The Leonard Bernstein Lettersby Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein was a charismatic and versatile musiciana brilliant conductor who attained international super-star status, and a gifted composer of Broadway musicals (West Side Story), symphonies (Age of Anxiety), choral works (Chichester Psalms), film scores (On the Waterfront), and much more. Bernstein was also an enthusiastic letter writer, and this book is the first to present a wide-ranging selection of his correspondence. The letters have been selected for the insights they offer into the passions of his lifemusical and personaland the extravagant scope of his musical and extra-musical activities. Bernstein’s letters tell much about this complex man, his collaborators, his mentors, and others close to him. His galaxy of correspondents encompassed, among others, Aaron Copland,Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Thornton Wilder, Boris Pasternak, Bette Davis, Adolph Green, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and family members including his wife Felicia and his sister Shirley. The majority of these letters have never been published before. They have been carefully chosen to demonstrate the breadth of Bernstein’s musical interests, his constant struggle to find the time to compose, his turbulent and complex sexuality, his political activities, and his endless capacity for hard work. Beyond all this, these writings provide a glimpse of the man behind the legends: his humanity, warmth, volatility, intellectual brilliance, wonderful eye for descriptive detail, and humor.
—Morris Dickstein, TLS
—Ham & High
- Yale University Press
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THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS
By Nigel Simeone
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Nigel Simeone
All rights reserved.
Early Years 1932—41
Leonard Bernstein was born on 25 August 1918, the first child of Jennie and Samuel Bernstein, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 25 miles north of Boston. He attended the William Lloyd Garrison Elementary School in Roxbury, 35 miles from Lawrence, then, from 1929 to 1935, the prestigious Boston Latin School founded in 1635. The oldest public school in the United States, its distinguished alumni included five Founding Fathers of the United States (among them Benjamin Franklin), the author Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather. The most famous musician to attend Boston Latin School before Bernstein was Arthur Fiedler (1894—1979), conductor of the Boston Pops for half a century. It was here that Bernstein's interest in languages and literature began to flourish, but what already obsessed him as a teenager was music. His first piano lessons (in 1928) were from Frieda Karp, the daughter of a neighbor, who charged $1 an hour for a lesson. Bernstein remembered her as "unbelievably beautiful and exotic looking," and his musical progress under her tutelage was swift. By 1930, he was taking lessons from Susan Williams at the New England Conservatory of Music, and in 1932 he auditioned with a former pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, Heinrich Gebhard, a distinguished soloist and the most sought-after piano teacher in Boston at the time. Gebhard believed that there was still fundamental technical work to be done, so he suggested Bernstein first take lessons with his assistant, Helen Coates. Bernstein's first communication with Miss Coates — who became his devoted secretary in 1944 until her death in 1989 — is also the earliest letter in this book. She taught him until 1935, when she sent him on to Gebhard, but by then they had become firm and devoted friends. Other friends and contemporaries with whom Bernstein corresponded regularly during his years at Boston Latin School, and later Harvard, included Sid Ramin, Beatrice Gordon, and Mildred Spiegel. Bernstein's letters to Sid Ramin are overflowing with shared enthusiasm for new musical discoveries — and talk of girlfriends — while to Beatrice Gordon he is passionate, self-revealing, and poetic. With very few exceptions, Bernstein's correspondence with Mildred Spiegel (later Mildred Zucker) has not been made public, but as this book goes to press the Library of Congress anticipates adding these letters to its collection shortly. They document an important and lasting friendship. Descriptions of this correspondence can be found in Appendix Two.
Bernstein mentions difficulties with his father in a number of his letters from the 1930s. A one-page essay written by Bernstein on 11 February 1935 entitled "Father's Books" begins: "My father is a very complicated human being. A man of irregular temperament and unusual convictions, he is a rare combination of the shrewd businessman and ardent religionist." He was also an implacable opponent of Bernstein's pursuit of a career in music, and relations between father and son were often strained. His mother, by contrast, provided a warm, supportive household in which her son's ambitions flourished.
It was while studying music at Harvard University (1935—9) that Bernstein made some of his most important friendships: three of them in 1937. In January that year, he met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, an encounter that left a deep impression on him. Then, as a music counselor at Camp Onota near Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the summer, Bernstein instantly formed a close bond with Adolph Green, who was to give him some of his first paid work (as pianist for The Revuers, nightclub performers of songs and comedy material, including Betty Comden, Green, and Judy Holliday) and who collaborated with him on two Broadway shows (On The Town and Wonderful Town). Finally, on 14 November, during a chance encounter at a dance recital in New York, Bernstein met Aaron Copland — father figure, confidant, and the closest Bernstein came to having a composition teacher.
Though it was as a pianist that Bernstein first attracted the attention of the local press, he confided to some of his closest friends that his real interest was conducting. In 1936 he wrote to Beatrice Gordon about auditioning to be assistant conductor of Harvard's Pierian Sodality (founded in 1808, and now known as the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra); at Camp Onota in 1937 he was photographed for the local paper conducting a group of children. In 1939, during his Senior Year at Harvard, Bernstein appeared for the first time as a composer-conductor (directing his incidental music for a production of Aristophanes' The Birds), and he directed Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock from the piano.
After graduating from Harvard, Bernnstein was uncertain about his future. He spent the summer of 1939 looking for a job in New York (sharing an apartment with Adolph Green), and explored the possibility of studying conducting at the Juilliard School (but he had missed the deadline). His only realistic option was to audition for the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia — specifically for the conducting class taught by Fritz Reiner — and he was admitted. From 1939 to 1941, he studied with teachers who were all at the top of their respective fields: conducting with Reiner, the piano with Isabelle Venegerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard StÃ?hr, and score-reading with Renée Longy Miquelle.
Finding Philadelphia a grim and dirty place, Bernstein would escape to New York for weekends at the slightest opportunity. His years at Curtis were marked by some important firsts, including his earliest professional recordings. These demonstrated his versatility, playing improvised incidental music and song accompaniments for The Girl with the Two Left Feet by The Revuers, and recording a Prelude and Fugue by David Diamond (less than five minutes of music about which Bernstein received long, anguished letters from the composer while preparing for the recording). In the summer of 1940 — midway through his studies at Curtis — Bernstein attended the inaugural summer course of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, to study conducting with the legendary Serge Koussevitzky. Mentor and pupil quickly became friends, and that summer Bernstein conducted the Second Symphony by Randall Thompson. Before the end of his studies in Philadelphia, Bernstein's first musical publication had also appeared in print: his solo piano transcription of Copland's El Salón México. He received his conducting diploma from Curtis in May 1941 — not a moment too soon, as he had been desperate to get away from the stifling atmosphere of Philadelphia.
At the first opportunity, Bernstein headed to Boston, where his years of study came full circle: he returned to Harvard to conduct the new incidental music that he had composed for a production of The Peace by Aristophanes. With war raging in Europe, it was a poignant choice. Back in January 1941, one of Bernstein's closest friends at Harvard -his room-mate, Al Eisner — had died in his early twenties. Eisner's letters from Hollywood are among the funniest and the most brilliant of all Bernstein's correspondents during his time at Curtis, while there was also a lively correspondence with Kenneth Ehrman, another Harvard friend, with whom Bernstein shared hopes, fears, and doubts about what his future in music might be.
1. Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates
8 Pleasanton Street, Roxbury, MA
15 October 1932
Dear Miss Coates,
I recently had an interview with Mr. Gebhard at his home. He was very encouraging in his remarks, and referred me to you as a teacher, with an occasional lesson from himself.
Having talked the matter over at home, I have decided to study with you, taking one lesson every two weeks. Would you please let me know by mail or phone when it would be convenient for you to give me my first lesson?
Hoping to have the pleasure of studying with you soon,
2. Leonard Bernstein to Sid Ramin
17 Lake Avenue, Sharon, MA
26 June 1933
I couldn't possibly write to you on newspaper (which was all the stationery we had in the house). I didn't until, a couple of days ago, I bought a box of stationery. So here I am and I have so darned much to tell you I don't know where to begin. Let's see ...
First, I don't know if 40 is the right number Walnut Ave, but I'll take a chance. But I've got much more important news. Turn over and see!
I bought Bolero!!!
Well, well! You see, I didn't know it was arranged for 1 piano, but I happened to see it in Homeyer's window. Of course dad gave me the necessary $0.80 as he is so enthused about the piece. So for the past week it's been nothing but Bolero. My mother says I'm boleroing her head off. But am I in heaven! It's all written in French, and it's all repeats. In the original orchestral score, they repeat four times, but I repeat only once — which is enough because it gets boresome on the same instrument all the time, and repeating once takes 10 minutes anyway. And I can't get over it. Of course it doesn't come up to the way the orchestra plays it, but it's marvelous anyway. And the ending! Speaking of cacophony!! Boom! Crash! Discord! Sock! Brrrr-rr!! (down the scale).
Well now that I've got that off my chest I feel better. Oh you have got to hear it soon. But my piano is so lousy that one note doesn't play — but it serves the purpose.
I'll write you again soon and tell you a convenient time to come to Sharon, etcetera, and so forth, Amen.
But first write me — immediately — please don't forget. I'm dying to see and hear from you. Answer soon — meanwhile
P.S. I'm starting to teach my mother jazz! Heh! Heh!
P.P.S. I arrived home at 3.00 this A.M. Some time.
P.P.P.S. Write soon. Sincerely, L.B.
3. Leonard Bernstein to Sid Ramin
17 Lake Avenue, Sharon, MA
14 July 1933
I'm going to fool you twice. First — I'm not following your pattern on the envelope — you know, the "US" stuff. Know why? You couldn't guess in a million years. The post office complained about your exalted style — and "hope it shall be discontinued in the future." Imagine! So ... But don't let it worry you.
The second way I'm fooling you is that I did hear Fray and Braggiotti Tues. night. Were they swell! I was praying you were listening too. Will we have plenty to try over when you come. I hope it's lousy.
Listen, you probably know that the Chicago Civic Opera is putting on Aida — open-air — at Braves Field the 20th of this month. It looks like my father might take me. Wanna come? I'll be in town Mon. to get tickets. So expect a call from me Monday morning and tell me whether or not you're coming so I'll buy you a ticket. It'll be swell — a real big production — so try and come — I'm dying to see you anyway. So be ready Monday to say "Yes"
Gosh, I'm not in a letter-writing mood today, as you can probably see — this letter is a flop. But I'm tired from over-sleep. About 12 hours a night. I'll have to stay up all night tonight to make it up.
Listen, you come to see Aida with me, and we'll discuss all about your coming out here -in a week or two, I think.
Well a kid just called for me to go swimming — so I'll close here.
Say — write longer letters; that last one was no answer for my 7-page letter.
Expect call Mon.
Regards to all.
P.S. Try to come next Thurs.
P.P.S. Fray & Braggiotti also played EspaÃ?a.
4. Leonard Bernstein to Sid Ramin
17 Lake Avenue, Sharon, MA
18 July 1933
You didn't receive a call from me Mon. morning as we are not going to see Aida — that is, my father isn't, so that's where the "we" comes in. That's my whole card. Much as I hate to waste the rest of the card's worth, I have nothing more to write — so I must.
5. Leonard Bernstein to Sid Ramin
25 July, 11:05 a.m. 
I have a letter of letters in store for you (if I can get this pen to write).
There — that's better. I have so much news to write that it would take a telephone book to write it all. So I thought that it's as good an excuse as any to invite you, and you can come any time you want between now and Christmas. Only drop me a card letting me know when so that I can expect you. But make it darn soon. Tomorrow isn't soon enough.
Well, little Lenny has turned chauffeur! In the past week I have driven (in the old Chrysler) some 90 miles. Yesterday I did 60 [miles] an hour to and from Newton on the new road. What a life! My mother calls me "a good driver but a little reckless." But who could resist 60 on that road? We went to Newton to pick out colors for the new home. You should see that place! It's bigger, I think, than the 2-family house I lived in last year. A regular Colonial. It is beautiful.
You know, I'm making $1.00 every day I go in town and work for my father. And do I work! Last week I worked 3 days — $3.00. It's not so bad. So between that and working on these grounds I'm kept pretty busy.
Listen! Guess who's coming out here to visit someone across the street. Phil Saltman, who plays over the radio! You know him. I met his sister at a dance last Sat. night and she told me all about him. Am I excited! By the way, did you hear Bolero played by the Goldman Band last Sun. night? "Swunderful"
Now this letter is also going to be very private correspondence. So guard it in your "iron frame". First, you're not the only one who's met a nice girl. There are a couple of girls who keep pestering us, but we don't pay any attention to them. But last night a crowd of us went for a moonlight swim (it was wonderful! — till it began to thunder and lightning) — and I met her — and — well, we're kinda interested in each other. let you know of further developments.
Secondly, I'm on a "no cigarette" campaign. I'm trying my darndest not to smoke. But you know the old psychology, "If you want to break one habit you must substitute something else for it." So I'm trying the old pipe. And it seems to be working OK. You know, a pipe is a much healthier smoke than a cigarette — so I hope it works. Did you see Eddie Schnaub? How does he look. Does he speak like a New Yorkite?
Listen, don't answer this letter. Just drop a card, as follows:
Will be out on ___________. Sid.
That's all — and come as soon as possible. If you have no way to come, write me first the same and I pick you up in Roxbury coming home from town. Forget not.
So that's that. Make sure you come. That's the main point to this letter.
Expecting you soon,
P.S. What to bring? About a week's supply of stockings, handkerchiefs, a couple of shirts, a sweater, bathing suit, tooth-brush, comb, a couple of pair of pants — one old and one new — and expect to be talked to death and driven by me up a lamp post.
See you sooner than soon.
6. Sid Ramin to Leonard Bernstein
Postmark Revere, MA
28 August 1933
I just heard the Creole Rhapsody written by Duke Ellington. It was also played by him and his orchestra. It's written on the same scale as my Rhapsody in Blue and you ought to hear the big discords. Wow! It's written in two parts and it has a very pretty melody running throughout. Listen to it. Yes, it's nice. I've only heard it about six times.
P.S. Say, answer my letter!
7. Leonard Bernstein to Sid Ramin
17 Lake Avenue, Sharon, MA
2 September 1933
I plead for every pardon in not writing to you before — but I can fall back on the old, substantial excuse — no stationery — and I couldn't get any until I went into town yesterday and bought some of Kresge's famous 10
Listen, I'm thinking seriously about meeting you in town. Is this OK?
Time: Wednesday, Sept 6 between 9 and 10 at
Place: my father's office, 48 Washington] St, Boston.
Excerpted from THE LEONARD BERNSTEIN LETTERS by Nigel Simeone. Copyright © 2013 Nigel Simeone. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Nigel Simeone is well known as a writer and speaker on music and is the author of several books including Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story. He lives in Northamptonshire, UK.
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