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Lenny!

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Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York City, 1972

In 1966, Leonard Bernstein conducted The Rite of Spring and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra, and just recently that BBC event has been released on DVD for the first time. It’s a fascination—not only for the strong performance, but even more so for the chance to watch “Lenny” in action, close-up. Yes, all conductors have highly personal characteristics, but has there ever been one as theatrical, as showy, as hammy as he was? Or as exciting, as persuasive, as dedicated?

There’s the Lenny problem: Is he for real or is he an act? Do we love him or do we want to kick him in the ass? Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him? And do those of us who grew up with him in all his avatars respond to him the same way as those coming to him for the first time, with no history and perhaps no expectations?

Look at him up there, facing a cadre of highly disciplined, impeccably groomed Englishmen. (Not many women in the LSO in those days.) They watch him closely, of course—is it my fantasy that they watch him as if they were in striking distance of a dangerous tiger? His behavior to them is totally cordial and respectful—in fact, remarkably generous: hands shaken, pats on the shoulder, warm smiles. If he isn’t happy with their playing, you’d never know it.

But have they ever worked with a conductor not only this legendary but this over the top? It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face—he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats. He mouths along with the music. Since he conducts without a score—his musical memory is famous—his inner concentration is unbroken. If a tragedian performed King Lear this way we’d probably hoot him off the stage. But just when we’re ready to find the whole thing risible, we begin to believe it. No, he’s not a charlatan; no, he’s not a joke. He’s a believer. It’s for real.

And yet…

The mystery of who and what Leonard Bernstein was is what draws us to accounts of his life, and now to a large collection of his letters, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone. Surely the letters of such a well-educated and literate man, a practiced and effective writer—author of best sellers about music, important lectures, successful television scripts—will be revealing? Alas, it is not so. Despite his cleverness and charm—which definitely come through—we’re left knowing no more, really, than we knew before. The confusion between genius and narcissism, heroism and self-pity, generosity and exploitation remains unresolved. His astounding energies both made him everything he was and undermined him. Was he a composer or a conductor? Was he “serious” (the “Jeremiah” Symphony, Chichester Psalms) or “showbiz” (On the Town, West Side Story)? Was he straight (his beloved Felicia, and their three cherished children) or gay (just about everyone else)? Was he loyal to his friends and benefactors or careless with them? Was he deeply emotional or merely sentimental? Did he use his extraordinary powers wholesomely or did he dissipate them? And what really mattered to him?

He’s not going to tell us, but the Letters, read in conjunction with Humphrey Burton’s excellent 1994 biography, Leonard Bernstein, suggest that there were three things that motored him: music, of course; his family, despite (or because of) the conflicts; his Judaism (and his belief in Israel). The money, the celebrity, the sex were front and center, but not, in the long run, central.

Letters came easily to the young Bernstein—he’s as fluent a writer as he’s fluent at everything else—and he understands how self-centered he is. (To his great pal Kenny Ehrman, he once said, “Who do I think I am, everybody?” To Helen Coates, first his piano teacher, later, and for decades, his assistant, guide, life-support system: “Before I forget myself and write an ‘I’ letter, I want to wish you a very pleasant summer.” He pours out his heart to just about everybody. He’s met the perfect girl (boy). He’s written this, he’s done that. So-and-so complimented him, so-and-so is giving him a hand up. Always there’s the assumption that anyone he’s writing to wants to know everything about him—a narcissism that’s normal, even touching, in a young man, but less so in a (supposedly) mature one. Think how he would have taken to blogging!

He needs, obsessively, to be appreciated, to be admired, to be loved. He needs people. “You may remember my chief weakness—my love for people,” he writes Ehrman in 1939 (he’s twenty). “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. Any people will do. It’s a terrible fault.” He needs to be witnessed—at bottom, he’s a performer, and his letters are performances. Only to a few people—his sister and brother, for instance—does he talk straight: when he tells them what’s been happening and that he loves and misses them, it’s the real Lenny who’s talking—if there is a real Lenny.

There’s a special category of letter in his early years—the flattering cries for attention of a young man on the make. By the time he was twenty, he had cast a spell over a series of major musicians. Of course they were also responding to his extraordinary abilities, apparent to everyone from the very start—the music world knew at once that he was a prodigy and a future leader. And they were drawn by his good looks and intelligence and personal magnetism. But their partiality was certainly enhanced by the way he approached them. To Aaron Copland, the first of his formidable mentors, in April 1942:

It would have been wonderful to see you. God, yes. On our first beautiful spring day. And we would have walked in all Boston’s parks and spoken long, quietly & with heart. Such gab. Can’t you come anyway? We must have a session on the Copland youth opera, you know. The master’s interpretation. Hell, I miss you so.

This relationship, which either did or did not begin as a love affair, was probably the most durable and nurturing of Lenny’s life. There were ups and downs, but Copland always cared about his younger friend, and Lenny always revered him. One of his most persuasive pieces of writing was the speech of introduction he gave at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, which ended:

Usually men of such restraint and moderation, who also harbor such tumultuous inner passions and rages, are sick men, psychotics who are prone to unpredictable and irrational explosions. Not so Aaron…. The man is sanity itself—and that is why the first moment I met him—on his 37th birthday—I trusted him instantly and relied completely on his judgment as gospel and have done so ever since. It is my honor to present him to you, my first friend in New York, my master, my idol, my sage, my shrink, the closest thing to a composition teacher I ever had, my guide, my counselor, my elder brother, my beloved friend—Aaron Copland.

His exchanges with the formidable conductor Dmitri Mitropolous, a tormented (gay) man, are painful. Mitropolous is so lonely, so needy, that the attentions Lenny paid him became essential to him. He wrote to Lenny, “And, dear boy, I need your appreciation, your respect, your love! It is of great importance in my life…. May I ask a small picture of you to be my companion on my Europe trip?” And a month later:

Can you imagine for a moment, I thought I lost your love, and then, I was asked me [sic], perhaps I am not right to ask anything, to expect anything, from anybody, that my destiny is to be alone with myself and my art. But you my dear friend, tell me, it is not so, I am something for you, yes…don’t forget me. Goodbye dear, Dmitri.

Humphrey Burton believes that the relationship was not sexual, that “theirs was essentially a spiritual friendship.” But Dmitri’s language is the language of love, and although Lenny venerated him, he also took advantage of the conducting opportunities Mitropolous afforded him. Was it conscious advantage? Lenny simply could not help being seductive, and the older man could not help being emotionally seduced.

He was also wooing Fritz Reiner (Pittsburgh) and Arthur Rodzinski (New York Philharmonic), both of whom boosted his career. Later, he even captivated the greatest lion of them all, Toscanini, who in 1949 wrote to him, as quoted in Burton’s biography, “Your kind visit and dear letter made me very, very happy…. I felt myself 40 years younger.” (Alas, we do not have the “dear letter.”)

The most intense barrage of Bernsteinian flattery was aimed at the man who more than anyone else forwarded his career, America’s most influential conductor, Serge Kous-sevitsky (Boston Symphony, Tanglewood). One example, from 1943, early in their relationship:

Dear Doctor, Every once in a while I am appalled at the idea that I never see you—and I feel that I must write to you, or talk to you, if for no other reason than my constant warmth of affection for you. No matter how much time elapses without seeing you, you are always with me, guiding my work, providing the standards by which I measure my progress in our art. And today I feel simply that I must communicate with you, out of love and friendship—that is all.

Not long afterward, it’s love from “Lenushka.” And in 1945—he’s conducting around the country—

Every time I lift my arms to conduct I am filled with a sense of wonder at the great insight that has flowed from you to me…. It is something for which I thank you every day of my life—something which has freed me and given me a welcome bondage—as Prospero to Ariel…and when I feel this way, I always find I can express it best to you and through you to the Universal Creative Mind, to which you are closer than I.

It’s clear that Koussevitsky’s ego was as formidable as Bernstein’s powers of flattering it, and by 1946 the maestro is growing touchy. There’s a disagreement over programming a concert that Lenny is to conduct for Dr. K’s Boston orchestra, and Lenny has, apparently, taken liberties. Dr. K. snaps at him and instantly Lenny—“deeply grieved”—recants, apologizes, grovels. “Is there an evil element in my nature that makes me do and say immoral things? Is it that I say one thing and mean another? Or is it that communication between two people who are as close to each other is so difficult?”

The breach is repaired, but things are never again as they were. Because by this time, of course, Bernstein is no longer the eager beginner, grappling for a foothold in the world of classical music, but a public phenomenon: he’s enjoyed the triumph—front-page headlines (“BOY CONDUCTOR GETS HIS CHANCE”)—of his last-minute substitution for Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic; he’s written his “Jeremiah” Symphony; and his score for Jerome Robbins’s smash-hit ballet Fancy Free, followed by the musical based on it, On the Town, has made him not only a star but a celebrity. One of Lenny’s finest qualities was his loyalty, and he never fully turned away from Koussevitsky or his family, but he no longer needed him.

His esteem for great conductors was real, even fervent. Consider the genuine outpouring of respect and affection expressed in the letter he wrote to the dying almost-ninety-year-old Karl Böhm in 1981, ending:

You are young. Please stay so, for me, for my colleagues, for the holy art. What you have done in music has already made you immortal; does that not encourage you to remain with us, and teach us forever? I pray for you, as does the whole world of music. With devotion, Bernstein.

Alas, Böhm died the day after this letter was written, but the important thing is that Lenny obviously means it all—at least at the moment of writing. He may be carried away by his feelings, but being carried away by one’s feelings, however fleeting, isn’t as great a crime as not having any.

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