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Bernstein: A Biography Paperback – Sep 1998

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Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Billboard Books,U.S.; 2nd Revised edition edition (Sept. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0823082598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0823082599
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,342,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Author, journalist and music critic Peyser enlists the remarks of Bernstein's family, friends and colleagues in order to expose inconsistencies in his own version of his life and to explore his motivations, struggles, and contributions. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By RR Waller TOP 500 REVIEWER on 30 Sept. 2011
Format: Paperback
This is an up-dated edition of her previous book written before his death in 1990.

"'What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this playing racist music?'" (P 13) This is a sub-title from a 1985 television programme featuring Leonard Bernstein making an imaginary visit to Sigmund Freud. It was typical of Bernstein to stretch the limits, to ask the difficult question and then to answer it in his own inimitable, erudite, intelligent style.

Peyser begins her biography with this anecdote and, at the end of her introduction, she states "the crevices of character have to be explored as fully as the peaks of achievement to understand why Bernstein lived the life he did and why, against a deepening despair, he continues to be driven by the need to to create what fulfils his criteria for a great work art". (P 17)

Her biography proceeds to do just that, four hundred and fifty pages, with four b/w photographic sections, all packed with information and details of Lennie's life. She traces his life from the humble beginnings, his unusual musical route which allowed him to bestride music styles with great ease. She does not shy away from probing his personal life to discover the troubled man behind the maestro, more so than other biographers, e.g. Humphrey Burton and John Gruen. Indeed, there is too much information and interested in the off-stage Lennie, rather than developing readers' understanding of the maestro - conductor and composer.

Although there is a very adequate index, I should have like a table of contents to guide me though later readings when I just wanted to dip into sections but, as the books is only divided into chapters, each given a number, it would not have been very helpful anyway.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 21 April 1999
Format: Paperback
Ms Peyser should not be held at fault for showing that this musical genius had feet of clay. However, the book is written from a sensationalistic viewpoint in which the events, while salacious, seem removed from understanding the subject. Reporting that he liked having his toes sucked explained neither his musical talent nor the personal conflicts that made up this man.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 29 Oct. 1998
Format: Paperback
If Ms. Peyser would check her facts and do her research she just might have written a book worth reading.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 27 Aug. 1999
Format: Paperback
Read this (it seems) in one sitting. Recommended to anyone interested in Bernstein, or in the music of our day.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 14 reviews
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I'm taking a middle of the road stand on Joan Peyser's BERNSTEIN: a biography 11 Nov. 2005
By Alan Majeska - Published on
Format: Paperback
I'm taking a middle of the road stand on Joan Peyser's BERNSTEIN: a BIOGRAPHY. Some Bernstein fans hate this book, as they feel it villified Lenny, talking too much about his alleged homosexual feelings over the years. But there are many references to Bernstein concerts and recordings which are fascinating, discussion of his wife, Felicia Montealegre (who died in 1976), his 3 children; and Peyser's writing style kept my interest and attention to the point where I'd read several chapters at a time, and found it enjoyable.

I hero worshipped Lenny in the early 1970s (I was a teenager then)when first becoming acquainted with Classical music. I enjoyed many of his LPs, which belonged to our local library: Mendelssohn Symphony 5 + Schubert 5 (New York Philharmonic, Columbia); Berlioz Overtures (Columbia); Handel's MESSIAH (excerpts, Columbia); "The joy of Music", a collection of Rossini, Falla, Bernstein, Mendelssohn, Offenbach movements and overtures (Columbia) and checked them out again and again. I used to think Bernstein was the coolest, most classy musician anyone could imagine, and still do in a way. I was heartbroken on the news of Bernstein's death (October 14, 1990 - I was nearly 32 at that time) although I had read reports that he had been very sick about 2 years before his death.

So, is Joan Peyser's book a good book or a poor one? That's for you to decide. I found alot to enjoy in it, but thought she could have lightened up a bit on Lenny: her reports of his personal life made him sound worse than he was. I like to think of Bernstein's warm, humane qualities, and his artistic contributions over all else:Bernstein had great intelligence and a depth of feeling which made him special, plus the tremendous energy and talent to have so many recordings made over his 45 year career.

So, this is worth a read, but I wouldn't take everything in this book about Bernstein's personal life as Gospel.
25 of 34 people found the following review helpful
I guess inquiring minds want to know 18 Jan. 2000
By "fronker" - Published on
Format: Paperback
The USA Today endorsement of this book neatly summarizes its raison d'etre: 'A spicy Bernstein bio.' If you are seeking all of the outrageous anecdotes, all of the juicy nitty gritty, all of the 'naughty bits' that make up the Bernstein story, then look no further: this book supplies these in abundance.
If, however, you desire any kind of intelligent or intriguing assesment of Bernstien's musical legacy, any discussion whatsoever of Bernstein's music itself, or even any thoughtful, balanced, or interesting discussion of why Bernstein was the person that he was, then you will be sorely disappointed. This is truly a biography in the National Enquirer style.
True, Leonard Bernstein was a self-serving, outrageously flambouyant personality. But so was Mozart, and, while interesting, I certainly want much more from a Mozart biography than explications of his obscene letters.
On example: Chapter 34 ends in 1982, when Bernstein was at work on his last opera, 'A Quiet Place', as composer in residence at Indiana University. Ms. Peyser ends the entire chapter by fully quoting a bawdy limerick that Bernstein apparently sang to the Dean of the School of Music at a party. The limerick, dealing with the size of genitalia, ends:
But you're a goy, And boy oh boy! I'll just betcha it's built for two!
End of chapter. No comment from Peyser. Apparently, the wisdom that she wants to impart to the ages regarding Leonard Bernstein in 1982 was that, at a certain party, he sang a song about the Dean's ying-yang.
This is about as significant (and interesting) as ending a chapter in a Mozart biography by quoting a letter in which Mozart jokes about defecation.
Bernstein and penies. Mozart and ca-ca.
Musicians writing about music?
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Some clarity beneath the muck... 27 Mar. 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
While this much maligned biography may indeed dwell a little too much on Bernstein's personal life (how many times do we really need to be told he was gay? this gets tiresome after awhile...) Peyser does include a wealth of competently researched background on the life of this most American of musicians. If you aren't offended by the cheap and trashy (but rarely explicit) parts, it's worth a read. Keep your nose in joint and take this biography for what it is and you'll probably learn a few things!
20 of 29 people found the following review helpful
My Experience Reading Joan Peyser's Bernstein 21 Dec. 1997
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Few men's lives rise to the status of a myth. In the biography Bernstein, Joan Peyser describes such a man. Leonard Bernstein, the world famous conductor, the American composer, and the eccentric personality, became a myth. Americans remember Bernstein for his didactic "Omnibus" and "Young People's Concert" television programs, his own "West Side Story", his exuberance on the podium, and his charm. Certainly his greatest contribution was to the music world, but he was not limited to the musical venue; Bernstein brought his music and politics to all in the national and international arenas. "Lenny's" life is a myth because he was known and is remembered for his incredible accomplishments and overwhelming talents. His sweep to glory after stepping in to conduct the New York Philharmonic at the last moment seems almost fairy-tale-like. My personal interests in music, and particularly in the field of conducting, had led me to idolize Leonard Bernstein. Here was a man who had both of my interests, music and politics, and had succeeded in juggling both in a professional career; a man with a Harvard education who conducted the major world symphonies. Why shouldn't Leonard Bernstein be my hero? I decided to read about this man who fascinated me. My discovery in Bernstein was profound. The Leonard Bernstein I encountered was not infallible as we hold our heroes to be. Instead he was very human; an epic hero with many tragic flaws.
Bernstein from the beginning showed genius. At first, I envied his genius as all ordinary people desire instant understanding and fabulous talent. Yet, as I read further, I learned of an ego and irresponsibility equal to Bernstein's genius. Ms. Peyser's biography is not a subjective attack on Bernstein's flaws, but rather a objective compilation of many acquaintance's opinions and impressions and even some writings of the Maestro himself. The author successfully attempts to portray the complete Leonard Bernstein; to every man there is a shadow, but Bernstein's was particularly dark. Bernstein's egotism extended to the point that he would recreate some of his own past in order to invoke sympathy and increased reverence from his followers. The conductor's sexual promiscuity was widely known to his friends in many circles. This shadow of so great a man was one that I did not want to exist. No one wishes to be disappointed by the actions of his hero. The knowledge that the biography provided me led me to question my own morals. Should a man of great talent and accomplishment be held unaccountable for his actions? Does genius or power justify self-absorption?
I say no. Talent, accomplishment, and power are separate entities from moral character. I certainly admire Leonard Bernstein's music, his conducting, and his ability to influence people. His genius, too, fascinates me. Yet this is Leonard Bernstein the myth. Leonard Bernstein, the person, was not a great man. His actions hurt friends, family, his wife, and himself. Bernstein was not the infallible demigod that we want our heroes to be. His story points to a universal truth. The people we idolize most are often some of the worst individuals. Take, for example, our modern national politicians. These individuals in whom we invest our power and trust and who hold some of the most respectable offices in the land, are often morally questionable individuals. While their public actions may be incredible acts of leadership, their private actions may be shameful. Power, fame, and genius do corrupt and it is disappointing that the people we esteem the highest are not held accountable for their actions.
Reading Bernstein was an experience. I instantly became hooked on the biography and could not put it down. Bernstein made me question my own values and my future application of those values. I am very secure with my current morals, but I must uphold my code throughout life. At every level that I reach, I will need to hold myself accountable to the same degree. This can be achieved by trying to achieve balance and perspective in my life. I will be wiser as a result.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Bloody awful. 20 Sept. 2011
By Steve Schwartz - Published on
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This book made a huge splash when it came out, mainly because it dished dirt about Bernstein's private life. The late Joan Peyser, a trained musicologist, should have been ashamed of herself, but probably wasn't. It seems to me that what you really want to know about a composer is something like how he wrote the music. In Bernstein's particular case, you also want to examine the critical reception - mixed, to say it kindly. Peyser, unfortunately, gives no indication that she knows anything about music at all. Her "discussions" of works (sneer quotes intended) amount to rehashes of newspaper reviews by others. To fill the space, she falls back on pop psychobabble about how Bernstein continually rebelled against his father, as if that explained anything about the music itself - in other words, the reason why we pay attention to Bernstein in the first place. It drags up the scandals Bernstein created during his life - Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" party, his homosexual affairs, his divorce from his wife, and so on - without going beyond a recital of the facts and sometimes without even knowing the facts or questioning the assertions of otherws. Overall, this book should have been subtitled "How They Do Carry On in the Big City," as if Bernstein's fans are easily-impressed, wide-eyed yokels. But, really, the only yokel sensibility here belongs to Peyser. Finally, Peyser's prose is barely competent. She apparently has no argumentative skills at all. This book should have been an opportunity for a substantial discussion on one of the most enduring of American composers and conductors, and she blew it. You can get the skinny on the scandals elsewhere. Why waste your money?

Incidentally, Peyser has also contributed equally uncomprehending books with the same shtick on Boulez and Gershwin. Avoid those as well.
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