From Publishers Weekly
Flamboyant composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), who was America's ambassador to the world of serious music for most of his jam-packed life, has long needed a sober, well-researched and encompassing biography, and this is it. There have been tactful hagiographies (John Gruen), malicious deconstructions (Joan Peyser) and ambivalent inside stories (Burton Bernstein); but Burton, a British TV producer who knew Bernstein well but was no acolyte, has created, with the aid of family archives, a wealth of interviews and an interested layperson's sound musical knowledge, a full-length study unlikely to be surpassed. It is in many ways a tragic story, not of genius unrecognized--if anything Bernstein was overpraised in his life, both as composer and conductor--but of a protean nature overcome by the demands of celebrity status and an overweening ego. From the start "Lenny" was a determinedly colorful character, insistent on the limelight, extravagant of gesture and emotion. Whether he could have become a great composer, rather than a highly talented musical entertainer whose best-remembered work remains his Broadway musicals, will never be known; for his whole professional life was an agonized tightrope walk between the frenzies of adulation that greeted his conducting and his guilty sense that he was betraying his creative gift by not spending more time in the workroom. And even the slim body of work he did create in his crowded life emerged more often than not from collaborations with lyricists and librettists, almost as if he was afraid to be alone with his muse. Bernstein was a man who owed much to his Jewish heritage (and Burton adroitly notes how much of his serious music had Jewish roots) and experienced a strong sense of guilt about his bisexuality, particularly after the death of his betrayed wife Felicia. But as the reader begins to wonder whether such anguish is inescapable for a non-heterosexual American artist, there is the example of Bernstein's friend Aaron Copland to ponder: a man secure in his gay sexuality who created what is arguably a much more lasting body of work and had a greater influence on the musical life of his time. The fact that a biography can raise such questions is a tribute to the tact and imagination that infuse this one. Bernstein owes Burton a posthumous hug for having told it straight, with affection but no blinkers. Photos.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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From Kirkus Reviews
A sensitive, well-balanced account of the great American maestro's life and works. Biographer Burton, for over 20 years Bernstein's television and video director, neatly avoids most of the pitfalls that wait for a close friend who attempts an authoritative portrait within a very few years of the death of its subject. While generally admiring Bernstein the creative dynamo, Burton rarely gushes, unlike at least one other recent memoirist. Nor does he trash Bernstein for his emotional and sexual excesses; indeed, Burton deals with the intimate side of Bernstein's life, particularly his homosexuality and his guilt at the rift it caused between him and his wife, Felicia, during her last troubled years, with nonjudgmental candor and a lack of sensationalism. The core of the book is a straightforward chronological narrative. Into a lifetime scarcely longer than seven decades, Bernstein seemingly packed several lifetimes of composition (both ``serious'' and Broadway), conducting, and teaching. Even in a book of this length, the sheer amount of mental and physical activity described is hardly less exhausting to read about than it must have been to experience. Burton earns the reader's trust by declaring at the outset that the real Leonard Bernstein is to be found in his many recordings and videotaped performances; nonetheless, Burton unfailingly provides the context of each of Bernstein's own compositions (including ones left unfinished) and a survey of contemporaneous critical response (for instance, Mass, which Burton thinks is Bernstein's ``most original work'' from the point of view of musical form, was called ``magnificent'' and ``stupendous'' by certain leading critics, ``pretentious and thin'' by others). Burton would probably admit that the images of Bernstein the conductor and musical pedagogue are still so powerfully etched in our consciousness that an objective appraisal of Bernstein's own music is not yet possible. Simply the best of the Bernstein biographies so far. (First printing of 60,000; Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club selection; ad/promo) -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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