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Leonard Bernstein’s Letters

Reviewing the new book The Leonard Bernstein Letters in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I write:

In June 2011, the estate of Leonard Bernstein donated to the Library of Congress 1,800 letters that had been sealed at his death. As the library’s Bernstein Collection already included more than 15,000 letters, postcards and telegrams, the resulting amalgamation obviously called for a book—and here it is, 23 years after the composer-conductor’s death at the age of 72.

As composers go, the champion letter writer was Ferruccio Busoni, whose correspondence serenely discloses an acute humanistic observer and hypnotic personality. If their letters are less splendidly literary, Wagner and Schönberg were composers whose galvanizing complexity of affect was copiously mirrored in words on paper. Tchaikovsky’s letters are remarkable acts of intimate self-revelation bearing on his sexuality. The Bernstein correspondence partakes somewhat of all these qualities but without attaining a comparable density of disclosure on any front. Mainly his letters, as selected and edited by Nigel Simeone, are less about music or ideas or the wide world than they are about Bernstein’s breathless aspirations and mercurial ups and downs: ecstasies of fulfillment in rapid alternation with disappointment, backaches and “big, soggy depressions.”

The bulk of the letters predates his 1969 departure from the helm of the New York Philharmonic. That is, they include the period of his tutelage by the composer Aaron Copland and the conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Fritz Reiner; of his Broadway triumphs “On the Town” and “West Side Story”; of his Philharmonic music directorship (1958-69); and of his 1951 marriage to Felicia Montealegre. Bernstein’s sexuality is a dominant topic, frankly and seriously discussed. Young Lennie was gay, and so were many of his friends. In letters variously airy and anguished, he craves company and describes himself as chronically lonely. “You may remember my chief weakness—my love for people,” he confides to a Harvard classmate in 1939. “I need them all the time—every moment. It’s something that perhaps you cannot understand: but I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed.” Nor can he figure out whether to compose symphonies or shows, or to conduct. Koussevitzky and the composer Roy Harris advise him that he needs a non-Jewish last name. “I suppose I haven’t approached [Koussevitzky’s] model for me sufficiently,” he tells Copland in 1942. “I haven’t changed my name, or learned to schmoos, or become a dignified continental. The hell with it.”

Of his amours, the Hollywood actor Farley Granger writes to him with a ¬special sweetness. Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896- 1960), Bernstein’s too little remembered predecessor on the Philharmonic podium, was a major conductor who did nothing to conceal his homosexuality. He writes to Bernstein in the late 1930s, when they became intimate: “Have I really failed to you, have I really left you a void after our last meeting? This thought makes me crazy, and so happy that I dare not believe it. . . . Dear boy, if you only could know how alone I am.” In a 1939 letter, Mitropoulos writes: “I am very happy to hear that you are working hard . . . I see you too come to the position now to have problems: musical, artistic, social and spiritual—and the worst of all, sexual. Unfortunately I am too far away to help—to give you good advice.”

In this context of high-pitched conflict and confusion, Bernstein’s correspondence shows Copland as a lifelong pillar. “Dear A,” Bernstein writes in 1967, “I suppose if there’s one person on earth who is at the centre of my life, it’s you; and day after day I recognize in my living your presence, your laugh, your peculiar mixture of intensity and calm . . . I hope you live forever. A long strong hug.” Bernstein’s 1979 Kennedy Center tribute to Copland (included here) extols “the Copland grin, the Copland giggle, the Copland wit and warmth, and width of his embrace.” Bernstein also recorded that he had only once seen Copland weep—“at a Bette Davis movie that caused me to oo and ah and marvel and groan ‘NO, NO, NO’ at the unbearable climax.” Copland, Bernstein continues, turned to him, “his cheeks awash with tears, and sobbed ‘Can’t you shut up?’ ”

The union with the actress Felicia Montealegre was an experiment. During the long and twisting courtship, his analyst, Marketa Morris, had written in 1947: “You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy. The same old pattern. You can’t give up.” One month after the wedding, writing to Copland, he finds marriage “fascinating . . . the most interesting thing I have ever done, though there are times when one’s interest must be that of a person in an audience, or one would go mad. It is full of compensations and rewards, and reveals more to me about myself than anything else ever has.” Around the same time, Felicia writes to him, acknowledging “you are a homosexual and may never change.” But, she continues: “Let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please! . . . Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?”

Three years later, Bernstein wrote to his sister, Shirley: “Now I feel such a certainty about [Felicia and myself]—I know there’s a real future involving a great comradeship, a house, children, travel, sharing, and such a tenderness as I have rarely felt.” The birth of their first child, Jamie, in 1952, deepened everything. Years later, in 1976, Bernstein left to live with a male lover; Felicia cursed him and predicted, “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” When she died of cancer in 1978, Bernstein blamed himself. In a 1987 letter to his business manager, Harry Kraut, Bernstein alludes to “those ever-decreasing moments when I like myself.”

The letters here collected contain surprisingly few musical nuggets. There is new information about the gestation of “West Side Story” and about frustrations regarding the ways in which it was recorded and filmed; writing to Arthur Laurents in 1961, Bernstein decries the “line-by-shot destruction” of Laurents’s book “by the H’wood exegists,” making “painfully obvious” the “line, however fine, between whatever art is, and non-art.” Two heated 1955 letters to the composer Marc Blitzstein memorably record Bernstein’s failed attempts to get La Scala to mount Blitzstein’s formidable American grand opera “Regina”—which Victor de Sabata, La Scala’s artistic director, liked so much that he would perform the number “Watching my gal watch me” at the piano. But the most substantive “musical” letter is not by Bernstein but by a contemporary, the composer/performer/teacher Gunther Schuller, commenting on Bernstein’s presentation of “modern music” on a 1957 “Omnibus” TV show. In 10 closely reasoned paragraphs, Mr. Schuller gently chides Bernstein for fashioning a narrative slighting the contributions of Debussy and Webern.

The reason this letter interests is that Bernstein, master educator that he was, favored schematized readings of musical history that could be perilously reductionist (as when his allegiance to Copland’s modernist moment led him to patronize Ives and Gershwin as gifted dilettantes). That in his correspondence Bernstein seems so hurried feels relevant. Among the most resonant phrases to be found in these letters are “the whole desperate race with time” (1947) and the “panic at time running out before all our works can be finished” (1981).

Ultimately reading “The Leonard Bernstein Letters” is a discomfiting experience; one feels like a voyeur peeking at Bernstein’s own discomfiture. Bernstein’s versatility and ambition were such that he spent a lot of time trying to figure out who he was—which also meant searching for American music and for the future of music generally. This book doesn’t resolve Bernstein’s quest. But it’s an invaluable resource, and the quest itself continues to fascinate and to matter.


  1. […] director in 1964. An imposing man, with wavy blond hair and a solicitous manner, he was a friend of Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) in 1945 and 1947 and was a […]

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