(Kirsch's article appeared in The New Republic, 8/21/09.)


Chic Radical by Adam Kirsch


It's a rare musician who requires a biography devoted solely to his or her political activities. But as Barry Seldes shows in Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, Bernstein is one of those exceptional cases. For his entire adult life, Bernstein was perhaps the most famous composer and conductor in America–which is not the same thing as being the best–and he had no qualms about using his artistic fame to advance his political beliefs. Whenever there was a liberal cause that needed support, Bernstein was there: he was involved with the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee in the 1930s, supported Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in the 1940s, clashed with HUAC in the 1950s, marched on Selma in the 1960s, fought for gay rights and AIDS research and the NEA in the 1970s and 1980s. More problematically for his artistic legacy, he also sought to infuse his political views into his music. Many of Bernstein's biggest compositions, from West Side Story to The Age of Anxiety to Mass, were conceived as vehicles for his didactic liberalism.

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