Leonard Bernstein's Letters

Nov 28, 2013
Originally published on November 29, 2013 12:12 pm

Leonard Bernstein is widely considered one of the great American composers and conductors. He was the longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, and he composed the music for “West Side Story” and other musicals, in addition to serious works of contemporary American classical music.

In his life, Bernstein encountered other cultural luminaries and maintained healthy correspondences with them. A new collection, “The Leonard Bernstein Letters,” includes hundreds of letters from Bernstein’s six decades of correspondence.

Nigel Simeone edited the volume and he joins Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss Bernstein — both the musician and the man.

Guest

  • Nigel Simeone, editor of “The Leonard Bernstein Letters” and author of “Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story.”
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAKRABARTI: We're listening to music from "West Side Story," composed by the great Leonard Bernstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAKRABARTI: Bernstein was one of America's most renowned composer-conductors. He led the New York Philharmonic and wrote many beloved scores. However, after his death in 1990, the collection of his correspondence - some 15,000 letters - sat virtually untouched in the Library of Congress. That is until Nigel Simeone got wind of them. Simeone edited the best of the collection in a new book called "The Leonard Bernstein Letters." And I asked him to describe what the letters revealed about Bernstein's life.

NIGEL SIMEONE: You do, as you say, get this completely natural, unvarnished voice. So everything comes across with a kind of directness that's incredible.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's exactly that that drew me to the one of the earliest letters that you have published here in the book, written in 1933 by a then 15-year-old Leonard Bernstein, I believe, to his friend Sid Raymond. And I just have to read a little bit of it. So he says: Dear, Sid. I bought "Bolero."

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOLERO")

SIMEONE: What's so wonderful about that is - I can't do it in the book, but it's actually written with real theater, because just before that he says: Turn over the page and see what's coming next.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMEONE: And then on the page turn, in great big letters, he's put that. The excitement is fantastic, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOLERO")

CHAKRABARTI: He goes on to say, he says that he has a piano version of it that he bought. And he says: Of course, it doesn't come up the way the orchestra plays it, but it's marvelous, anyway. And the ending, speaking of cacophony, boom, crash, discord, sock, burr, down the scale. Well, now that I've got that off my chest, I feel better.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOLERO")

SIMEONE: It's brilliant. And that kind of effervescence is actually something that - slightly amazingly, you get that kind of boyish delight in music really much later on, as well. All the way through, he - it's just stuff that he is completely passionate about.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, speaking of musical friendships, there are a number of letters in the book between Bernstein and Aaron Copland - the great Aaron Copland, who became, you know, a close mentor and friend of his - particularly letter number 25. It's number 25 in the book, but it was written in - or received by Aaron Copland in 1938, while Bernstein was still at Harvard.

SIMEONE: Yeah. It's written on Eliot House stationery from Harvard. Dear, Aaron, it's going to be hard to keep this from being a fan letter. The concert was gorgeous, even the Dvorak. I still don't sleep much from the pounding of - and then he quotes a bit of "El Salon Mexico" - in my head.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. He, in fact, writes out the notes.

SIMEONE: He writes out the (vocalizing). Yes, he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "EL SALON MEXICO")

SIMEONE: In any event, it's a secure feeling of how we have a master in America. I mean that, too. Don't poo-poo. I sat aghast that was solid sureness of that construction of yours, timed to perfection, not an extra beat, just long enough for its material. Orchestral handling plus. Invention, superb. And yet, with all that technique, it was a perfect rollercoaster ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "EL SALON MEXICO")

SIMEONE: Copland was very generous with his praise of Bernstein's conducting, much less so when talking about his music. It was, by no means, uncritical in either direction, even, actually, when Bernstein did Copland's third symphony for the first time in Europe, in Prague. He says, you know, the only movement that I think really works is the slow moment, and there are bits you really ought to think about changing. Now, this was quite a bold thing to say to the person you most revered. But there was always that honesty between the two of them, and I think that's what made it so special.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "EL SALON MEXICO")

CHAKRABARTI: One of the things that frequently comes up is, for example, you know, the frustrations that Bernstein had, even though he was so wildly talented. You know, nevertheless, we had one guest who once told us that Bernstein wanted to be the American Mozart, but never quite felt that he reached that apotheosis of his career. So who did he share his frustrations with in his correspondence?

SIMEONE: Well, certainly with very good friends like David Oppenheim, like Copland sometimes. One thing that keeps coming through - it's very interesting, especially in the '50s. He keeps saying I've got to stop all this conducting. It's making composition really difficult. And you know what happened, because, you know, at the end of that decade, he was principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic and, you know, he was submerged in conducting work. But he kept saying, I'm going to have to stop this conducting. It's preventing me from devoting the time I need to compose. But he just didn't have the time to do everything. And, you know, there's something he said, very perceptibly, about himself in 1938 to one of his friends at Harvard. He said: Who do I think I am? Everybody?

CHAKRABARTI: Nigel Simeone, there's another letter I want to talk about. And this is one that was sent to Leonard Bernstein by Jackie Kennedy in 1968.

SIMEONE: At 4 in the morning, in fact.

CHAKRABARTI: Four in the morning.

SIMEONE: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: The 9th of June, 1968. And it begins: Dear Lenny, it's 4 in the morning after this long, long day. We stayed in Washington at my mother's house. And she goes on to write about the music that was played during Robert Kennedy's funeral. And she writes: When your Mahler - Mahler again - started to fill -but that's the wrong word, because it was more this sensitive trembling - the cathedral today, I thought it the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I'm so glad I didn't know it. It was this strange music of all the gods who were crying.

SIMEONE: It's extraordinary, isn't it? It was the - a adagietto of the "Fifth Symphony." And she ends up by saying, you know, will you tell your noble orchestra drowning in heat and cables when I pass them that so many people all this day have said how beautiful you were? You know? I think it's wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MAHLER'S "FIFTH SYMPHONY")

CHAKRABARTI: You know, one of the most remarkable things I found about this collection of Bernstein's letters is that, you know, you put them in chronological order. So we hear Bernstein in his own voice, or in his own writings from the time he's 15 to near the end of his life. What did you see in his writings, his correspondence at the end of his life that surprised you, that you wouldn't have expected when reading, you know, the 15-year-old Leonard Bernstein's letters?

SIMEONE: It's almost a slight melancholy, actually. The last decade, everything becomes a little shorter. There's still the width. There's still the brilliant wordplay. He sent lots of little, short poems to other musicians or friends, some very funny letters to the people like Stephen Sondheim and to his proteges, to people like Marin Alsop - charming, short things. But what you don't get is the sort of long, great, sort of flourishes of enthusiasm that came earlier on. So there is a kind of - there's a slightly sort of autumnal feeling to the letters of the last 10 years or so. Some of the exuberance has gone, I suppose, but it's been replaced by a sort of reflectiveness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MAHLER'S "FIFTH SYMPHONY")

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Nigel Simeone is the editor of "The Leonard Bernstein Letters." It's a new collection of several hundred out of the 15,000 or so pieces of correspondent between Leonard Bernstein and so many luminaries in the world of music and beyond. Nigel Simeone, many thanks. It was a wonderful conversation. Thank you so very much.

SIMEONE: Thank you for having me. It's been an absolute pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MAHLER'S "FIFTH SYMPHONY")

CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.