Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

Barry Seldes
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Leonard Bernstein
    Book Description:

    From his dazzling conducting debut in 1943 until his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein's star blazed brilliantly. In this fresh and revealing biography of Bernstein's political life, Barry Seldes examines Bernstein's career against the backdrop of cold war America—blacklisting by the State Department in 1950, voluntary exile from the New York Philharmonic in 1951 for fear that he might be blacklisted, signing a humiliating affidavit to regain his passport—and the factors that by the mid-1950s allowed his triumphant return to the New York Philharmonic. Seldes for the first time links Bernstein's great concert-hall and musical-theatrical achievements and his real and perceived artistic setbacks to his involvement with progressive political causes. Making extensive use of previously untapped FBI files as well as overlooked materials in the Library of Congress's Bernstein archive, Seldes illuminates the ways in which Bernstein's career intersected with the twentieth century's most momentous events. This broadly accessible and impressively documented account of the celebrity-maestro's life deepens our understanding of an entire era as it reveals important and often ignored intersections of American culture and political power.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94307-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    On the morning of May 14, 1959, an excited crowd of thousands gathered at Broadway and West 64th Street to witness ground-breaking ceremonies for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The day was a glorious one for New Yorkers, for their new complex—concentrating in one place the city’s world-class dance, orchestral, and operatic ensembles and a new repertory theater—would be proof visible of New York’s cultural ascendancy. In the words of urban-planning czar Robert Moses, Lincoln Center would make the city the “World Center of the Performing Arts,” a complement to its place as “World Political Capital.”¹...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Young American: Bernstein at Harvard
    (pp. 8-24)

    In 1982, at the age of sixty-four, Leonard Bernstein included in his collection of his writings,Findings, some essays from his younger days that prefigured significant elements of his later adult life and career. The first, “Father’s Books,” written in 1935 when he was seventeen, is about his father and the Talmud. Throughout his life, Bernstein was ever mindful that he was a Jew; he composed music on Jewish themes and in later years referred to himself as a “rabbi,” a teacher with a penchant to pass on scholarly learning, wisdom, and lore to orchestral musicians.¹ Moreover, Bernstein came to...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Forties: Ascent and Blacklist
    (pp. 25-51)

    Bernstein graduated from Harvard in June 1939 and spent the summer in New York rooming with Adolph Green, his chum from boyhood summercamp years. Green and two friends, Betty Comden and Judy Holliday, had formed a musical group called the Revuers and invited Bernstein to spend the summer accompanying them at the piano on club dates as well as recording two of their satirical works,The Girl with the Two Left FeetandJoan Crawford Fan Club.¹ Bernstein left in the fall for the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study piano, but with the prodding of Mitropoulos, he sought out...

  8. CHAPTER THREE American Biedermeier: 1951–1959
    (pp. 52-86)

    In the days surrounding New Year’s Day, 1951, Bernstein was on board a ship from Cherbourg to the United States to conduct the New York Philharmonic in February and to share conducting duties with Koussevitzky during the Israel Philharmonic’s American tour, which would last through March. He was in some turmoil: he had been in a long-term relationship with the Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn—the two had become engaged in 1947, but Bernstein had soon broken it off—but she was to meet him when the ship docked on January 2.¹ He also committed to running an arts festival...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Long Sixties: 1960–1973
    (pp. 87-129)

    At the top of Bernstein’s January 1960 agenda was the Philharmonic’s celebration of the Gustav Mahler centennial.¹ Although he was to share the Mahler symphonic cycle over the next seasons with Barbirolli, Mitropoulos, Solti, Steinberg, and Walter, he had signed a contract with Columbia Records to record the nine Mahler symphonies, the first such endeavor. His apotheosis continued apace: Columbia Records was about to unveil its “New Bernstein Look” in June, andWest Side Storywas scheduled to open for another run in April.² He was on top of the world.

    Bernstein had other exciting news: his friend John F....

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER FIVE Norton Lectures: 1973
    (pp. 130-148)

    Bernstein had been spending time in Vienna when he received an invitation to come to Harvard to deliver the 1973 Norton Lectures, an honor that had also been bestowed upon Copland and Stravinsky. Preparing the lectures would permit him to refl ect on the formal requirements that make music so primal and fundamental to human beings. He would thus seem to be building a musical anthropology, but, in fact, researching and writing the lectures would allow him to develop a musical-political philosophy and a justification for his own musical practice. The series would also reveal something about his state of...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Bernstein at Sea: 1974–1990
    (pp. 149-167)

    By 1974, the “long sixties” had come to an end. The American war in Vietnam was over, and Nixon had been ousted from offi ce, but the Right was in resurgence, fed by resentment about the feminists’ and blacks’ drives for equal rights, the urban ghetto uprisings that had left cities ablaze, the loss of the war, and economic woes. Of these factors, the last was accelerating the mobilization on the Right. By the early 1970s, small-business owners, suffering falling rates of profit and increasing rates of bankruptcy, had organized antitax revolts that started in earnest in Michigan and California...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Understanding Bernstein
    (pp. 168-192)

    The myriad photos of Bernstein that appear in coffee-table books show a man of great charm and buoyancy—at the podium, an impassioned magus; in public, a self-confident notable; at home, a happy husband and father.¹ Indeed, these picture-book images would seem to fit a man who had achieved canonical status, commoditized by the culture industry but as well knowing how to exploit its power.

    There was, as we have seen, another Bernstein: the man who brooded over what he considered his failure to compose a masterwork of lasting importance. He knew he had such a work in him, but...

  14. EPILOGUE: A Man in Dark Times
    (pp. 193-196)

    Bernstein never deserted his progressivism. In the 1940s, he had continued to hold to the idea that an enduring Popular Front might realize in peacetime the wartime utopian goals of a united humankind. Like so many other progressives, Bernstein learned the price of not toeing the line set by the orthodox Cold Warriors. He was blacklisted, but he was lucky: the liberal humanists who operated the machinery of the cultural Cold War got him off the blacklist without most of the public’s knowing he had been on it, years before the blacklist era came to an end and, in fact,...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 197-250)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 251-276)