Leonard Bernstein: behind the baton

The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone


Leonard Bernstein was a cultural icon of the 20th century. He broke the stranglehold that had seen European conductors dominate the upper echelons of orchestral life in the US. He went on to conquer Europe itself. He wrote music for the concert hall, and he composed for Broadway, penning numbers that have become standards of popular music. He became a television personality, fronting programmes that helped to popularise classical music and develop new audiences among young people. He wrote books. He gave lectures. He was even enough of a media personality for Tom Wolfe to satirise his support (in reality, his wife’s support) of the Black Panthers in New York magazine, in a 1970 essay that coined the phrase “radical chic”.

Bernstein’s musical gifts were so prodigious that a major career seemed inevitable to the great conductors who nurtured him, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. But he was also fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. He was the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943 when Bruno Walter had to pull out of a concert at short notice. He grasped the opportunity with such success that a new American hero was born.

The liberal leanings that led to the Black Panthers connection had earlier brought trouble at a time when the US tended to suspect reds under every bed. He may not have been hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee as friends and colleagues such as Aaron Copland and Jerome Robbins were. But the State Department refused to renew his passport in 1953 because the authorities believed he was a supporter of communism. He had to hire an expensive lawyer and supply a humiliating 3,500-word sworn affidavit of loyalty to turn the situation around.

FBI documents describe his Mass, written for the opening of the John F Kennedy Center in 1971, as “a plot by Leonard Bernstein, conductor and composer, to embarrass the President and other Government officials through an antiwar and anti-Government musical composition”. And a memo from President Nixon to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman explains: “As you, of course, know, those who are on the modern art and music kick are 95 per cent against us anyway. I refer to the recent addicts of Leonard Bernstein and the whole New York crowd. When I compare the horrible monstrosity of Lincoln Center with the Academy of Music in Philadelphia I realize how decadent the modern art and architecture have become.”

Being both a cultural icon and a thorn in the side of the national security establishment was not the only double role Bernstein seemed to play. He wanted to spend more time composing, but conducting always won out. For years he split his composing energy between Broadway and his concert work. And as everyone in his social circle knew, no one more so than his wife, Felicia, and his analyst, Marketa Morris (who he nicknamed the Frau), his sexual life also followed a double path. As he said to a fellow student in the late 1930s: “Who do I think I am, everybody?”

The Frau told him: “In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy. The same old pattern. You can’t give up.”

She also asked him “why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.” And Felicia wrote: “You are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?”

The marital compact of discretion lasted until the 1970s, when his change to openness ruined his marriage, and he came to blame himself for his wife’s death from cancer.

Sexual insights
At times in Nigel Simeone’s selection of Bernstein’s letters, the sexual insights seem more probing than the musical ones. Perhaps the necessary material simply doesn’t exist. Bernstein lived in the age of the telephone, and crucial discussions may never have been committed to paper. His deepest thoughts on replacing Bruno Walter, or on being appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic just over a decade later, don’t feature, though there is a wonderful short paragraph about finalising the contract with the orchestra. You won’t learn about his views on Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie or Britten’s Peter Grimes, of which he gave the US premieres in the late 1940s. And Mahler is seen through other people’s responses. His own are absent.

There was a lot of frippery in his writing, using pet names and multilingual wordplay to keep the tone casual and clever. He could, however, be very frank, especially with Aaron Copland, an important mentor, and he was sometimes extremely raw in his assessments of the older man’s music.

Many of the most interesting letters are not actually by Bernstein, so that while our picture of his world is enriched, this is less true of our understanding of the musical workings of the man himself. The best-documented works are West Side Story and Chichester Psalms.

Among the most fascinating sections are the doting exchanges after his marriage to Felicia. There are some tangled communications with Stockhausen, Feldman and Cage, whose work is rather more radical than most of the contemporary music he espoused. There are fan letters from Bette Davis, Louis Armstrong, Janis Ian and Miles Davis, Aldous Huxley pushing a dramatic version of Brave New World “with a view to a musical setting”, and a 10-year-old Yo-Yo Ma bravely seeking an audition.

The ever-loyal Copland once wrote of Bernstein as “Hecticness personified”. Whatever else they do, these letters certainly back up that description.

Michael Dervan is Music Critic