The Leonard Bernstein Letters.
About 150 pages into The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a fascinating selection of correspondence edited by Nigel Simeone, comes an admonishment from Shirley Gabbis (letter no. 167) both shockingly frank and eerily prescient in its criticism. In January 1944, while Bernstein was preparing to conduct the world premiere of his Jeremiah Symphony in Pittsburgh, at the same time working hard on his ballet Fancy Free with choreographer Jerome Robbins, Gabbis warned the multitasking maestro that his ambition and sheer breadth of musical gifts would keep him from being truly great in any of them. "Think hard, Lenny," wrote Gabbis (who would later marry the composer George Perle), "bore way down deep into yourself and find the courage to be honest. Is your mission in life to be the greatest of all dilettantes?"
Echoes of that sentiment would haunt the composer-conductor-educator for the rest of his life, and in fact still resonate 25 years after his death. Though generally acknowledged as the first fully homegrown American figure to make a significant impact in the greater musical world, Bernstein has generated a trail of misgivings among his followers. Broadway devotees still blame the Eurocentric classical music world for stifling a distinctively American voice. Classical musicologists bemoan a composer chronically distracted by the glamor and immediate gratification of conducting. Psychobiographers have long drawn a similar dichotomy in personal life, a contemplative family man undone by his flamboyant homosexual side. But if this collection succeeds in nothing else, it proves that the situation could have been much worse.
In the summer of 1945, Bernstein traveled to Los Angeles partly to discuss the possibility of playing Tchaikovsky in a film opposite Greta Garbo as Tchaikovsky's patroness Madame von Meck. On 12 December 1946 (to follow Bernstein's preferred day-date order), he wrote to his longtime assistant Helen Coates (no. 239), telling her of a Hollywood film project in which the literate, photogenic maestro would be employed as composer, conductor, writer and actor. "Who knew," Gabbis later quotes Bernstein's father in apology, "that he would become Leonard Bernstein?" But that defense seems barely adequate; the young polymath had been angling to be Orson Welles.
It barely needs saying that the range of correspondence, which draws heavily from the 1,800 letters that the Bernstein estate donated to the Library of Congress in June 2011, is unusually broad for a musical figure. That Welles himself, as well as fellow polymath Charlie Chaplin, appear as occasional subjects (if not correspondents) is hardly surprising, given Bernstein's media profile, roster of collaborators, and shared political stance. More startling are the famous figures who actually picked up pen and paper. Bette Davis's fan letter from 1945 claims that Bernstein and his music "came along when I needed them desperately ...the only true inspiration and help in believing the world is really worthwhile" (no. 193). Farley Granger was rather more than fan, having had a two-night fling with Bernstein shortly before garnering critical attention in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope: "I hope I see a lot more of you," he wrote in 1947, "though it seems no one gets that privilege for very long" (no. 244). Lauren Bacall sent her congratulations right before opening night of West Side Story, claiming "[i]t was worth all the Dexamyl" (no. 399). Literary correspondents ran the gamut from Russian novelist Boris Pasternak (nos. 435-437) to journalist--and former Hemingway wife--Martha Gellhorn (no. 420).
That the single major subject is West Side Story, documenting such working titles as Operation Capulet and East Side Story to its eventual breakthrough success, is less surprising, given that Simeone himself has already written a book on the subject. What is missing throughout the letters, though, is the coherence of that previous account. Viewed alongside Humphrey Burton's 1994 biography, the present volume is best seen as a compilation of footnotes.
Some of the haphazardness is understandable. Collaborators in the same city, often the same room, have little need to write. Given the occasionally frank accounts of Bernstein's personal life--his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, was under no illusions, writing shortly into their marriage, "you are a homosexual and may never change" (no. 320)--many letters may never see scholarly light. And yet, the gaps are odd. How could such an obsessed correspondent go for six months at a time without sending or receiving word? Discourse with his mentors, composer Aaron Copland and conductors Serge Koussevitsky and Dimitri Mitropoulos, is well covered, but not a single written exchange with his colleague Paul Bowles, despite Bernstein making his New York debut conducting Bowles's zarzuela The Wind Remains, and the latter becoming a distinguished man of letters.
The key problem in The Leonard Bernstein Letters is, paradoxically enough, the footnotes, which are idiosyncratically incomplete. The index, too, is regrettably scattershot, barely listing each correspondent's work in full and woefully inadequate in tabulating subject matter. Bowles is indexed dozens of times; Welles--despite being mentioned alongside Marc Blitzstein (indexed dozens of times)--lacks any citation of his own.
If incomplete material and sloppy editing keep this from being first-rate reference material, The Leonard Bernstein Letters does make for interesting reading. One generally thinks only of the success of On the Town, both the stage show and film, not necessarily of the financial problems it had on the road despite its Broadway success. There's also plenty of speculative history, with abandoned collaborations that might have changed Bernstein's compositional legacy, for better or worse. Aldous Huxley wanted to turn Brave New World into "a play with music and dancing" with a Bernstein score (no. 375), while James M. Cain pitched his short novel Serenade as a possible Bernstein stage work (nos. 262-265)--though Cain's subject, an American opera singer who psychologically "loses his voice" after a homosexual liaison with a conductor, might well explain why the project never got past the discussion phase. The composer's work on the ill-fated adaption of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth was later reworked into the Chichester Psalms, which explains the nonliturgical eclecticism in Bernstein's most successful symphonic piece.
But after encountering those moments, finding them again through the index is a challenge. The Leonard Bernstein Letters is indeed a written reflection of the man himself--fascinating, discursive, frequently brilliant, often frustrating, and ultimately conveying a sense of unfulfilled potential.
New York, Hong Kong
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|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2015|
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