

Leonard’s parents, Sam and Jennie, came separately to America, Jennie as an eight-year-old, Sam when he was 17. They met through mutual friends and neither of them, says their granddaughter, had a grain of musical inclination. She cannot explain where her father’s genius came from, nor why those in her parents’ circle of friends — Bacall, film director Mike Nichols, photographer Richard Avedon and Bernstein’s musical comedy collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green — were overwhelmingly Jewish.

Astonishingly, given Bernstein’s voluminous output, his daughter says he regretted not writing more. And, she reveals, he was seriously considering writing a Holocaust opera.

Despite so many calls on his talents, Bernstein was also a regular family man, presiding with enthusiasm over an annual Seder. Jamie Bernstein smiles in reminiscence. “Ah, my dad. When he was home, he was really home.”

    Last updated: 12:32pm, December 5 2013