by Susan Goldman Rubin
“Life without music is unthinkable.”—Leonard Bernstein, Findings
When Lenny was two years old, his mother found that the only way to soothe her crying son was to turn on the Victrola. When his aunt passed on her piano to Lenny’s parents, the boy demanded lessons. When Lenny went to school, he had the most fun during “singing hours.”
But Lenny’s love of music was met with opposition from the start. Lenny’s father, a successful businessman, wanted Lenny to follow in his footsteps. Additionally, the classical music world of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by Europeans—no American Jewish kid had a serious chance to make a name for himself in this field.
Beginning with Lenny’s childhood in Boston and ending with his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic when he was just twenty-five, Music Was IT draws readers into the energetic, passionate, challenging, music-filled life of young Leonard Bernstein.
Archival photographs, mostly from the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress, illustrate this fascinating biography, which also includes a foreword by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. Extensive back matter includes biographies of important people in Bernstein’s life, as well as a discography of his music.
This is a quick and easy read. There are many nice pictures, but my favorites are the pages of doodles (p. 65 and 66) from Bernstein's college notebooks. Handwritten tests and compositions, and autographed photos from musicians he admired are also illuminating.
The design is clean and simple. The cover and end papers are dark blue, and everything inside is black and white. Images are nice and large, and white space is used sparingly but effectively. The only flourish is a musical staff marking the beginning of each chapter, and chapter titles done in a faux-handwriting font.
In addition to conducting research through books, and exhibits at Harvard and the Library of Congress; the author interviewed two of Bernstein's children in person, and his brother and a lifelong friend via telephone. Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, wrote the foreward.
I would have liked it if Rubin had delved into Bernstein's impact, discussing some of his major contributions like West Side Story, On the Town and Candide, in an introduction or the first chapter instead of leaving them to the epilogue. Some interesting aspects of his personal life, like his bisexuality and the fact that he smoked (despite having asthma) are also crammed into the epilogue, as afterthoughts.
End materials include a discography, timeline, biographies of friends and mentors, a bibliography, quotation sources and an index. These are all substantive. The discography includes a couple of DVDs in addition to audio recordings; actually watching Bernstein conduct would be a treat as he used his hands rather than a baton and was noted for his energetic style. I imagine is style may have influenced young conductors like Gustavo Dudamel, however this also isn't discussed in the book.