First Notes

Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein
By Susan Goldman Rubin
(Charlesbridge,Watertown,MA, 2012, $19.95)

Most biographies tell their subject’s stories from cradle to grave; a few focus on a specific chapter of the person’s life. In Music Was It, Susan Goldman Rubin explores the early part of Leonard Bernstein’s career, concluding with his triumphant conductorial debut at Carnegie Hall when he was twenty-five. Although an epilogue summarizes Bernstein;s remarkable achievements as a conductor, composer, and concert pianist, it remains a young adult biography about the struggles one young adult overcame to pursue his dream.

Certainly, enough roadblocks existed between Lenny Bernstein and musical success. First, in the 1930s and 40s, most professional classical musicians in the US were European. Second, anti-Semitism was alive and well: at Harvard, Bernstein could not join certain musical societies because he was Jewish. Finally, his father kept pressuring him to abandon his musical studies and join the family business. Fortunately, Bernstein had everything he needed to surmount these obstacles: exuberance, charm, prodigious talent, and a love of music that superseded everything else in his life. Although Rubin’s biography concentrates on Bernstein’s artistic development, his personality emerges from the pages. Readers glimpse the playfulness that inspired him to produce spoofs of operas as a teenager and turn a joke with a roommate into a song when he was a struggling young musician. A foreword by Jamie Bernstein, the conductor’s daughter, highlights his personal warmth.

Music Was It constitutes a solid introduction to Bernstein’s life, oeuvre, and era: a discography and mini-biographies of his musical friends and mentors appear at the book’s end. But above all, it is a moving narrative about personal dreams and family relationships with a satisfying conclusion.

Dorothy A. Dahm



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