A perfectly harmonious Hebrew

We prefer a life in letters to a biography


Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician
By Allen Shawn
Yale University Press, £18.99

The Leonard Bernstein Letters
Nigel Simeone (Ed)
Yale University Press, £14.99

One might reasonably expect a life of Leonard Bernstein in Yale's Jewish Lives useful series to examine ethnic and religious aspects of the man and his music. Bernstein, more than any major US composer, was out and proud about being Jewish. Not for him Gershwin's self-mockery, Copland's evasiveness or the escapism of Kurt Weill. Bernstein based his early scores on Old Testament themes, championed the new state of Israel, set a Psalm in Hebrew for an Anglican cathedral and berated the Vienna Philharmonic for antisemitism. Closet, he was not.

His first symphony, Jeremiah, employed barmitzvah cantillations. His Broadway musical Candide was, aside from much else, a wandering Jew saga with a showstopper aria, I am so easily assimilated. He composed a symphony called Kaddish, two suites on the Dybbuk and a nocturne, Halil, for an Israeli flautist killed in the Yom Kippur War. He attended Fifth Avenue Synagogue. He spoke Yiddish. Most of his close friends and musical collaborators were, as Yehudi Menuhin used to put it, "our co-religionists".

By subtitling his book An American Musician, Allen Shawn betrays his subject in a perverse, counterfactual way. Bernstein was never altogether comfortable with his American identity after the State Department took away his passport during the McCarthy persecutions. He had been anonymously denounced as a Communist, which he wasn't, though many of his friends were. Unlike Copland and Jerome Robbins, he was not summoned to Washington for interrogation; instead, he wrote an extraordinary legal affidavit, included in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, to clear himself without inculpating others. He was tailed and tapped by the FBI as late as the 1970s. A part of him remained spiritually, morally and intellectually un-American.

He writes in 1948 from 'my beloved Jerusalem, without water and in siege'

Shawn, a composer and academic, adds little to the known facts of Bernstein's life and omits significant relationships with, for instance, Goddard Lieberson and Harry Kraut, who invented Bernstein's media persona and world fame.

Shawn's account of Judaism, in reference to the Kaddish symphony, is inaccurate. This book deserves no more than half a review.

Turn, instead to the Letters, newly out in paperback, which contain the life entire. Brilliant speaker that he was, Bernstein was an epistolary genius who filled his airmails with chance observations, profound thoughts and piercing emotion. He writes in October 1948 from "my beloved Jerusalem, without water, and in siege. But the concerts go on - dozens of them - never one missed - with huge and cheering audiences, sometimes accompanied by shells and machine-guns outside." He tells Serge Koussevitsky, the austere Boston conductor, that he met his nephew Moshe, a captain of commandos. He conducts new symphonies. He falls in love often, and never falls out.

As conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he writes to the chazan of his boyhood shul that he would "never forget the tremendous influence you and your music made on me when I was a youngster". In Russia, he shakes off KGB minders to visit the proscribed Boris Pasternak.

He marks John F Kennedy's assassination with a concert of Mahler's Resurrection symphony, "not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him."

After Bobby Kennedy's funeral, where Bernstein conducted the Adagietto from Mahler's fifth symphony, Jackie Kennedy wrote to him at length at four in the morning, thanking him for "all the music that meant so much to (Ethel, Bobby's widow), all the music the church could or couldn't play". The Kennedys saw that there were things Bernstein dared to do in America that only a Jew could have done. His was truly a Jewish life.

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