Bernstein: the man, musician, his politics

Leonard Bernstein Leonard Bernstein
By Carol Iaciofano
July 11, 2009
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Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable life, from 1918-1990, not only spanned much of the 20th century, it encompassed much of its tumult as well.

From a young age, Bernstein was a superstar pianist and a conductor who was known for his “extrovert podium manner.’’ He’s the composer of innovative musicals such as “West Side Story’’ and “On the Town.’’ He was as much teacher as musician, leading the landmark Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s and the Norton Lectures at Harvard in the 1970s. He was the first conductor to record all nine completed Mahler symphonies.

Unfortunately, his youthful tendency to sign up for nearly every left-leaning political group earned him an FBI file that would haunt him for most of his career. Along with other artists such as Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, Bernstein appeared in a 1949 Life magazine issue in a “gallery of Communist dupes.’’ His career temporarily stalled in the 1950s when his name appeared on the Cold War blacklist, the removal accomplished only after he signed an affidavit that he was not a communist. Writer Tom Wolfe forever branded him “radical chic’’ for hosting a Black Panther fund-raising party.

In “Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician,’’ Barry Seldes makes a convincing case that to truly understand one of the most influential musicians of the last century, you need to understand how he “responded directly to the moral climate and social-political milieu in which he lived.’’ Seldes, a political science professor at Rider University, has made great use of previously unavailable FBI files, as well as once-dusty documents from the Library of Congress’ Bernstein Archives, to forge a comprehensive cultural context for Bernstein’s impressive musical career.

Bernstein was a college student in the 1930s (Harvard class of 1939), a time of great artistic and political ferment. Composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Ernst Krenek were shedding 19th-century compositional constraints to create music that incorporated jazz and other forms. Bernstein embraced these changes.

Seldes has a gift for literary counterpoint, balancing political, social, and musical story lines. For example, the anecdotes about how the gregarious Bernstein managed to meet Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky and composer Copland alone are worth the price. This is a biography with a political focus, but it’s a full biography, one that knocks over caricatures of a celebrity musician who merely played at politics.

Seldes evokes the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia; at one point Bernstein was even placed on a list of citizens to be moved to internment camps in the event of a national emergency.

Yet, unlike many blacklisted artists in the ’50s, Bernstein never turned away from political activities. He participated in the 1965 Selma civil rights march and protested the Vietnam War. And though there were artistic misses as well as triumphs, Bernstein always strove to create music of consequence, “an organic, vernacular, rhythmically based, distinctly American music.’’

The book ultimately addresses the inevitable question: Why did Bernstein, a man brimming with creative energy, never fulfill his goal of composing a great American opera? Seldes speculates that the kind of major American opera that Bernstein conceived of required a big libretto and a sympathetic American audience -- neither of which emerged in the 1970s or ’80s.

Almost two decades after Bernstein’s death, this is the first in-depth look at the man with his politics. It was worth the wait.

Carol Iaciofano is a freelance writer who blogs at Suburban Study,

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: The Political Life of an American Musician By Barry Seldes

University of California Press, 296 pp., $24.95

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