The Leonard Bernstein Letters by Nigel Simeone (ed) - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

West Side Glory

The Leonard Bernstein Letters


Yale University Press 606pp £25

‘Try doing one thing at a time, forgetting the rest and stop having emotional orgasms,’ was how an exasperated friend counselled Leonard Bernstein in his younger days. It was sound advice that was both useless and unheeded.

As composer and conductor, on Broadway and in the world’s great concert halls, as a figurehead of liberal America and a communicator of the value of culture, who was also as a devoted family man and serial philanderer, Bernstein spread himself thin. One could never describe him as a fraud or a failure as either a musician or a human being, but as another shrewd friend indicated, a certain vulgar greed for public acclaim vitiated his achievements: ‘Your driving ambition to be the most versatile creature on earth will kill any possibility of you becoming a truly great artist in any one of the talents you possess.’

He had the jumbled psychological profile to match this restlessness: phenomenal physical and intellectual energy, an ego as big as

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