For years I have loved the music of Leonard Bernstein. Music he composed such as the opera Candide, the ballet Fancy Free, and the shows On the Town, West Side Story, thrill me. And when I hear a recording of Lenny conducting music by another composer like Mahler or Beethoven, I am deeply moved. I feel Lenny’s passion and it enhances my pleasure of the music.
This pleasure was something I wanted to bring to readers in Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein. I was astonished to learn that as a boy growing up in Boston, Lenny had to struggle to make a career in music despite his exceptional talent. His father, a Russian immigrant who had successfully established a beauty supply business, opposed the idea. Sam Bernstein, Lenny’s father, believed that it would be impossible for an American Jewish kid to break into the world of classical music, which in the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by Europeans. And he was right. Sam wanted Lenny to take over his beauty supply business. Or, at second best, become a rabbi.
Although Lenny loved his father and was greatly influenced by Judaism, he pursued his dream of a life in music. From the moment when he was ten-years-old and the family received a cast-off piano from Aunt Clara, Lenny knew that “music was 'it'.” “There was no question in my mind,” he recalled, “that my life was to be about music.”
With the encouragement of his mother, younger sister Shirley, supportive teachers and influential mentors, Lenny achieved his goal. The book ends with his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall when he was just twenty-five. A reporter asked Sam why he had ever objected to Lenny’s desire to be a musician, and Sam replied, “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”
Researching and writing this book was a joy. During the process I had the marvelous opportunity to meet and interview two of Lenny’s children, Jamie and Alexander Bernstein. I also talked to Lenny’s brother Burton and his lifelong friend and one of his first piano students, Sid Ramin.
But reading about Lenny is incomplete without listening to his music. I tried to compile a discography for the book but had trouble because Lenny is one of the most recorded conductors in history. With the help of my wonderful editor Emily Mitchell, I decided to list some of the CDs from my personal collection that I listened to over and over as I worked on the book, and I included other recordings that I thought readers would particularly enjoy.
To get a glimpse of Lenny performing as a mature adult, go to YouTube and hear him conduct the overture to Candide. Or see him play the piano solo and conduct the second section of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue without a score.
As Lenny once said, “Life without music is unthinkable.” So visit YouTube, or borrow CDs and DVDs from the library, and experience the joy of music with Leonard Bernstein.
Posted by Susan Goldman Rubin, author of Music was IT.