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Bernstein: A BIOGRAPHY <i> by Joan Peyser (Beech Tree: $22.95; 480 pp.) </i>

Kimmelman is a music critic for the New York Times

Leonard Bernstein has been many things during his remarkable career. He has been a conductor of unsurpassed fame and influence at a time when precious few Americans have achieved the respect accorded leading European maestros. He has also carved out a significant niche for himself as a composer of music theater and even as a television personality who first brought serious music to millions of viewers.

Fittingly, Bernstein has cultivated a grandiose persona, one that, as Joan Peyser states in her biography, seems to have grown more exaggerated--and to some of his critics, more exasperating--as the years have passed. He has always been, she says, the brash and flamboyant American, arrogant and conniving in his private dealings but ever-ready in public to dole out sloppy kisses and big bear hugs to colleagues on stage. Bernstein is, Peyser concludes, a brilliant, hard-working artist who has become an increasingly callous, egocentric, unhappy man. “If the seminal gene in Bernstein had been political rather than musical,” postulates the author, “he would probably have become one of the most controversial figures in history, more like the czar in Boris Godunov than Alexander the Great or Ivan the Terrible. There would have been great and cruel things.”

Peyser--former editor of Musical Quarterly, the scholarly journal, and the author of well-regarded works on 20th-Century music and on another composer/conductor, Pierre Boulez--dutifully and earnestly retraces the history of Bernstein’s various exploits. In workmanlike prose, the biographer gives a thorough chronological account of the 68-year-old Bernstein’s life, from his middle-class childhood in Boston, through his years as a student at Harvard and then at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, through his apprenticeship to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, his composition of a string of Broadway musicals, including “Candide” and “West Side Story,” his ascension to the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic and his current status as guest conductor to leading orchestras around the world.

Peyser has done a fair amount of psychologizing in this biography, noting Bernstein’s rebelliousness against his father and against other father-figures in his life, such as Koussevitzky. She recounts incidents in which the musician ruthlessly betrayed or was deeply condescending to more established conductors, especially those who had been helpful in furthering his own career. “Bernstein,” she writes, “was never comfortable for long in the role of devoted disciple, of self-abasing or adoring student, or as a conductor’s assistant, if he could be the conductor.”

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Peyser has tried to add substance to stories that have long surrounded Bernstein--about his intimate relations, for instance, with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, composer Ned Rorem, jazz musician John Mehegan, among others. And she theorizes on the “humiliating” impact his later philanderings must have had on Bernstein’s wife, the late actress, Felicia Montealegre.

So be it. To those unfamiliar with the musician’s life or those especially titillated by tales of personal scandal in the careers of classical musicians, some of this may be revelatory and engaging. But for many others, the book will seem to cover familiar or uninspiring terrain in what sometimes becomes deadening detail. All too rarely does Peyser let herself rise above those details and pursue the broad issues that Bernstein’s life raises and that would appear to be the principal reason for undertaking a biography of the musician.

The debates in this country, for example, about the division between so-called high art and popular art, a seemingly unavoidable subject when considering Bernstein’s own compositions, could have been more profitably explored. The significance of his career as an American conductor in a field still dominated by Europeans is largely ignored. And we are left to guess what the lessons may be about the marketing of artists in America, a process epitomized by Bernstein’s calculated rise to fame.

Most important, neither the character nor the value of his artistic legacy has been summed up properly. What is the conductor’s approach on the podium and what is its importance? Exactly what has he added, in other words, to our understanding of the works he performs? Peyser doesn’t really say. She details the making of some of his compositions but does not venture to declare what their contribution has been to music history: Are we to conclude that Bernstein is an important composer or merely a successful one? Though willing to take on the role of critic when it comes to his personal life, Peyser avoids it when the issues turn more substantive.

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Admittedly, no biography can answer every question its subject raises, and quite obviously, the larger the subject, the more questions that can be asked. Bernstein is indeed formidable. Yet Peyser has begged too much in creating a popular and scandal-tinged profile. By taking for granted what has made him larger than life, she has ended up merely making him all too human.


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