October 9, 2018

Un-layering Leonard Bernstein, Letter by Letter

Lyric Fest

Leonard Bernstein – Biography in Music
Presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater

October 21, 2018 at 3pm

Tickets Here


This is our 7th “Biography in Music”.

(This is where Laura and I select a composer whose music and life excites us. Then we launch into reading all the letters that we can get ahold of, plus biography, etc… Then, using their own words and music, we piece together the story that seems truest of their life. And all this we do in concert-length format. – It involves a lot of painful cutting.) 


But oh, how Bernstein’s letters provided a truly remarkable read. Okay, they are dense and the print is small, but cover to cover, this is a who’s who in the 20th Century Arts – If you’ve heard of them, Bernstein was likely communicating with them. Consider: Bette Davis, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Jerome Robbins, Serge Koussevitsky, Fritz Reiner, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Arturo Toscanini, Olivier Messiaen, Nadia Boulanger, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Miller, Lena Horne, Stephen Sondhein, Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter, Thornton Wilder, Carol Lawrence, Lukas Foss, Boris Pasternak, Jackie Kennedy, George Szell, Yo Yo Ma… You get the idea.


I can’t resist sharing a few tidbits that didn’t make the cut:


From Bette Davis:

June, 1945
This is to say hello, that I will be listening Sunday, and any other time you are on the air. And also to say that you and your music came along when I needed them desperately. There is probably nothing in the world so encouraging for the future as a super talent in someone – it is the only true inspiration and help in believing the world is really worthwhile. Thank you so much for playing for me when I know you didn’t feel like it. I will always remember it with enormous pleasure.

It is hard to have all this said to one, I know that…

(Written after he attended a party with Bette Davis, Cary Grant, van Johnson, Ethel Barrymore, Judy Garland, Dana Andrews, “and others.”)


Or from his life-long friend and mentor Aaron Copland:


April, 1943

Dear Honeychile,

There are two letters of yours that are still “unanswered”. I am beginning to lose contact with your every thought. […] But you do write the most wonderful letters. Just the kind I love to get: the I “miss you and adore you” kind, while the sailors and the marines flit through the background in a general atmosphere of moral decay. Well, the fact is that I miss you too. [… ] I know you want me to be amazed by your successes as a composer, but nothing that happens to you can ever surprise me. Least of all your triumphs as a composer…


Or from Adolph Green, another life-long friend and collaborator:


Dollink Leonard,

I’m writing, I’m writing, I can’t believe it. My pen is tracing figures on paper making bold, masculine marks, indicative of a strong character and willful mind plus creative ability yet with a strange strain of tenderness withal and a slight indication of liver trouble. Forgive me for not writing sooner…


As fun as these are – I shan’t obscure the main point:  Bernstein’s was a remarkable life, and the eclectic nature of his gift was likewise remarkable. He was an accomplished composer of classical style, and American Music Theater style, a real voice of the 20th Century. Think: On the Town, Age of Anxiety, Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story, Fancy Free, Chichester Psalms.


He too, was a teacher who introduced the Young People’s Concerts to a generation of America’s youth; he was a pianist; an activist; and arguably, one of the all-time great conductors. His story and his music are completely intertwined with the history of the 20th Century; with World War II, the bomb, the birth of the state of Israel, McCarthyism (there was an 800 page file on Bernstein), the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of the Kennedys, the Anti-war Movement, AIDS, not to mention that he was premiering so many of the great works of the 20th Century and reviving the music of Mahler while he was at it.


Here he writes in 1939.
What now? Oh for something! Any old kind of job… You see, I still don’t really know quite what I want to do. Conduct, compose, piano, produce, arrange etc. I’m all of these and none of these. The big boys here have decided I’m to become America’s great conductor, or at least they want to keep a rival composer out of the field.  At any rate – nothing happens til it happens…


Join us to see what, in fact, did happen.

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