American Music 7:2 Summer 1989 pp. 297-209
Bernstein: A Biography. By Joan Peyser. New York: William Morrow and Co., Beech Tree Books, 1987. ISBN 0-688-04917-4. Pp.481. $22.95
In the Winter 1966 Columbia University Forum, Joan Peyser authored a moving, seminal article entitled "The Troubled Time of Marc Blitzstein": moving in that she demonstrated how Blitzstein (1905-64) "exemplifies the predicament of the composer in our time"; seminal in that her having written that article led directly (through the late Seymour Peck of the New York Times) to her becoming editor of the prestigious Musical Quarterly from 1977 to 1984, and her description in that article of Blitzstein's last work, the opera Idiots First, led this reviewer to complete the opera in 1973. Further, it led her to the work that documents in greater detail than ever before the important musical, personal, and political influence Blitzstein had on one of America's brightest musical starts, the composer, conductor, and world figure Leonard Bernstein. For this, and for the light she sheds on many other aspects of Bernstein's career, personality, and works, both scholars and lay readers should be grateful.
"The more one knows about Bernstein," Peyser concedes, "the more complicated the portrait is of him as a Jew" (p. 436). In devoting parts of no fewer than eighteen pages to Bernstein's "Jewish background" and another twelve to his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic, Peyser has indeed done more to fill in that portrait than any other writer to date--a topic that has been much less widely noted by reviewers than the twenty-four pages devoted to his homosexuality. She notes, for example, his conflicting emotions about performing Wagner, his early inspiration to become a rabbi, and his strong connection to Israel, from his fall 1948 tour through the legendary 1968 Mt. Scopus concert to the present.
The pity is that after spending three years on such a monumental subject Peyser rushed into print with an annoying number of errors, particularly on Jewish topics. Confusing the Kedushah with the Kaddish (the former being the direct ancestor of the Christian Sanctus), she asserts in her ignorance that "there can be no explanation for a kaddish in a mass unless Mass is in fact the story of Bernstein's own life" (p. 416). [This error was corrected in the paperback edition, as the result of this reviewer's calling it to her attention!] Chutzpah is not an "adjective" (p. 310) but a noun, the adjectival form being Chutzpahdicker. There are also numerous mistakes concerning Blitzstein and his works: Jean Rosenthal was not "the lighting designer" (p. 43) of the original Cradle Will Rock (1937) but an assistant; the lighting designer was Abe Feder. Threepenny Opera was not produced in New York in 1933 "in the original German version" (p. 222) but in a poor (pre-Blitzstein) English translation. And Leonard Bernstein was musical consultant, not "music director" (p. 367), of the 1964 Cradle.
On the still incomplete Blitzstein opera Sacco and Vanzetti, Peyser writes that Bernstein "came under considerable pressure from Blitzstein's circle of friends to complete the opera" (p. 367). But this refers not to Sacco but to another opera Blitzstein left incomplete, Idiots First based on Bernard Malamud's story (the first of two operas to be called together Tales of Malamud). the New York Times edition of March 22, 1964 (p. 78), reported "Bernstein to Finish Opera by Blitzstein," referring not to Sacco but to Idiots First. Nine months later, Bernstein wrote, "It could be done, they tell me. Done, with what notes?" The story is reported in his book Findings but is conspicuously absent from Peyser's.
But the most irritating aspect of the book is its insidious, would-be-puristic moralizing. Peyser fails, or refuses, to see her subject's iconoclasm and unorthodoxy as anything but an unhealthy, antipaternal rebelliousness. She thus misses an essential link in Bernstein's understanding of and sympathy with the greatest of American composers, whom it has lately become fashionable to consider overrated: Charles Ives. She does not acknowledge the capacity of these composers each to assimilate, integrate, and find expression in his own terms. Thus she rejects out of hand the notion that her subject has "crystallized a style associated with an era immediately past" (p. 17), even as she provides ample evidence of direct influences from Gershwin, Copland, Blitzstein, and even Britten. Instead of analyzing and evaluating Bernstein's post-West Side Story works, she merely quotes from positive and negative reviews they have received, implying that anything but unanimous, unqualified raves denotes failure.
Without saying which "reporter" or where, Peyser states, "In 1956, Bernstein told a reporter, 'I value control and self-control. Sure I was perhaps a bit orgiastic at one time. But marriage and children change everything.'" (p. 204). It is Peyser's contention that this sexually disciplined period in his life produced "his best, most important, most memorable work." Considering Trouble in Tahiti, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story and the Serenade after Plato's Symposium (all written between 1952 and 1957), this may be true. But where is the proof for so rash an assertion as "The greater the artist, the more powerful the sexual drive, whether suppressed or not" (p. 378)? We are asked to accept a lot on faith, from the sincerity of Peyser's motives in digging up dirt to the veracity and accuracy of her often-unnamed sources.
"As jazz musicians deny Bernstein is a jazz musician, so" orthodox "twelve-tone composers deny Bernstein is a twelve-tone composer" (p. 346). But no one could say the same about orthodox Jews, or orthodox anything else. And Peyser does: Bernstein's eating oysters is described as "an act that was at least anti-Jewish, at most anti-God" (p. 176). She also takes him to task as "the token Jew" for conducting in anti-Semitic Vienna, though noting grudgingly that while there "on the High Holidays, he steadfastly remains behind closed doors in his hotel room, frustrating Germans and Viennese who frenetically seek him out" (p. 436). As an American Jew who conducted in German-speaking Europe from 1979 to 1986, this reviewer can testify that that takes courage--and principles.
In conclusion, we may thank Joan Peyser for a wealth of detail about one of the greatest musicians of our century and hope that her attempts to consign him to an unsavory coffee-table spot will not depress or impede his continuing creativity. It would be a tragedy, for instance, if he were to abandon permanently his recently begun piece on the Holocaust.
Roslyn, New York