Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

catherine reefCatherine Reef has written young adult biographies of writers, including The Brontes, Jane Austen, and Ernest Hemingway, and composers William Grant Still and George Gershwin. This year, she published Leonard Bernstein and American Music, a biography of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Earlier this week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about the challenges and joys of sharing his life and work with young people.

Kidsbiographer: Can you discuss your personal relationship with Bernstein’s music and the musical research you did to write Leonard Bernstein and American Music?

Catherine Reef: Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up watching Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. In fact, my fifth-grade teacher showed them to our class so often that my parents joked about her having a crush on Leonard Bernstein. She certainly admired him. His enthusiasm, his handsomeness, and his resonant bassoon of a voice made him a captivating figure.

The first music by Bernstein that I came to know well was the score to West Side Story. It was discordant and thoroughly contemporary, but it could also be achingly melodious and reminiscent of Beethoven. As I grew older I was intrigued by Bernstein’s Mass. Composers had been creating musical settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy for centuries, but Bernstein incorporated guitars, synthesizers and other modern elements to remake the form. I also grew to love the music from Candide, especially the breathless, exhilarating overture. Who else could have written it?

Although I had some familiarity with Bernstein’s music, I had much to learn before I could write about it with any kind of authority. I did a lot of listening—to his three symphonies, the Chichester Psalms, On the Town, and other works. I also did a lot of reading to find out what knowledgeable listeners had to say about Bernstein’s music, as well as what the composer himself had to say. Then I listened some more and thought about how to present everything I had absorbed in a way that would have meaning and value to my readers.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most interesting anecdote you unearthed about Bernstein during your research?

Catherine Reef: As a biographer, I love anecdotes because they help me to bring a subject to life, to give readers glimpses of the subject at home with family and friends or at work in the larger world. One such story is of Bernstein as a teenager staging a comic version of Carmen and other musical productions with his friends in Sharon, Massachusetts, where his family had a summer home. This brief look at young Lenny leading rehearsals and donning a red wig to play a leading role reveals something about Bernstein that is really true of many people. The interests and inclinations that direct our course in adulthood are often present in childhood.

Something that surprised me was the degree to which Bernstein’s Jewish heritage informed his life and work. Jewish themes inspired such compositions as his Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies, for example, and throughout his life he was a strong and visible supporter of Israel. When Bernstein was launching his conducting career, his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, urged him to change his name to one that disguised his Jewish background. Koussevitzky worried that anti-Semitism would hold his protégé back. But to Bernstein, making this change would mean denying who he was, and this he refused to do. “I will have to make it with the name Leonard Bernstein or not at all,” he said. This anecdote reveals not only his identification with Jewish culture and faith but also his refusal to bow to prejudice. Acceptance—achieved through understanding—is a theme that runs through his life.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Bernstein’s story for young adults?

Catherine Reef: Describing music for young readers is a big challenge. There is nothing more elusive than music, so how does a writer convey its sound or its meaning in words?

One piece I paused to describe was Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Age of Anxiety, which was completed in 1949. This is a programmatic piece in that it follows the progress of a poem by W. H. Auden with the same title. Auden’s poem delves into the unconscious mind, the seat of our deepest thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. I therefore pointed out how Bernstein suggests this venture into psychological territory with a series of descending low notes played on a piano.

Both the poem and the symphony were written in response to the horrors experienced and witnessed during World War II. At the time, many people questioned the existence of God in a world that permitted millions to be murdered. I explained that this is why Part 2 of Bernstein’s symphony begins with a dirge. But Bernstein could never be satisfied with a rejection of faith. Affirmation was more in keeping with his nature, and for this reason his symphony ends in rich, full tones.

It is also a challenge to decide how extensively to write about a piece of music, because I don’t want to say too much. I like to give my readers a foundation on which to base their own listening, because I hope they will make their own discoveries and form their own opinions. They should not be too influenced by what I say of think.

Kidsbiographer: Leonard Bernstein and American Music was written for the educational market; however, it’s also a very personal biography. How did you approach educating young adults while introducing them to Leonard Bernstein as a person?

Catherine Reef: A biography is a literary creation, a portrait in words of a well-known man or woman, a life story shaped into a cohesive narrative. Very simply, each of my biographies is my effort to understand an individual on the basis of his or her experiences, achievements, and words, as well as the observations of people who knew the subject, and then to communicate what I have learned to the reader. My approach is the same regardless of the publisher; I can’t conceive of writing a biography any other way.

When I write for young people about a creative person such as Leonard Bernstein, though, I want my book also to serve as an introduction to the subject’s work. I therefore present his or her most important contributions and discuss in some detail the works’ significance, how they were received, and how they were innovative. I place them in historical and artistic context, so readers can see how they reflected their time and how they measure up against pieces by other composers that preceded them.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Leonard Bernstein and American Music?

Catherine Reef: I would like my readers to gain awareness of a man who had a huge impact on our culture—on our world, really—in the twentieth century, and whose influence endures. I also hope they become familiar enough with Bernstein’s music for it to continue giving them enjoyment throughout life. Finally, I hope readers will be left with the satisfaction that comes from having read a good book.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Catherine Reef: Readers can look forward to two new books from me in the coming year. In the fall, Morgan Reynolds plans to release the long-awaited Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda. I feel fortunate to be introducing the famed Chilean poet and humanitarian to children in the United States. With its simple language and vivid imagery, much of Neruda’s poetry is accessible to young people, so I hope readers will go on to explore it further on their own. Then, in spring 2014, Frida and Diego: Art, Love, and Life will be out from Clarion. This book delves into the lives, marriage, and work of two remarkable Mexican painters. And right now I am busy with two challenging projects. The first is a biography of Noah Webster, the author and teacher remembered best for writing the first comprehensive American dictionary of the English language. The second is a book on slavery in North America during the colonial years. Although the use of African American slaves was to become a strictly southern practice, slavery existed in every one of the thirteen English colonies.

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