Academic journal article Women & Music

Bernstein, Homophobia, Historiography

Academic journal article Women & Music

Bernstein, Homophobia, Historiography

Article excerpt

BY THE GENERAL AGREEMENT OF BOTH his champions and his detractors, Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was American classical music's first megastar, an international icon whose celebrity transcended his field. Perhaps this extraordinary popularity somehow accounts for Bernstein's long absence from the scholarly dialogues that shape official musical knowledge. Or maybe such absence has to do with the difficulties of placing him in relation to the categories by which musicological discourse proceeds: Was Bernstein a conductor or composer, executant or auteur? Should we understand his creative work as composer and sometime lyricist under the rubric of "learned" or "vernacular"? And what about his life and person: Was it Bernstein the family man, as suggested by his role as husband in a twenty-seven-year marriage and devoted father of three? Or was this mere cover for Bernstein's "true" identity as a homosexual, a man who pursued frequent and intense relations with other men (not only in the years before and after his marriage) and who proselytized on behalf of homosexuality to all who would listen and even many who would not?

In connection with the latter relations and identity Bernstein may be understood as kindred with the myriad homosexual artists with whom he had close ties from his late teens on. These included his mentors (the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the composer Aaron Copland), composer colleagues (Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, and David Diamond, to name just a few), and musical theater collaborators (the dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright-novelist Arthur Laurents, and composerlyricist Stephen Sondheim). All these men were significant to Bernstein professionally as well as personally. All, in various ways, figured importantly in his life and career.

But so did his marriage and children and undoubtedly the heterosexual identity credentials that attached to them. Bernstein's longtime colleague, friend, and onetime lover Ned Rorem has written that "all homosexual conductors of the period (except Mitropoulos) ... married," adding that "male orchestra conductors ... were and remain married worldwide, though most of them fool around: being absolute monarchs, anything is permitted them, provided they are protected with a wedding ring." (1) Unlike his earliest conducting role model, Mitropoulos, Bernstein indeed, and fatefully, bore the protection of a wedding ring--at least after 1951, the year he turned thirty-three. Bernstein's conducting career had been frustratingly idled around this time and would remain so for several years. Only in 1957, when he got his own major orchestra, would Bernstein's career take off and approach the heights he strove for. By then a husband and father of two small children, Bernstein, not yet forty, was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic. He was at the time one of the youngest men and the only American-born and -trained conductor ever appointed to that post. (2)

There is much more history surrounding Bernstein's rise to conducting glory, however, including a lesser-known story of treachery and shame buried beneath the well-known tale of all-American triumph. I will examine that shadow narrative and other instances from a dual perspective, focused on the ways in which historical homophobia in Bernstein's life and career is intertwined with and compounded by historiographic homophobia in treatments that revise or omit "unseemly" details of Bernstein's story. (3) Twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture's marking of gay persons and liaisons as specially sexual, hence unseemly in certain official contexts, is a crucial factor in historical and historiographic homophobia. When identified as gay, Bernstein and the other artists mentioned above have long been subject to a sexualized taint that had consequences in their lifetimes and of which later commentators and scholars, both friend and foe, have often steered clear.

Given this taint, and given musicology's part in upholding the cultural status of music and musicians, the phrase "Don't air your dirty laundry" may help to explain the long-standing musicological reticence toward homosexuals and homosexuality in U. …

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