Sohrab Ahmari of The Wall Street Journal reports for NY1 on a new book of letters from the life of famed composer Leonard Bernstein in “The Book Reader.”
Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, aged 72. Those of us too young to have heard the composer-conductor live must make do with recordings. But what recordings!
Newcomers might start with the maestro's take on Beethoven's nine symphonies. Has Symphony No. 9 ever sounded at once this intense and this delicate? Now thanks to a collection of Bernstein's letters compiled by Nigel Simeone in "The Leonard Bernstein Letters," we can also catch a glimpse of the man behind the music. The picture of Bernstein that emerges from his correspondence includes a mixture of workaholism and tortured sexuality, moments of profound happiness alternating with what he called his "big, soggy depressions."
Advised by two mentors to adopt a non-Jewish last name, he wrote: "I haven't changed my name, or learned to schmoos, or become a dignified continental. The hell with it."
Then there was Bernstein's constant longing for company: "I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed," he wrote to a Harvard classmate. At the heart of the collection is Bernstein's sexuality. He was gay, and many of the letters address his love affairs with the likes of the Hollywood actor Farley Granger and the composer Aaron Copland. But Bernstein was also a married man and the commitment underlying his less-than-passionate union with the actress Felicia Montealegre may be the most moving aspect of these letters.
"Let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!," she writes him. "Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?"
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