Leonard Bernstein

Humphrey Burton, Author Doubleday Books $25 (594p) ISBN 978-0-385-42345-8
Flamboyant composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), who was America's ambassador to the world of serious music for most of his jam-packed life, has long needed a sober, well-researched and encompassing biography, and this is it. There have been tactful hagiographies (John Gruen), malicious deconstructions (Joan Peyser) and ambivalent inside stories (Burton Bernstein); but Burton, a British TV producer who knew Bernstein well but was no acolyte, has created, with the aid of family archives, a wealth of interviews and an interested layperson's sound musical knowledge, a full-length study unlikely to be surpassed. It is in many ways a tragic story, not of genius unrecognized--if anything Bernstein was overpraised in his life, both as composer and conductor--but of a protean nature overcome by the demands of celebrity status and an overweening ego. From the start ``Lenny'' was a determinedly colorful character, insistent on the limelight, extravagant of gesture and emotion. Whether he could have become a great composer, rather than a highly talented musical entertainer whose best-remembered work remains his Broadway musicals, will never be known; for his whole professional life was an agonized tightrope walk between the frenzies of adulation that greeted his conducting and his guilty sense that he was betraying his creative gift by not spending more time in the workroom. And even the slim body of work he did create in his crowded life emerged more often than not from collaborations with lyricists and librettists, almost as if he was afraid to be alone with his muse. Bernstein was a man who owed much to his Jewish heritage (and Burton adroitly notes how much of his serious music had Jewish roots) and experienced a strong sense of guilt about his bisexuality, particularly after the death of his betrayed wife Felicia. But as the reader begins to wonder whether such anguish is inescapable for a non-heterosexual American artist, there is the example of Bernstein's friend Aaron Copland to ponder: a man secure in his gay sexuality who created what is arguably a much more lasting body of work and had a greater influence on the musical life of his time. The fact that a biography can raise such questions is a tribute to the tact and imagination that infuse this one. Bernstein owes Burton a posthumous hug for having told it straight, with affection but no blinkers. Photos. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/04/1994
Release date: 04/01/1994
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 978-0-385-42352-6
Paperback - 609 pages - 978-0-571-17368-6
Show other formats
Discover what to read next