Radical Streak: why Leonard Bernstein's politics can't explain his best music.

Author:O'Donnell, Michael

Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

by Barry Seldes

University of California Press, 269 pp.


Leonard Bernstein took a lot of flak for his antics on the podium. Patrons of the New York Philharmonic at mid-century were either delighted or appalled to catch a glimpse of the "Lenny leap," an uncouth maneuver that found the enthusiastic maestro a good foot in the air before a momentous downbeat. A newspaper critic complained that when Bernstein conducted, he spent most of his time not keeping time or cueing musicians but "fencing, hula-dancing and calling upon the heavens to witness his agonies." Once, when he was rehearsing the finale of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, which calls for a pianissimo so soft that it fades into nothingness, the Tanglewood chorus kept singing a little too loudly. Bernstein, who was Mahler's greatest champion and had to have it just right, lay down on the podium like some hippie chained to a tree and refused to budge until they sang it softer. Here he was, the great icon of twentieth-century American classical music, taking it to the streets, as it were, sixties-style. The year was 1953.

If anyone were likely to hold a conduct-in, it was Bernstein, a civil rights marcher, Zionist, gay rights activist, no-nukes partisan, antifascist, sexual liberationist, cowboy-boot wearer, and inveterate attender of fund-raisers, speaker at rallies, and signer of petitions. A new book discussing his political achievements and indignities has just arrived: Barry Seldes's Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician. Seldes believes that politics, rather than Judaism, American identity, or aesthetics, was the animating force of Bernstein's creative life. Regardless of the merits of this claim (about which more directly), it must be said that such a work could start an unfortunate trend. When we are subjected to books on the political activism of Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and George Clooney--Oceans of Third-World Debt, maybe?--we must first remember, before joining hands and jumping off bridges, to write Seldes a strongly worded letter.

Long before Sean Penn threw his arm around Hugo Chavez, Bernstein was engaged in radical chic. Indeed, one could argue that he was its modern avatar: the writer Tom Wolfe coined the term in a scorching New York magazine article about a Black Panther fundraiser held at Bernstein's Park Avenue apartment in 1970. There the maestro was...

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