Bernstein and Blitzstein

David Drew

  • Leonard Bernstein by Joan Peyser
    Bantam, 430 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 593 01454 5
  • Leonard Bernstein by Michael Freedland
    Harrap, 273 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 245 54499 2
  • Leonard Bernstein by Peter Gradenwitz
    Berg, 310 pp, £15.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 85496 510 6
  • Make the music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein by Eric Gordon
    St Martin’s, 605 pp, $29.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 312 02607 2

The end might have been very different. It was so sudden that it took the outside world by surprise, and neither in the notices that must have been freshly written, nor in those which doubtless had to be drawn from the files and swiftly dusted off, were there many reminders that the business of selling newspapers has for some while been conspiring with the pleasures of iconoclasm and the ancient sport of muckraking to further the cause of demonstratively ‘candid’ obituaries.

On the contrary, it seemed that Bernstein’s polyphonic assaults on the accepted canons of respectability were not at this moment to be held against him; that his contributions to music in the past half-century were justly honoured; and that for the most part he was not gravely misunderstood. It also seemed that the entire world was, and wishes to remain, on first-name terms with the media phenomenon whose personal and material success may often have been envied or deplored in his lifetime, but is now applauded everywhere – very properly when measured against the talent and hard work invested in it, less so when it is seen as another rallying-point for the enemies of Modernism.

If in the obituaries there were warning signals of a more specific kind, they were concentrated in the area of Joan Peyser’s notorious biography, to which there have been numerous references and occasional tributes during the past weeks. Despite the opprobrium heaped on it at the time of publication by independent reviewers no less than by those who were understandably defensive of a friend and colleague, the book has seemingly acquired the kind of status that allows it to be described, even in the present context, as ‘revelatory’. It is indeed precisely that. But not in the sense the author might have wished or the obituarist clearly meant.

The books published in connection with Bernstein’s 70th birthday in 1988 were many and various, and another book could be written about their complementary and richly representative significance: representative, for instance, of the current state of the biography industry, the current standing of today’s so-called ‘serious’ music within and beyond the identifiable market for it, the positive and negative exploitation of serial rights, and, not least, the ever-increasing editorial interest in PR, ostensibly as a function of the politics and funding of the arts.

The accepted role of the anecdotal in bridging the real or imagined gap between the makers of music and their public is, in Bernstein’s case, more easily fulfilled than justified. The sum of everything musically useful that the biographers of 1987-88 contrived to ‘reveal’ by parting so many domestic and other curtains would have been almost negligible but for one episode recounted by Michael Freed-land. As an example of what he shyly calls Bernstein’s ‘other side’ the episode has a small but central place in his book; and the fact that its real significance seems to have been lost on him only adds to the verisimilitude of his account, for it is already clear that one of the two principal figures was as oblivious as he; and one can well imagine that the 90 witnesses were hardly less so.

The occasion was a lavish, indeed a very lavish, party arranged in Bernstein’s honour by Johnny Green, one of Hollywood’s leading music directors. Bernstein was in Hollywood for conducting engagements, and also to view the rough-cut of the film of West Side Story. By then, Green had finished editing the recording of the musical arrangements that he and a colleague had made for the film; and unknown to anyone apart from his wife and the technicians, he had already obtained a tape of the soundtrack, and had installed throughout his house the finest available playback equipment. His ninety guests were of like quality. After dining at the best restaurant in town, they proceeded to Green’s house for further refreshments and a bombe surprise. In due course Green signalled to his engineers, and there issued from every speaker a deafening fanfare, followed by his recorded tribute to ‘the greatest composer of American music of this or any other age’. Finally came the opening strains of the soundtrack. Bernstein was ushered to a comfortable chair.

How long he remained there is not disclosed. But all of a sudden he leapt to his feet like one berserk, and furiously demanded an immediate stop to the proceedings. There ensued a scene fit for a Buñuel film, and with that, an end to all that needs to be known.

The scandal was of a scale strictly proportionate to its maker, to the circumstances and to the causes. Reduced to a ‘normal’ human scale, it can at once be recognised for what it really was: the familiar and wholly typical reaction of a composer in extremis. Not a songwriter, not a showman, not even a conductor, but a composer. Freedland reports Green as saying that ‘Lenny hated everything he heard.’ and then gingerly offers an explanation: ‘He could not see the reasons for notes being stretched out in ways they never were in the original manuscript.’

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