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YALSA Nonfiction, Part Three: Music Was IT

Between now and the announcement of the winner on January 23, I’m taking a closer look at the five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. Check out part one, on Wheels of Change by Sue Macy, and part two on The Notorious Benedict ArnoldToday I’ll look at Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of biographies that focus on the subject’s childhood. I usually find that even when a famous person’s childhood was interesting, it doesn’t relate very much to their later career (i.e., the reasons I’m interested in the person). So, although I happen to be a big fan of Leonard Berstein, I wasn’t immediately excited about reading a book about the “young Leonard Bernstein” as the subtitle puts it. Fortunately for me, the main title is dead on: from a very early age, “music was it” for Lenny (as he was known in childhood). The book, therefore, deals almost exclusively with Lenny’s passion for music, his early virtuosity at the piano, his various apprenticeships and more. Also fortunately, the story of the young Lenny has a very clear culmination to which the entire narrative points: his debut as a conductor at the New York Philharmonic at the unprecedentedly young age of 25.

This book is filled with personal recollections of all those who knew Bernstein (including several exclusive interviews by Rubin), and includes a wealth of primary documents–inscribed photos from Bernstein’s personal collection, school report cards, a completed music theory exam, and much more. The prose is also excellent, and I was especially impressed by Rubin’s careful explanations of references (musical or otherwise) made by sources that might be above the heads of her readers.

If the book has a flaw, it is that Bernstein’s young life was almost too easy. He knew from such a young age that he wanted to pursue music that the only question was what field: composing, conducting, or playing. It is true that his father, Sam, disapproved of Lenny’s music, and Rubin makes the most of this as a recurring conflict in Lenny’s young life, but it seems to have been the kind of disapproval that comes from love. Sam obviously wanted the best for his son, and he never did anything to actively sabotage his son. Still, if that’s how it was, there’s not much Rubin can to do manufacture controversy, and it is not as if Bernstein’s early career was without any hiccups. All in all, though this book doesn’t stand with The Notorious Benedict Arnold or Bootleg (which I’ll discuss on Friday) for me, it is an impressive, well-researched book, a great read, and a worthy finalist for the YALSA Nonfiction Award.

— Mark Flowers

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Mark Flowers

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  1. […] Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy (interview with the author) Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman […]

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