The Political Life of an American Musician
Narrated by Dick Hill
Approximately 12 hours
Book published by University of California Press
From his dazzling conducting debut in 1943 until his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein's star blazed brilliantly. In this fresh and revealing biography of Bernstein's political life, Barry Seldes examines Bernstein's career against the backdrop of cold war America—blacklisting by the State Department in 1950, voluntary exile from the New York Philharmonic in 1951 for fear that he might be blacklisted, signing a humiliating affidavit to regain his passport—and the factors that by the mid-1950s allowed his triumphant return to the New York Philharmonic. Seldes for the first time links Bernstein's great concert-hall and musical-theatrical achievements and his real and perceived artistic setbacks to his involvement with progressive political causes. Making extensive use of previously untapped FBI files as well as overlooked materials in the Library of Congress's Bernstein archive, Seldes illuminates the ways in which Bernstein's career intersected with the twentieth century's most momentous events. This broadly accessible and impressively documented account of the celebrity-maestro's life deepens our understanding of an entire era as it reveals important and often ignored intersections of American culture and political power.
Barry Seldes is Professor of Political Science at Rider University and the author of a wide range of essays on politics and culture.
Dick Hill (narrator) is a winner of numerous Earphones Awards (AudioFile), three Audie Awards (Audio Publishers Association), and the profession’s highest honor, a Golden Voice (AudioFile).
“A rich, thoroughly researched and immensely readable study.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“In this insightful and creative study, Barry Seldes, a political scientist with a deep understanding of musicology, grapples with this powerful public artist by examining the lifelong interactions of his art with his politics. Where others have downplayed or even ridiculed Bernstein's political engagement, Seldes makes a compelling case for its centrality in both Bernstein's triumphs and his sense of ultimate failure.”
“This concise study ... is undoubtedly one the composer-conductor's admirers will want to possess.”
—Intl Record Review
“Seldes has a gift for literary counterpoint, balancing political, social, and musical story lines.... This is a biography with a political focus, but it's a full biography, one that knocks over caricatures of a celebrity musician who merely played at politics.... Almost two decades after Bernstein's death, this is the first in-depth look at the man with his politics. It was worth the wait.”
—Boston Globe Book Section
“Mr. Seldes's book is a masterpiece of concision, romping through background accounts of the machinations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the collapse of post-war efforts to revive the liberal political philosophies of the New Deal generation. He turns with equally efficient grace to interpretations of Bernstein's more enigmatic compositions, such as his theatrical setting of the "Mass" and his disillusioned follow-up to 'Trouble in Tahiti' with an opera, "A Quiet Place". The book's greatest value, however, lies not simply in shedding new and more nuanced light on the story of 'Our Lenny', but in its consistent demonstration—in accordance with Bernstein's own ideas—that any attempt to separate the musical sphere from the moral and political comes at an unconscionably high price.”
“Finally, a biography of Bernstein that does not merely chronicle his career but truly explains it. Barry Seldes argues most convincingly that Bernstein's life in music is bound up with his political perspective, and his creative commitments reflected his social ones. What emerges from this meticulously researched, engagingly written, and utterly fascinating account is a richer, truer portrait of an important American composer, conductor, and citizen.”
—Elizabeth Bergman, author of Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War