Whenever a generous collection of correspondence like “The Leonard Bernstein Letters” appears, one rejoices, but sadly. People still write one another, though usually through electronic and social media that discourage leisurely soul-searching or digressions. Lenny was lucky he didn’t live later, or we’d have “The Leonard Bernstein Tweets.”
“Letters are impossible,” Bernstein once complained to Aaron Copland, but that hardly stopped him from writing them. Most of the letters here offer glimpses of his personality rather than insights into his compositions or conducting. There is some of that, as in exchanges with David Diamond, Marc Blitzstein, John Cage and Gunther Schuller. Yet despite discussions with collaborators like Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, this is hardly a latter-day version of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence, which remains the ultimate depiction of a long-distance working relationship. Bernstein’s subjects offer more about love and affection and concert triumphs than deep insights. They open up a window into his dazzling personality and his close relations with an expansive range of friends, and a smaller circle of truly close friends, often dating back to his youth (Copland, Adolph Green, the producer David Oppenheim, the orchestrator Sid Ramin and more), and, above all, family.