Leonard Bernstein: An American Musicianby Allen Shawn
A fresh appreciation of the great musical figure that gives him his due as composer as well as conductor
Leonard Bernstein stood at the epicenter of twentieth-century American musical life. His creative gifts knew no boundaries as he moved easily from the podium, to the piano, to television with his nationally celebrated Young People’s Concerts,/b>
A fresh appreciation of the great musical figure that gives him his due as composer as well as conductor
Leonard Bernstein stood at the epicenter of twentieth-century American musical life. His creative gifts knew no boundaries as he moved easily from the podium, to the piano, to television with his nationally celebrated Young People’s Concerts, which introduced an entire generation to the joy of classical music. In this fascinating new biography, the breadth of Bernstein’s musical composition is explored, through the spectacular range of music he composed—from West Side Story to Kaddish to A Quiet Place and beyond—and through his intensely public role as an internationally celebrated conductor. For the first time, the composer’s life and work receive a fully integrated analysis, offering a comprehensive appreciation of a multi-faceted musician who continued to grow as an artist well into his final days.
A few luscious slices from the massive cake that was the life of the great pianist, composer, conductor and public personality (1918-1990). In this latest entry in the publisher's Jewish Lives series, Shawn (Composition and Music History/Bennington Coll.; Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, 2007, etc.) begins with some vignettes and then embraces chronology, confessing the impossibility of confining such a life as Bernstein's between the covers of a book. We learn about his parents, his schooling (Boston Latin and Harvard, where he emerged as a star) and his early realization that he "was physically attracted to both sexes." Although Shawn does not focus intently on Bernstein's sex life (there are more urgent items on his agenda), he does remind us throughout that Bernstein had a variety of lovers, as well as a long, sometimes-troubled marriage and three children. The author describes Bernstein's gift as a pianist and his segue into conducting; his big break came in 1943, when he stepped in to conduct the New York Philharmonic, a life-changing success. Since he has few pages and a lot to discuss, Shawn can pause only occasionally to discuss a Bernstein composition in detail (he does so with The Age of Anxiety and Candide, among others). But the author reminds us of Bernstein's long-lost music for Peter Pan and writes with near reverence about his 53 Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Shawn also discusses West Side Story (and the genesis of Bernstein's friendship with young lyricist Stephen Sondheim), his passion for Mahler, his championing of American classical music, the Norton Lectures at Harvard, and his liberal social and political stances. (He once attended a Jimi Hendrix concert.) Shawn gives some space to Bernstein's critics, as well, and he does not neglect the composer's final sad slide. A nearly impossible task, recording this lush life, but Shawn helps us comprehend the magic.
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An American Musician
By Allen Shawn
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Allen Shawn
All rights reserved.
When he was four years old, Leonard brought some balls of dust he had gathered from under the bed into the bathroom sink to see whether he could construct a man. He was still an only child, living with his parents in Revere, Massachusetts, above a tailor shop. He must have heard his father, who was always quoting from the Talmud or the Old Testament, saying "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return"; or perhaps it was that "God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Leonard put the dust into the bathroom sink, turned on the tap, and tried to mold the viscous blobs into lifelike forms. Then, as if in a bad dream, he couldn't turn the faucets off. Not only did the sink overflow and flood the bathroom floor, but the water then flowed through the ceiling into the tailor shop below, destroying some suits and dresses, and resulting in embarrassment and expense for his struggling parents. Years later, recalling this, he said, "There was hell to pay."
But for the most part Leonard brought his parents joy. His birth brightened their world, and for a brief time it almost seemed as if his existence had made sense of their marriage. Russian Jews transplanted to Massachusetts, they were both suffering, although in different ways. Almost from the day Sam and Jennie married, on Sunday, October 28, 1917, it had become apparent that their outlooks did not mesh, and that they lacked a romantic bond which could smooth over their differences. In the year Leonard was four, their fighting had even resulted in a two-week separation, and it was not the first one.
Sam (Shmuel) had been born in the town of Ozeryany, Ukraine, where his father, Yudel, was a scholar rabbi, the last in a long line of rabbis in the family tree. The oldest of four children, Sam spent his childhood on a farm in nearby Berezdov (Ukrainian: Berezdiv). Here his father studied and prayed while his mother did the physical work on the farm and brought up the children. Although Sam was deeply religious and a born scholar himself, he bridled against the claustrophobic narrowness of an environment in which he could be beaten simply if he let his skullcap fall off during evening prayers. He entered yeshiva and even contemplated becoming a rabbi but, at the age of thirteen, shortly after his bar mitzvah, started dreaming of following his cousin Herschel to the "golden country." In 1903 Herschel had made the long journey from his hometown of Korets all the way to Hartford, Connecticut, where he changed his name to Harry Levy, married an American-born woman, Polly Kleiman, and became a barber. In 1908 Sam said goodbye to his two sisters and little brother and snuck out of the house at night, without saying goodbye to his parents, carrying only a few items of clothing and a blanket, with the sound of his siblings' crying still in his ears. He was sixteen years old. The Atlantic crossing was a nightmare. A memory of the crowding, filth, vermin, bugs, excrement, and rotten food in the steerage hold stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Leonard's mother, Jennie, had been born Charna Resnick in the town of Shepetovka (Ukrainian: Shepetivka), only twenty-one miles from Samuel's home in Berezdov. She had been such a bright, lively, and imaginative child that her mother Perel had hired someone to tutor her in Russian and Hebrew, a rare privilege then for a girl. Family stories had her wandering off alone into the marketplace, and swimming where she wasn't supposed to. She particularly loved music, and once followed an itinerant band of musicians—klezmers—into the gentile part of town, where she fell asleep in a park and had to be returned home by a policeman. Jennie's ship crossing from Riga to New York in 1905 at the age of seven with her mother, younger brother, and younger sister was, like Sam's, a horrendous three-week ordeal of hunger, fear, and pain, during which she endured a broken wrist and lay famished, surrounded by the sick and dying on the heaving boat, while her mother repeatedly begged the ocean to spare them. Once in America, the family was reunited with her father, Simcha, who now worked in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was placed in the Lawrence Elementary School's fourth grade at the age of only eight, and the next year she moved on to the Tarby School, where she did well enough to begin dreaming of someday becoming a teacher. But such aspirations were cut short when she was sent to work at the American Woolen Company to help support the family. There she experienced the appalling, often lethal conditions that precipitated the famous Lawrence Textile Strike, an uprising that eventually spread to the nine principal mills in the town and involved twenty-seven thousand workers.
Jennie was an attractive and spirited young woman of eighteen when Samuel Bernstein first visited her. Her parents had heard of his scholarly family even back in Ukraine. They admired his ambition and intelligence, and thought he had a future. In 1917, soon after buying Jennie an engagement ring, Sam was drafted into the army. Jennie had begun to appreciate his way with a joke and a story. She was touched seeing him in uniform marching down Essex Street, on his way to the train that would take him to Camp Devens. Not long after, when he was discharged due to poor eyesight and unexpectedly turned up in the Resnicks' kitchen, Jennie found herself, to her own surprise, embracing and kissing him in front of everyone. A wedding date was set.
At the time he married Jennie, Sam was working as an assistant manager at the Boston branch of Frankel and Smith, "suppliers of hair and beauty products." He had gone from a job helping out his uncle Harry in his Hartford barbershop to a stock boy position with Frankel and Smith, from which he had worked his way up.
Sam was devout, intense, rule-bound, sometimes harsh, like a "driven, diligent Horatio Alger hero," as Burton Bernstein puts it in his book Family Matters. His principal reading matter and point of reference for all things, worldly and unworldly, was the Talmud. By contrast, with her own education cut short, Jennie's "chief interests seemed to be food, the small available pleasure of life ... movies and their celluloid celebrities, romantic novels ... gossip with her coevals." She dreamed of hobnobbing with elegant people and felt trapped by Sam's "consuming ambition and penny pinching." For his part, Sam had contempt for her family.
In August 1918, late in her pregnancy, Jennie moved temporarily from Sam's home in Chelsea to stay with her parents in Lawrence to await the birth. She went into labor at 3 a.m. on August 25 and was taken to Lawrenceville General Hospital, where, later in the morning, Leonard was born. He was a colicky little fellow with a "weak chest," in Jennie's words, but he was also a great joy to his parents, even if his asthma attacks kept his mother up long into the night taking care of him.
By the time he was only a year and half, Leonard was already speaking so volubly that his parents dubbed him "the little old man." His neighbors in Revere had a piano, and he became hungry for the sound of it, banging on their door, shouting for "moynik" (music). Jennie claimed years later that when the Victrola played at home—novelty songs such as "Oh by Jingo" or Jewish cantorial music—the little boy would become calm and stare out the window, drumming with his fingers on the windowsills as if he were making the music himself.
Having a son who might someday inherit his business made Sam redouble his own efforts at work, if such a thing were possible, and within a year he was the manager at Frankel and Smith. By 1923 he would have his own beauty supply business, the Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Company, on 59 Temple Place in Boston. By seizing the chance to acquire the exclusive New England franchise for the Frederics permanent wave machine, Sam rode the quest of the 1920s craze for curly hair. Trucks painted with the slogan "In Boston, it's Bernstein—The Best in the Beauty Business" would travel throughout the metropolitan area, delivering his products to hairdressers, and a steady stream of merchants would line up at his store to buy wigs. Sam could be stern, judgmental, gloomy, and brooding, but he also had a playful side. He would dandle his son on his knee, singing "Ride away to Boston, / Ride away to Lynn, / You better be careful or you'll fall in," laughingly opening his legs as if to drop him. At a party, if Jewish music played, he would cut loose, dancing in the ecstatic Hasidic manner.
Through whatever combination of genetics, influence, and personal experience forms personality, all the characteristic traits of this mismatched couple can be discerned in the adult Leonard Bernstein and in his music: the religiousness, studiousness, traditionalism, strength, rebelliousness, and dark moods of his father; the sociability, warmth, gaiety, love of glamour, and attraction to show business of his mother. Along with these traits he inherited the intelligence and social liberalism the couple shared. Bernstein's childhood began on a footing that was unstable enough to account for his lifelong hunger for connection, particularly to his father, and his deep need for family. Even his tortured search for a lost faith could be traced to Sam's combination of reverence for the Talmud with flight from the constrictions of orthodoxy.
Leonard had started life as an only child. On October 23, 1923, Jennie gave birth to Leonard's younger sister, Shirley Anne. Brother Burton was born on January 31, 1932, when Leonard was thirteen. His parents made him, but it was with his two younger siblings that he formed the loving family he longed for.CHAPTER 2
A Piano 1928–Spring 1935
In 1923, the year Sam formed his own business and became the father of his second child, he also brought the family into the Mishkan Tefila Temple in Boston, which had built a "palatial synagogue" in a "monumental American Renaissance style" and was "the first synagogue in Boston to align itself with the new religious movement known as Conservative Judaism." The temple was a veritable symbol of what one Jewish newspaper called "the risen generation of the second migration," Eastern European Jews who had come to America with nothing and managed to build small fortunes. Philosophically, the temple was explicitly oriented toward "Liberalism, Zionism, and Social Service." By the time the Bernsteins became members, the temple boasted a magnificent organ and an exceptional cantor. Eventually Sam became Mishkan Tefila's vice president.
Leonard began studying at the Hebrew school at age eight, and it was at temple that, at the age of ten, he was first thunderstruck by hearing live music. In 1928 the temple hired as music director a brilliant composer, organist, and conductor named Solomon Gregory Braslavsky (1887–1975), who had been a leading orchestral and choral conductor in Vienna and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary there before coming to Boston. Braslavsky performed repertoire from every era at the temple, assigning Hebrew texts to works by Mendelssohn, Verdi, and Schubert for choir and organ, and adding his own compositions, such as his contrapuntal Adon 'olam ("Lord of the World"), and the high holiday prayer Un'saneh tokef. When Leonard heard the cantor sing in his rich, sweet baritone, and the organ and choir join in, he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he would start to cry. He never forgot this music or Braslavsky, who became his first musical mentor.
In the same year that Braslavsky arrived in Boston, Aunt Clara's piano arrived in the Bernstein household, an event that changed Leonard's life forever. Clara, Sam's sister, had come to America in 1911. She was an eccentric—a nutritionist, vegetarian, and nudist—with a commanding Wagnerian soprano voice, and when she married for the third time and moved to Brooklyn to run a bridal shop, she sent the Bernsteins a sofa and an old mahogany upright, with a middle "mandolin" pedal, that she no longer needed. From the moment he touched the piano, Leonard couldn't tear himself away from it. Caressing the keys and causing the sounds to issue forth from the strings made the world, and his place in it, suddenly come into focus: "I suddenly felt at the center of a universe I could control, or at least be at the center of, in that I felt it revolving stably around me, instead of [my] being tossed around in it, which I had felt up until then.... I was safe at the piano." He began to play constantly, disturbing the peace of the household. He picked out "Goodnight, Sweetheart" by himself and quickly learned to read music notation under the guidance of a beautiful and exotic-looking girl in the neighborhood named Frieda Karp, who played well enough to give him lessons for a dollar each.
It soon became evident that he had an exceptional ear and an instinctive grasp of theory. Without knowing the proper names of chords, he made up his own system of harmony and could soon improvise plausibly on songs he heard on the radio, such as Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." After only a year he was playing Bach preludes, Mendelssohn's "Spring Song," and other selections from a green-covered anthology called 100 Pieces the Whole World Loves, which fifty years later he would still carry with him wherever he traveled. His father was willing to pay the dollar per lesson but was less than enthused about the piano playing itself, and he often shouted from his bedroom when it got too late at night. His mother was drawn to the music, as she had been attracted to the wandering klezmers as a child, and when Leonard played Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2, she would stand by the piano and weep. When he started composing his own pieces at around the age of twelve, he would play them for her in different versions and ask her which she liked best.
His relationship with his father, however, was often fraught. Sam was subject to black moods and to bursts of temper. At least once Leonard interposed himself between Jennie and Sam during a heated argument, when Sam began to angrily chase after her, holding a raised bottle. Sometimes Leonard would hide under the dining room table when Sam came home.
By contrast, the happy marriage and healthy, laugh-filled atmosphere of family get-togethers at Uncle Harry Levy's home in Hartford left an indelibly positive impression on young Leonard. It was the one place where his parents seemed to relax and enjoy themselves. Moreover, there, on Harry's expensive Victrola, Leonard fell in love with Rosa Ponselle's rendition of the dramatic aria "Suicidio!" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Zez Confrey's piano solo "Kitten on the Keys," and W. C. Polla's "Dancing Tambourine," which he analyzed as a "March made into a novelty piece," an early instance of his stylistic acumen.
Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein by Allen Shawn. Copyright © 2014 Allen Shawn. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Allen Shawn is a composer, pianist, educator, and author who lives in Vermont and teaches composition and music history at Bennington College. His previous books include Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey and Twin: A Memoir.
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