Biographies are often glutted with facts and imagined responses. Many are exhaustively researched, and are exhausting to read as a result. 20th Century composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein built his life around his love for music, and that’s where biographer Allen Shawn smartly keeps his focus in Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician. We get Bernstein’s life story, and the milestones (his sensational conducting debut at Carnegie Hall that made the front page of The New York Times; his early collaborations with choreographer Jerome Robbins; his musical theater breakthrough, West Side Story) but everything is contextualized in relation to Bernstein’s musicianship. By offering an informed, rigorous, sensitive, nuanced, and compassionate evaluation of Bernstein’s creative output, Shawn, a teacher of composition and music history at Bennington College, achieves a remarkable feat: he gives a master class in biography as music appreciation.

The story is told chronologically, and we jump through time from one musical rock to another. Bernstein was born in 1918 in Massachusetts, and expressed his gifts at an early age when his family inherited his Aunt Clara’s piano. He was first self-taught, then quickly outpaced the skills of the local teachers. When his younger siblings Shirley and Burton were born, Bernstein started teaching them as well.

Throughout his life, children were important to Bernstein. He had an unusually close bond to his siblings—throughout their lives they communicated in a secret made-up language—and later, after his marriage to Chilean actress Felicia Montealagre, had three of his own. The lyrics for an early song cycle called I Hate Music shows Bernstein’s “identification with children, capturing their longing to understand life.”

Later in his life, Bernstein started a musical series for children at Carnegie Hall called Young People’s Concerts. Great works of music were played and Bernstein analyzed what made them special. Shawn evaluates them as “educational precisely because they take you somewhere that you are not expecting, and accumulate depth through a combination of what is said, what is implied, and all that is experienced by seeing and hearing the music played.”

Bernstein didn’t talk down to the children in his audiences, but “was able to address [them] as an idealized father figure or older brother, while also communicating subliminally that he could still identify with them.” In Shawn’s analysis, Bernstein “seemed almost to reach inside the psyches of his listeners and unlock the barriers between them and music.” The concerts didn’t present “classical” music as something rarified and precious, but cut to the feeling the music stirred in the listener, something anyone at any age could appreciate. As Bernstein remarked,

“’If [music] tells us something, not a story or a picture but a feeling, if it makes us change inside—to have all of these good feelings that music can make you have—then you’re understanding it…Because those feelings…They’re not extra, they’re not outside the music. They belong to music. They’re what music is about…We can’t always name the things we feel…every once in awhile we have feelings that are so deep that we have no words for them, and that’s where music is so marvelous, because music names them for us, only in notes, instead of in words.’”

Bernstein comes across as a man of great vitality. Shawn’s analysis highlights a duality: “He may have been an inveterate show-off at a party, but on paper he was precise and serious.” As both a conductor and a composer, Bernstein was both an introvert and an extrovert. This split extended to his personal life. Bernstein’s bisexuality is acknowledged by his biographer, yet the disclosure isn’t sensationalized. Shawn includes an excerpt “from an undated letter from Felicia to her husband written early in their married life:”[l]et’s try to see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!’”

In assessing Bernstein’s musical gifts, Shawn points out that “[m]any saw him as a ‘popular’ composer who was trying to prove that he was ‘serious.’ But the opposite was true.” Bernstein had his detractors who criticized his acrobatic conducting style (“’Everything I do is to the orchestra—what the audience sees from their side is their business”) and his outspoken political opinions (he was a personal friend of the Kennedys, and a Liberal). Shawn argues that “Bernstein combined introspection and extroversion in equal measure, but his public side was so strong it was sometimes hard to believe it wasn’t the whole man.”

Much as Bernstein did in his televised musical appreciation talks, Shawn gives context for understanding the work Bernstein was either writing, playing, or conducting; what made it significant: what made it succeed, or fail. “All the great composers, regardless of idiom, ‘want to tell you something,’” Bernstein is quoted as saying, and Shawn works to show us, by analyzing the music, what that something is. In showcasing Bernstein’s piece about an unhappily married couple, Trouble in Tahiti, Shawn looks beyond the biographical reflections (Bernstein marriage was indeed a rocky one) for the deeper meaning: “Bernstein’s America is one in which the human soul is suspended in emptiness and yearns for connection, finding depth only in solitary dreams and fantasy.”

I don’t know much of Bernstein’s work beyond the score for West Side Story, but Shawn’s book made me want to hear everything in the Bernstein catalogue. It’s hard to remember, when listening to an orchestrated piece of music, that there are people behind those instruments, and one person who leads them, and one person who heard that music in his mind and set down all of the notes for them to play. Bernstein argued that music “belonged to each individual listener and musical participant.” In listening we concentrate; in listening, we are still. “Stillness,’ Bernstein noted, ‘is our most intense mode of action…In stillness every human being is great; he is free from the experience of hostility; he is a poet, and most like an angel.’”

Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician, Allen Shawn, Yale University Press, 2014, 347 pp.