BOOK REVIEW / The two faces of an entertainer: Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton: Faber, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
WITHOUT being a tedious 'official biography', this book offers a survey of Leonard Bernstein's life and works, by a friend and colleague. Four years after Bernstein's death, it still isn't easy to think of him as dead: however he maltreated his body, he was always so multifariously alive.

The profusion of Bernstein's gifts is often said to have militated against the fulfilment of any one of them: a curmudgeonly and envious put-down, since it is Bernstein's pluralism that makes him, perhaps, the quintessential artist of his time. Both his grandfather and father, who were of Russian Jewish extraction, combined American business acumen with devotion to the Talmud; and although father Sam - hoping that his son would enter the family business or, failing that, become a rabbi - deprecated music as a career, he capitulated to irresistible genius. The Boston Latin School offered entrance to Harvard, where Lenny did not specialise in music and displayed lively aptitudes rather than academic brilliance.

His genius for friendship, however, paralleled his musical gifts. At Harvard and afterwards he toyed with the usual sexual initiations with girls, but established more significant relationships with Aaron Copland, as wise as he was 'plain', with the witty and prickly Virgil Thomson, with Paul Bowles (a vivacious theatre composer before he became a famous novelist) and with Marc Blitzstein, another Russian-American Jew and a political music-theatre man. All these highly talented people were homosexual, and perfectly open about it. Bernstein himself was sexually bifurcated; admitting to homosexual proclivities, he yearned for wife, family, and a patriarchal-matriarchal Jewish establishment.

Bernstein was 'discovered' by the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, who was probably in love with him, though he advised him to 'devote all your time to your art. Do not let your friends spoil you with flattery'. Lenny loved being loved, but survived multiple blandishments at the Curtis School of Music, where he studied conducting with Reiner. As a student he displayed mind-boggling skills as a score reader, transmuted into ear-boggling charisma as a conductor. Another prestigious mentor was Koussevitsky, through whom Bernstein gained access to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to the Tanglewood Summer School, where he was to hold sway for many years. His apprenticeship ended when, deputising for a sick Bruno Walter, he received a standing ovation from the Boston Symphony's audience, bolstered by enraptured press notices.

From that moment his celebrity as conductor was assured; he led orchestras around the world, and was divided as to whether he ought to accept the directorship of the Israel Philharmonic. But he was divided anyway, for the dualism of his sexuality was mirrored in his professional life. Expert as both conductor and composer, he wasn't sure which he wanted to be, while his abilities as a pianist offered yet another possible career. Nor did he know whether he was Artist or Entertainer; as a student he had dabbled in music-theatre, yet had composed a Jeremiah Symphony that was religiously solemn, if baffled. He was distressed that Copland thought he was better at 'light' than 'heavy' music, though he must have known that it was his very duality that made him so vibrant a representative of the American zeitgeist. He excelled with that most universal of composers, the symphonic Beethoven, and established the Hebraic-Austro-German-Roman Catholic Mahler as a hero of both Europe's twilight and the technological New World.

Bernstein also wrung the withers of Tchaikovsky, revealing why so neurotic a misfit cast so potent a spell over us in our modern conurbations. And if he showed us what 'old' Europe means today, he was no less responsive to music generated by our urban environment. With his New York Philharmonic he programmed music by living composers, including the 'difficult' Carter and Babbitt, to whose wavelengths he was not tuned. His performances of Stravinsky - a cosmopolitan deracinated Russian - left us in no doubt he believed Stravinsky to be the greatest of 20th century composers; while his performances of Copland became as authoritative as those of the composer himself.

Bernstein loved Copland as a friend (but probably not as a lover) and revered him as a composer, 'the best there was'. He paid him the compliment of imitation, while probably knowing that as a 'straight' composer he couldn't hold a candle to his friend. This doesn't mean that Bernstein was negligible as a concert composer - though Humphrey Burton is slightly indulgent to him in this capacity. Bernstein's concert works tend to spring from the roots of his Hebrew heritage, traditions he fused with American jazz and pop to reveal facets of 20th-century angst. The title of The Age of Anxiety (borrowed from Auden) defines the representative quality of this symphonic work; while the Kaddish Symphony not only calls on Hebraic religious material, but was triggered by a painful public event - the murder of President Kennedy.

Such works are usually interesting and often moving, yet not finally memorable: whereas Bernstein's theatre-music, stemming unabashedly from Broadway, proves both compelling and durable. Even early pieces like Fancy Free and On the Town deploy the modes of musical comedy so ingeniously that they transmute escape-art into an American affirmation in the face of war and the holocaust. Similarly, for Kazan's powerful movie On the Waterfront, Bernstein produced a score that rivals Copland's film music in functional intelligence and political commitment, and with enough musical substance to make for a self-subsistent symphonic suite.

Climax came in 1957, when Bernstein brought off something that had been achieved only once before, by Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which started as a commercial musical but ended as an opera great, as well as grand, on any count. West Side Story carries the process a stage further: in dealing with the same theme of the conflict between the good life and the manipulations of the market, it explores American speech rhythms and - with the help of Jerome Robbins, a choreographer of Bernstein-like brilliance - American rituals of song-and-dance to embrace, within the conventions of a musical, the tensions of city life, especially those of the alienated and inarticulate young. Changing fashions have in no degree blunted the impact of its tragic denouement, nor of its balletic vision of a world redeemed.

The piece had no direct successor, for Candide, based on Voltaire's ageless satire, went through many uneasy permutations in trying to synthesise its musical and theatrical dimensions. Its musical riches should ensure its survival on the periphery of operetta, but it cannot become, like West Side Story, an incarnation of the world we nervily inhabit. In the piece he called Mass Bernstein overtly broke down barriers between art, ritual, entertainment, and life-as-we-live-it, pluralistically adapting techniques from Christian and Jewish liturgy, from concert aria, jazz, and pop song-and-dance, calling on a diverse array of performers who eventually become indistinguishable from the audience. Burton arguably thinks that this religious-political public testament is Bernstein's masterpiece, though the nature of the project involves a degree of self-consciousness that West Side Story could dispense with.

Bernstein himself had to believe that his final theatre piece, A Quiet Place, achieved in 1983 the consummation of his creative life, since it amalgamated his bifurcated identities. Starting from an early musical called Trouble in Tahiti, it inserted that apparent jeu d'esprit within the context of a full-scale opera with autobiographical overtones. The original piece had a serious theme concerning the emptiness of human relationships, including marriage, within a media-corrupted world; the 'serious' opera, fleshing out the musical comedy puppets, directly confronts Bernstein's themes of sexual ambivalence and the fruitful conflict between art and entertainment, with the personal traumas of his life. The end is profoundly as well as potently moving, for it is the testament of a representative Modern Man, albeit one so much more talented than most of us. The snag about this Quiet Place - which must be the dream-haven of West Side Story's ballet - is that, like that vision, is has no earthly habitat. Though first produced at La Scala, it is too adventurously demotic to become established in the Established opera houses, while it is too complex to be absorbed into showbusiness. Its critical reception was patchy: one suspects because Bernstein was, if of, also ahead of, his time.

Humphrey Burton's fine book doesn't attempt in-depth analysis of Bernstein's work, but it is a biography that, in exploring the life, irradiates the art. It doesn't tell a fashionably revelatory, warts-only story, but presents the man as he was, in his human contradictoriness, beyond our fallible praise or blame. His Chilean wife Felicia comes over as spiritually as well as physically beautiful, with a healing wisdom comparable to Copland's. She stood by him and the children during transient homosexual encounters; their family life was not a sham, as the grown-up children survive to testify. Felicia left her husband when he ultimately abandoned her for a man he'd passionately fallen for. Even that breach was repaired, though Felicia herself wasn't, for she died, horribly, of cancer in her early fifties. For the rest of his life Bernstein laboured under the burden of guilt; and the crazy circus of his last decade, when he roamed the world with an army of managers, secretaries, boyfriends, doctors, psychiatrists, acupuncturists and scalp-massagers, was presumably an attempted palliative.

Collecting royals, presidents, and international celebrities of most ilks, Lenny lived a desperately public life that left scant time for composing music. Even so, he continued to affirm man's courage and (in the medieval sense) his mirth in the face of desperate odds: his TV programmes remain an unrivalled educational venture, while he conducted performances (for instance of Fidelio, Tristan, and Falstaff) that have become legendary. Some of these performances spilt over from art into life: the televised Beethoven Ninth, in celebration of the end of the Berlin Wall, was sublime showbusiness addressed to an audience of multi-millions. Such was its musical intensity that we all wept, including Lenny and, I've a hunch, the ghost of Beethoven. In a memorial tribute Jerome Robbins remarked that 'we have lost one of the most vital movers and shakers of the musical world'. Delete the word 'musical', and that is still true.

(Photographs omitted)