Bernstein's letters a window on 20th century music


"The Leonard Bernstein Letters"

Edited by Nigel Simeone

Yale University Press, 623 pages, $38

If you're at all interested in classical music, especially 20th century American music, you'll find these letters fascinating. Everyone's in here, from Copland and David Diamond to Marc Blitzstein and Alan Jay Lerner . Bernstein's career spanned just about the entire century, from his precocious days at Harvard and Curtis Institute in the 1930s, when he was already hobnobbing with Copland and Britten, to his tragically spent later years and death in 1990 at age 72.

You won't learn a lot about composing and conducting from the letters, though there are interesting hints at what all these brilliant musicians thought of each other — Copland didn't think much of Bernstein as a concert hall composer, for example. But the glimpses of Bernstein as a friend, colleague, manipulator and social creature generally match up with his reputation.


There's a certain prurient interest, too, in how many of these artists were romantically linked to each other — for example, Simeone says it's likely Bernstein had an intimate relationship with conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, 20 years his senior, during the latter's years at conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The letters between Bernstein and his wife Felicia when he went off the deep end with other men in the 1970s are deeply tragic, and as Simeone notes, it was a time of controversies and catastrophe for Bernstein, whose last years are an almost ghastly reminder of how talented he was and how much more he might have accomplished.

The editor's introductory notes amount to a concise, refreshingly clear-eyed biography of Bernstein, and you'll learn more from the exhaustive footnotes than from the letters. Among the most touching details is how one of Bernstein's early piano teachers, Helen Coates, came to be his personal secretary for most of his life, and it was she who kept his letters filed and in good shape so this book ultimately could be published.

"Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War"

Richard Moe

Oxford, 376 pages, $29.95

The author was Vice President Walter Mondale's chief of staff and has been a Democratic Party activist for decades, but with that caveat, this is an absorbing insider's look at how Roosevelt arrived at the decision to run for a third term, with World War II looming, and how he worked overtime to make it appear that he was "drafted" for the 1940 Democratic nomination. That alone was a political master stroke, but Moe's account of the general election campaign against Wendell Willkie, waged against the backdrop of Hitler's conquest of Europe, is more revealing into FDR's thinking — and why Americans, in the end, decided Roosevelt was the right man to lead the U.S. into war, despite the pesky little matter of the third term.

Moe, whose historical writing includes an excellent history of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers , tells the story well and with credibility, though at times he lays it on thick regarding Roosevelt's selfless devotion to duty.


"C. P. Cavafy, Complete Poems"

Translated, with introductions and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Knopf, 667 pages, $35

Cavafy died in 1933 but his reputation has only grown in the decades since, based largely on a few remarkable poems such as "The God Abandons Antony" from before World War I. This volume of his complete work, including some unfinished poems that were previously unpublished in English, gives a fuller view of the Greek poet's talents and interests. For most readers, it's still the early poems that are most striking, and Mendelsohn's translations give them freshness and urgency.

Much of Cavafy's later work is more confessional and self-indulgent, less about poetry and more about figuring out his life or appealing to his many romantic interests. It all adds up to a better understanding, though, of one of the century's great poets.

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