Laird’s new Leonard Bernstein biography

2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, as I’ve mentioned in reviewing recent commemorative performances of Candide by TIFT, TOT and the TSObernstein_bio

Anniversaries usually trigger a flood of books as well.  I’ve just read one of them cover to cover in the past 24 hours, an absorbing 212 pages by Paul R. Laird, in the “Critical Lives” series from Reaktion Books. (click for more info or to purchase)

I was sucked into the book immediately by the way it’s written.  Or maybe it’s the way Bernstein lived his life?  We’re in a breathless account of someone who is

  • A pianist
  • A conductor
  • A composer
  • A teacher
  • A celebrity
  • Sexually active
  • A married man with children

This is neither an apology for the man nor a critical hatchet job, but a balanced account that channels much of the native self-doubt Bernstein lived with, as a composing performing commercially successful Jewish homosexual.  What I found extraordinary about this book that I was unable to put down all day was how Laird managed to create a truly multi-faceted portrait, reconciling if not balancing so many aspects of this complex figure.  Laird met Bernstein, but clearly spent a great deal of time studying and coming to understand the man.  Perhaps the reason it works so well is because this is no PhD thesis,  nor an attempt to prove a point or achieve anything revolutionary.  I was at times almost breathless turning the pages, waiting to discover what might happen next. We watch Bernstein live his life, month by month, year by year, as he conducts this, composes that, says this, broadcasts that, screws this person (sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes within the boundaries of marriage), flies here: and so on.

That isn’t to say there aren’t places where Laird zeroes in on something. There are segments where a composition’s creation is described via the people involved in the collaboration or the steps in the process. It’s very de facto, very matter of fact, as we glimpse a life of unrelenting activity.  I used to think Bernstein didn’t compose very much but reading this I realize wow considering how much else he was doing, he composed plenty.  And indeed when we’re down to the last years of Bernstein’s life we encounter a sad fact, that the conductor was the chief champion for the composer.  The late works haven’t been heard so often because: they’re still relatively new.

If you have any interest in Bernstein –as a fan of his compositions, or admirer of his conducting—you will encounter something you didn’t know.  I’m surprised how much I learned about him today in my dash through this book, how many things I need to revisit or seek out in the library.  Laird’s bio is not a portrait to distort your understanding of Bernstein.  We hear some fierce critiques of his superficiality, of his enjoyment of popularity.  There are places where Laird shows his interest in the music, but I wouldn’t call him an advocate.  And as far as the conducting Laird seems to be an agnostic, reporting the gigs without attempting to analyze Bernstein’s style.  But then again to do so would have slowed the book down considerably as we dashed to the sad conclusion.

Laird closes (after describing the last year leading up to Bernstein’s death) with a chapter called “A Final Evaluation”.  Much as I loved the book, at this point –meaning the final evaluation—I was disappointed at what Laird seemed to miss.  This is a matter of fact description, possibly conditioned by Bernstein’s celebrity.  I find myself once again irritated by the paralysis musicology seems to experience in the presence of popularity, as I recall Kerman’s inadequate response to Tosca.  While Laird does get some things right, for instance his praise for Bernstein’s promotion of classical music through his broadcast legacy, and his fascination with his celebrity, I find the language somewhat faint-hearted when it’s time to assess the artist, or the value of his eclectic sounds.  Throughout we hear admonitions quoted about the conducting style, but almost nothing about why his conducting might have been influential, if not loved by some (me for instance); admittedly it’s a tough subject, but the evaluation is missing a great deal in this area.  Similarly for the composer, we hear of the classical musicians uptight about rock or jazz, without anyone to talk about what’s brilliant in his output.  Yes many of us are reading this book because we love Bernstein:  the conductor, the composer, the broadcaster.  The book tells us about his life, but in my view it understates his greatness.  While we get an evaluation of his life, his art is presented as a fact.  I suppose it’s of a piece with what’s in the book.

I need to read it again, as there are scores I didn’t know about that I will now have to hunt down in the library.

I Hate Music?! Trouble in Tahiti.  A White House Cantata.  …And so much more.

The book is most persuasive because there’s no attempt to persuade. How ironic.

Consider me persuaded.    (click for more info or to purchase)



This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Laird’s new Leonard Bernstein biography

  1. Pingback: Opera: Passion, Power, and Politics | barczablog

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