THE BOOK SHELF: "The Leonard Bernstein Letters"

By Steven Suskin
06 Oct 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This month's column looks at Nigel Simeone's massive new collection of correspondence to and from Leonard Bernstein, "The Leonard Bernstein Letters."


All things considered, one might imagine that composer/conductor/teacher/Renaissance man Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) made quite an interesting correspondent. Nigel Simeone, a British writer who proved his Bernsteinian mettle in 2010 with "Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story," dug into the archives — including significant material that was heretofore restricted — and has compiled a flavorful collection, "The Leonard Bernstein Letters" [Yale]. No, the book — consisting of 650 letters both from and to Bernstein, dated between 1932 and 1990 — is not merely interesting. It is fascinating, enlightening and a veritable page-turner that will keep you up nights, ruin your sleep and wreak all sorts of havoc for 600 pages.

That is, if you are interested in this sort of thing. "This sort of thing" encompasses music — concert, symphonic, ballet and show — and the everyday travails of an Everyman struggling to survive professionally, artistically, emotionally and sexually in a world filled with obstacles, some of his own making. Bernstein being Bernstein, these are Olympian struggles and Olympian successes in a rarefied world.

Consider the following morsels, from the first 150 pages or so:

Letter #2, 1933, to Sid Ramin (LB's lifelong friend, student, and the orchestrator of West Side Story and Gypsy): "I am in heaven!" exclaims the 15-year-old: He just bought the one-piano arrangement of Ravel's "Bolero" (which was written in 1928) and has been playing it all week. "My mother says I'm boleroing her head off... Boom! Crash! Discord! Sock! Brrrr-rr!!"

#20, 1938, to Aaron Copland: The 19-year-old LB starts one of his most important relationships, with the 37-year-old Copland. They talk about life, passion and music, which in the Bernstein/Copland orbit were frequently intertwined. In this case, the young Harvard student reports on the Boston premiere of Copland's "Variations." The soloist "began the thing wrong, played about two measures, skipped some variations, got lost again, skipped about 5 pages, played a few measures out of tempo — entirely without any discernment, without any idea of rhythm — and kept this up until she reached the coda... I was purple — I wish I could let you know how incredibly bad it was. It was the work of an imbecile. I left then and broke dishes in the Georgian cafeteria."

#30, 1939: LB confesses how he lost a valuable manuscript of Copland's on the train coming back from a visit to New York. "He of course took it as only he could take it — with a philosophical phrase. Good old Aaron: if it had been anyone else but he I should have gone into voluntary exile."

#34, 1939, from Adolph Green: A breathless report of early success in the nightclub world, as Green's cabaret act — The Revuers, with Betty Comden and Judy Holliday — signs with the William Morris Agency. "Gott zei dank, I'm making a little salary. I've lost about 25 pounds, so I'm no longer rolly-polly-Adolph, just a flabby Adolph." He also invites LB to split an apartment on 55th St. near 6th Ave for the summer, pointing out that it's got a good grand piano. Cost: $3.50 a week each.

#42, 1939: Now a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, LB mentions that he is studying with Isabelle Vengerova, "the greatest piano teacher in America." She has ordered Curtis to move a Steinway grand into his dorm room, since "Madame insists I have that to practice on."

#54, 1940, from Betty Comden: The Revuers appeared on an experimental TV broadcast, with Bernstein at the piano. Comden informs him that they were mentioned in Leonard Lyon's column in the New York Post. He didn't mention Bernstein, but he pointed out that "the unbilled stranger who turned the pages for the accompanist was Aaron Copland, the noted American composer." Comden reports that "Adolph has spoken to Aaron and he was amused and amazed — and not the least bit angry."