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Composer, conductor, author, pianist, lecturer — was there anything Leonard Bernstein couldn’t do?

A review of Allen Shawn’s life of this maverick reveals him as an object of both admiration and suspicion in the music world

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Leonard Bernstein Allen Shawn

Yale, pp.347, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300144284

On 17 May 1969 Leonard Bernstein ended his 12-year run as musical director of the New York Philharmonic with a performance of Mahler’s Third. The next night he went to see Jimi Hendrix play Madison Square Gardens. And there you have him. Was Bernstein a fragile romantic or a firebrand rocker? Was he the spiritual visionary who gave us Chichester Psalms or the tin-pan-alley tunesmith behind West Side Story?

Bernstein went to his grave claiming it was possible to be all these things and more — insisting that you could be a political activist and a concert pianist, a conductor of the challengingly atonal and a writer of the melodically unforgettable. Not everyone was convinced. There were, and are, critics who believe that Bernstein’s facility and fecundity was mere dilettantism. Allen Shawn’s suave new biography hopes to give them pause.

Bernstein was a child prodigy, talking before he was 18 months old, picking out tunes on an aunt’s piano from the moment it fetched up in his parents’ Boston home. A few months later he was outplaying his first tutor, and within a couple of years had mastered Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (a struggle for the average Grade 8 student). He was composing at 12, and by the time he got to Harvard, his party piece was flattening the dominants in Mozart sonatas to make them sound ‘like Grieg’. Little wonder a musician as variously gifted as Richard Rodgers once asked Bernstein whether there was ‘anything you don’t do better than anyone else?’


Well, his score for Zeffirelli’s biopic of St Francis, Brother Son, Sister Moon was rejected — mercifully, you might think, when you learn that Bernstein subsequently transformed much of what he’d written for the movie into his Mass. This early 1970s mishmash of marching bands, choral chants and electric guitars makes John Lennon’s Yoko-inspired yawns on the White Album seem the last word in sing-along fun.

Nor was his 1973 Harvard lecture series The Unanswered Question altogether successful. In these long, demanding talks, broadcast here by the BBC, Bernstein tried to find parallels in musical composition for the same deep biological structures Noam Chomsky had recently claimed underpinned all languages. Punctuated by piano interludes in which the elegantly suited Bernstein sought to concretise ineffably abstract ideas with snippets from the likes of Copland and Stravinsky and Ives, the shows were a knockout. But once you’d picked yourself up there was no escaping the fact that Bernstein’s premise was a no-no. Words, after all, are so numerous as to be near infinite in their permutational possibilities; music — even music written for the 12-tone scale — is far more restricted in range.

Shawn is too kind to The Unanswered Question, but otherwise he is on the money about Bernstein’s achievements. A composer and pianist himself, he shares Bernstein’s contempt for the high-/low-culture debate. Admire Bernstein’s symphonies and choral works though he does, he knows that most of Bernstein’s best work was written for Broadway — and that the best of Broadway is up there with Britten and Brahms. George Abbot, West Side Story’s first director, ribbed Bernstein about what he called the show’s ‘Prokaaaafieff stuff’; but Shawn’s analysis should convince even the stuffiest aesthete that the show’s mash-up of classical melodies with jazz rhythms and Schoenbergian dissonance wasn’t just new — it will be new for ever.

Whether Bernstein himself was convinced is more moot. Despite his dismissal of the pop/art divide, he hankered after grander things than showbiz success. As Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the words for West Side Story, once said, ‘Lenny had a bad case of important-itis.’ Though Bernstein was rightly adamant that ‘music is never about anything … [it’s just] notes and sounds’, he called his second symphony The Age of Anxiety (after Auden), and his third Kaddish, as if to prod listeners into imputing to them the semantic content he had told them couldn’t be there.

The only Bernstein work whose title makes any kind of sense is his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium — because no art form is better equipped than music for communicating what it feels like to be in love. Music might not mean anything, but it can conjure up moods and emotions, can allow you, however transiently, to grasp at life beyond the self. Jonathan Miller, who directed Bernstein’s operetta Candide in London, once excoriated what he saw as the ‘sentimental, saccharine tosh’ of West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’. ‘You find yourself,’ Miller said, ‘wanting to say: “No, Lenny, there isn’t such a place”.’ But there is such a place. It is called music, and it exists for as long as melodies as beautiful as Bernstein’s are being played.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Al_de_Baran

    “he knows that most of Bernstein’s best work was written for Broadway — and that the best of Broadway is up there with Britten and Brahms. ”

    Oh, Shawn “knows” that, does he? How exactly does he “know” it? Someone, please enlighten us.

    • Edward

      In the same way one ‘knows’ anything. Indeed, how does one ‘know’ anything? Always the question to which there is no satisfying answer, when one considers the ambiguity of our understanding of phenomena and the unquantifiable parameters of our cognition. However, this does not preclude us from ‘knowing’ what we ‘know’ with degrees of confidence, based on concepts of some certainty (i.e., physical laws, etc.).

      How do you know enough to ask such a question and to ask it with such ‘certainty’ as to be sarcastic? You must believe you know something about Shawn the author does not or cannot, else you could not pose the question as such a challenge. Alternatively, are you merely going after the concept of ‘knowing’ itself? If so, how do you ‘know’ that thing upon which you base your question with such haughty ‘certainty?’ 😉

      • Shelagh D-B

        I know without any doubt that I wish I had a way with words as you do….Loved that explanation 🙂

      • Al_de_Baran

        All I was asking is, what is the basis for making a knowledge claim in the case of what is clearly a value-judgment based upon personal taste. Dreadfully sorry if that got your knickers twisted.

        In any case, the “haughty certainty” seems to be yours, not mine, and is all the more ironic because you missed my point spectacularly. (It’s also funny that my alleged “haughty certainty” seems to irritate you, but the haughty certainty behind such a statement as “the best of Broadway is equal to Brahms” doesn’t.)

        Anyway… ”Knowing “that something is “better” in the arts (or any area that can’t be quantified, and involves matters of taste) is a value-judgment, and not a statement of fact. Therefore, it is patently ridiculous to say that one “knows” that the best of Broadway is equal to, etc.

        So, at a minimum, it should be obvious that Shawn does not “know” what he claims to know in the “same way one ‘knows’ anything”.

        • Edward

          Well, Al, my critique was a humorous jab; I intended to make you laugh. I imagined us sparing in good jest. Clearly I missed the mark. Please accept my apology.

          Personally, I’ve no complaint with the title. But, if it is patently ridiculous for the author to claim “the best of Broadway is equal to Brahms” because it is a subjective value judgement, then it is necessarily equally ridiculous for one to disclaim the author’s title. If such irony was your intent, I will remind you that vagueness in the pursuit of humor is a high art, and it usually requires exceedingly well-crafted text in order to be successful. We are working in a restricted medium here. I mean, it is not usually necessary for one post a picture of him/herself wearing outrageously large and bizarrely colored clown shoes with forward projecting spiral laces, and a red nose and make-up when delivering the line, but it helps to have some illustrative talents in communicating written humor, don’t you agree?

          Oh, and by the way, single quotation marks are used when a word is being employed to represent meaning for which it is not typically used. There is nothing weaselly about using them; it is proper usage.

          Now, fondness for ad hominem is something entirely different, and it carries its own meaning that I believe undermines a person’s ability to get into the proper mood for humor; for that I have no response except: Do have a lovely day, Al.

          Oh, and please note my smile at the end of the text this time (as well as at the end of my original post above). At this point, if you cannot accept it as friendly I’ll understand. But in this context, you’ll at least have to (grudgingly perhaps) admit, it is indeed funny. 🙂

          • Al_de_Baran

            Thanks for the reply and clarification, and my apologies for
            having missed the humorous intention of your response. I think that we were talking at cross-purposes. But phrases such as “haughty certainty” are not something that I associate with purely light-hearted good humor.

            I am puzzled both at your reference to the title and to ad hominem. My concern was specifically with the value-judgment I noted and use of the word “know”. The title is pretty funny, but I am not sure I agree that there is a relationship between it and the reviewer’s remarks. The reviewer seems to mean the Brahms remark seriously. If he doesn’t, and I missed the humor, then my remarks should indeed be disregarded. If he is serious (and I think that he is), then my comments stand. Again, though, if I am mistaken, then the clown suit is on me; fair enough.

            As to ad hominem, there is not a trace of it in my contributions here. That’s an accusation that many make without really understanding what ad hominem is. Here’s a link to an excellent explanation of the concept, one that I wish I could make every Internet forum disputant memorize:

            http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2013/11/what-an-ad-hominem-argument-is-and-isnt.html

            [Read up to the lines “Campos the scammer”]

            And to move full circle, sarcasm, such as I employed in my first comment, is a form of humor, if perhaps a low one, so I think my funny bone is reasonably intact. And if my humor radar is a little off, then that likely has more to do with my recovery from recent surgery than from a character defect–I hope!

            Anyway, as the kids today say, “peace out”.

  • “When I am with composers, I say I am a conductor. When I am with conductors, I say I am a composer.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

    “I remember one night in Symphony Hall. We were sitting up very high and Koussevitzky had just done a beautiful job of conducting something very difficult. There was a great ovation, people standing and cheering, and Lenny just sat there clapping very softly. ‘What’s the matter, didn’t you like it?’ I asked him. And he said, ‘I’m so jealous…'”
    — Mildred Spiegel, re the teenaged Leonard Bernstein

  • ricpic

    It may be that when Bernstein did Art with a capital A he succumbed to the pitfall of pomposity when saying something “important.” On the other hand his score for West Side Story is full of life and holds up to this day. He also wrote one of the finest of movie scores, for On The Waterfront. If you listen to that score separately, as a piece of serious music, it suffers. Too many longueurs. But as a piece of supporting music it amplifies the on screen emotion marvelously. In short he was a great collaborator, bringing the best that the popular arts are capable of delivering to fruition.

    • Charles Ryder

      Yes, the score of “On the Waterfront” is one of the outstanding scores in the history of cinema.

  • Innit Bruv

    Jack of all trades……
    The best of Broadway is up there with Britten and Brahms!!!!!
    What have you been drinking?
    ” “Richard Rodgers once asked Bernstein whether “there was anything you don’t do better than anyone else?” ”
    Answer: composing,conducting and piano playing.
    True,some of his lectures were first rate.

  • Ellis_Weiner

    Jonathan Miller really said that? Dang. They’re singing it while one of them is dying, fa Chrissake. It doesn’t matter if there “really” is such a place. Next he’s going to tell me that Bali Ha’i doesn’t exist.

  • JL

    My favorite bit of Bernstein bullshit: Beethoven composed crappy harmonies, sucked at orchestration, and couldn’t write a melody. http://youtu.be/OuYY1gV8jhU

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