Notes on a Life

Bernstein front coverLeonard Bernstein and American Music
By Catherine Reef
(Morgan Reynolds, 2013, Greensboro, NC, $28.95)

Most artists are content to excel in one genre. Leonard Bernstein won fame as a conductor, pianist, and composer of operas, symphonies, and Broadway musicals. The first major American-born conductor, Bernstein led a peripatetic life, traveling the world to teach, conduct, and use music to bring people together. He also gave television broadcasts, educating the public about music and bringing classical music to a wider audience.

In Leonard Bernstein and American Music, Catherine Reef introduces young adults to Bernstein’s work and the exuberant, generous man himself. She puts his oeuvre in its historical context, relating his compositions to both other music of the era and to the political and social movements that inspired Bernstein. Readers need not have a tremendous musical background to understand these discussions; Reef’s biography is, in many ways, a music appreciation course, one that the composer-conductor himself would have approved. Leonard Bernstein and American Music is also an intensely personal biography. Reef writes movingly of his profound dedication to Israel, civil rights, and peace. Throughout his career, Bernstein brought together former enemies to make music; he believed the emotions expressed in music could heal wounds and remind people of all they had in common. About Bernstein’s marriage and bisexuality Reef is refreshingly frank: she neither glosses over nor sensationalizes his marital problems and affairs. Instead, she presents the facts to create a nuanced portrait of Bernstein.

Even at the end of his life, as he battled emphysema, Bernstein was full of plans to write music and educate young musicians. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and Leonard Bernstein and American Music should motivate readers to explore his music and make the most of their own opportunities to create and contribute.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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