Dr. Barry Seldes remembers when he first encountered Leonard Bernstein. It was a hot summer day sometime in the late 1950s when Seldes, then an undergraduate student at the City College of New York, walked out of class to hear music coming from the College’s Lewisohn Stadium.
Seldes ventured over to the amphitheater where the New York Philharmonic was holding a rehearsal. There, he saw the legendary music director Leonard Bernstein, drenched with perspiration, at the piano. Seldes remembers hearing the conductor, Josef Krips, say it was time for lunch, with the orchestral players in full agreement. Bernstein objected, however, saying they should continue to play. Still, to his dismay, the musicians started to filter out.
“I thought that was great,” Seldes said of Bernstein. “I admired his work ethic.”
In 1994, Seldes, now a professor of Political Science at Rider, read a New York Times article about the FBI releasing transcripts of tapes about Bernstein, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of his left-leaning political causes. The FBI, it turned out, had been monitoring Bernstein, whose musical theater works included West Side Story, Candide, and On the Town, from the 1940s through the early 1970s.
“I was between projects and now found something I could sink my teeth into,” he explained. Shortly after, the Bernstein family had donated correspondences to the Library of Congress. “I suddenly had these two great sources that had hardly been used by previous writers.”
Seldes would now explore American politics and culture with Bernstein’s life and music in the foreground.
Over a span of 10 years, Seldes traveled many times to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to immerse himself in the Bernstein archives. While he has a strong background in the politics of the Cold War, and a life-long love for European classical music, Seldes had to broaden and deepen his grasp of 20th century American culture.
In his new book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, Seldes explores Bernstein’s career during Cold War America, including his blacklisting by the State Department and network radio in 1950, how he voluntarily left the New York Philharmonic in 1951, signed an affidavit to regain his passport and subsequently returned to the New York Philharmonic.
In addition, Seldes documents they ways Bernstein’s musical passions were congruent with his political convictions. “Bernstein’s political philosophy was tied in with musical philosophy; they were of a piece,” he said.
Seldes has recently earned attention for his new book, including an interview by WNYC-FM New York, which can be found at http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2009/08/19. He will be holding a book signing and lecture on Tuesday, October 20, at the Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, Pa. To learn more about Seldes work, please visit http://barryseldes.blogspot.com/.