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The Leonard Bernstein Letters

by Leonard Bernstein and Nigel Simeone

Hardcover, 606 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $38 |


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Leonard Bernstein and Nigel Simeone

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Book Summary

Nigel Simeone presents an extraordinary selection of revealing letters to and from one of the titans of 20th-century music.

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NPR stories about The Leonard Bernstein Letters

Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, shown here conducting the New York Philharmonic orchestra in 1963, was a legend in American music. Letters to and from Bernstein have been compiled into The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a new book edited by Nigel Simeone. Express Newspapers/Getty Images hide caption

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Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Leonard Bernstein Letters

Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland

40 Charlton Street, New York, NY

[?June 1942]

Dear Aaron Copland, Earth-Scorcher, Location-Adorner,

Charming, charming to get your letter. I know I've been remiss, as they say in elegant diction, but so have you, and I've been moving, for a change. Look! This is my fourth address this year, and a few more are coming up soon. I can hardly keep track of myself. I find myself getting off the subway at 23rd instead of Houston, which is now my locale (and not a bad one, either, if you like that sort of thing) ... Oh yes, I forgot: I'm conducting the [Copland] Outdoor Overture with the Goldman Band June 19 in Prospect Park and June 20th in Central Park. It's good fun seeing the old notes again; though I'm completely nonplussed by all the fancy instruments, their incomprehensible arrangement on the page, and especially on the stage. And I must memorize the damn thing, since your lovely big manuscript score won't fit on the bandstand. All in all quite a job. Goldman, in fact, had asked me to be his assistant this summer, and the pulled a long face, saying that the budget would not allow an assistant. Sounds like a typical Bernstein, doesn't it?

To make sure that you'll keep reading this, I'll start a new paragraph. It must be a strain.

Who(m) do you think called me up the other day from his house in Westport? [Conductor Fritz Reiner, then music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. –ed.] And he wants to do my Symphony [No. 1, Jeremiah] in Pittsburgh next fall, and he loves it, and he wants me to conduct a program anyway, and maybe to do the Symph myself! Lovely lovely news. But he is most anxious for a fourth movement, insists it's all too sad and defeatist. Same criticism my father had; which raises Pop in my estimation no end. I really haven't the time or energy for a fourth movement. I seem to have had my little say as far as that piece is concerned, and I want to get on with something else. And parts have to be made. Real young composer tsurus [Yiddish for "difficulty"] ... But my real function, I find, is to be the middle-man between all the pairs of antagonists and antipathetic little cliques here. They're all my friends, and hence none of them is really my friend. I go around justifying [Jean] Berger to [William] Schuman, and Schuman to [Paul] Bowles, and [Virgil] Thomson to Schuman and Bowles to [David] Diamond, and I'm always having dinner with all of them but none of the ever has dinner with any other one of them. Good Lord, I'm lucid and articulate tonight! Must be the invigorating air (of the Outdoor Overture, I mean, not, certainly, of Charlton Street).

It just looks as though I'll never see you. Though, b'God, if that Simon job comes through (and there's a competition factor, with old Szirmay [composer Albert Sirmay]) I'll take the dough and fly to Mexico to see you. Nothing can stop me, once there is dough. Really, Aaron, I don't understand how and why I get along at all with you away so long. And here's what I mean:

The Frau-sessions [with Bernstein's psychoanalyst Marketa Morris] have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can't kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I'm not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don't want anyone in particular. And that's where you come in; cause you're the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it's so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Paul Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I'm not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it's just as horrible as if I hadn't gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

David Diamond is going to study the piano with me! And don't let him kid you into that "outdone me" stuff; the soldier (what a boy!) would rather have come with me, but DD had done all the work, and the soldier was afraid of a scene. As it turned out, he came to my room the next night, full of love and amusement.

One final experience — and then we close, with love to Victor [photographer Victor Kraft, with whom Copland had started a romantic relationship in the 1940s and with whom Copland was intermittently involved for decades to come]. Last night I resolved to stay home for a change and cook my own dinner and study. Which I did; but just as I had begun to work, there was a blackout. I went up on the roof to see it all (I have a marvelous roof) and found a young soldier there, in the blackout, who, it turns out, lives with the housekeeper downstairs. Sure enough, he knew me, had attended my concerts, worshipped me; and there was fun. Until the lights went on; and he turned out to be so fat that I could hardly stand it; and now I'm in a Bernsteinian pickle, with an adoring fatman and no wish to see him and life in a high school is hard. Moral: if you need sex, don't go searching everywhere — look in your own back yard. Which does not necessarily apply to you! All kinds of love, and write soon.


Leonard Bernstein: Talk given at the "Night of Stars" Memorial to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden

New York, NY

25 November 1963 [three days after President Kennedy's assassination]

My dear friends,

Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler's Second Symphony — the Resurrection — in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the Eroica? Why, indeed. We played the Mahler Symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that followed from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worth of him.

I know of no musician in this country who did not love John F. Kennedy. American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth. We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols. This reverence for the life of the mind was apparent even in his last speech, which he was to have made a few hours after his death. He was to have said: "America's leadership must be guided by learning and reason." Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet. Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power. Learning and reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it. And where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred, the exact antonyms of learning and reason: those two words of John Kennedy's were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive. This must become the mission of every artist, of every Jew, and of every man of good will: to insist, unflaggingly, at the risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorry at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather it will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.