Leonard Bernstein at 100
A Celebration of the Life and Music of Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein – Born: August 25, 1918. Died: October 14, 1990.
Leonard Bernstein was a facet of the American music scene through most of the twentieth century. He was a pianist, composer, conductor and activist. He made many recordings while conducting the New York Philharmonic and has been awarded 16 Grammys. His Young People’s Concerts broadcast onto television, inspiring a generation of young music lovers. He composed a wide range of repertoire, from piano and orchestral works, to Broadway shows and operas, as well as choral pieces. Throughout his life he remained an advocate for the performing arts and an activist for social justice.
Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and changed his name to Leonard at age 15. Most of his friends simply called him “Lenny.” He attended Harvard University from 1935-1939. Afterward, he attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a prestigious pre-professional music academy where he studied with Randall Thompson and Fritz Reiner, among others. Upon finishing his studies at Curtis, he moved to New York City with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who would go on to become the lyricists of some of his musicals and songs including Wonderful Town and the art song, So Pretty.
He was passionate about the state of affairs in the United States, and many of his works represent his political leanings in some way. He rarely shied away from expressing his opinion and actively participated in controversial politics of his time, from addressing American prejudices in West Side Story, to meeting up to march in Montgomery, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bernstein was raised Jewish, and though not conventionally religious, he incorporated much of his background into many of his musical works, exploring traditionally Hebrew musical motifs. He was also interested in uplifting the music of predominantly African American and Latino cultures, and represented this aesthetic in his pieces, as well as exploring these academically at Harvard, writing a thesis called “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music” – which is available to read in his book, Findings.
Most Americans probably best knew about Leonard Bernstein through his television broadcasts and audio recordings of his conducting orchestras. From 1943 to 1969 he served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein also broke into the European music scene and was the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, with soprano Maria Callas as his leading lady. Bernstein was an unofficial cultural ambassador for the United States and respected the world over. Bernstein was featured on an extensive number of recordings: from his time at the New York Philharmonic to performances with Vienna State Opera, he conducted some of the finest pieces of classical music in the repertoire. He was well-known for his interpretation of Mahler symphonies, and remains a prime example for today’s conductors.
With the influence of television in the American household, Bernstein strived to educate the general public about classical music with his Young People’s Concerts for CBS. In 1954, he gave lectures on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Omnibus, an arts program broadcast on CBS, which launched the Young People’s series in 1958, televising concerts at Lincoln Center for the first time. These programs ran until 1972 and inspired a generation of music lovers, featuring performers and musicians such as Aaron Copland, Seiji Osawa, and Christa Ludwig.
Bernstein’s third Broadway musical, West Side Story, was greatly admired by audiences and made into a feature film – which won 10 Academy Awards – in 1961. This work took the well-known tale of Romeo and Juliet and moved it to modern day New York City. The story of Tony and Maria is tragic, but gave America a message of hope for race relations during a time of great conflict, with a plea from a girl singing on the street (from lyricist Stephen Sondheim) “Someday, Somewhere, Somehow… There’s a place for us.”
He was friends with many in the artistic community and celebrities of the time, and was good friends with the Kennedys. He composed and conducted a fanfare for John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961. He was placed permanently on the White House guest list during Kennedy’s Presidency. Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Bernstein conducted Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at the memorial at Madison Square Garden, and when Robert was assassinated in 1968, he conducted Mahler’s Fifth at his funeral. In 1971, at the request of Jaqueline Kennedy, Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers was premiered at the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC.
Bernstein used his position in the public eye to speak out against the injustices of the Vietnam war – a war with one in ten men returning with casualties and 300,000 fatalities. Bernstein had ongoing friction with President Richard Nixon over this and his participation in the Civil Rights movement. Bernstein had been questioned by the FBI in the 1950s as a result of accusations of communism, and by the time Nixon entered office the Vietnam war had erupted. Nixon feared Bernstein was pushing a message of peace and anti-war sentiments through his music and lyrics, especially in Mass. The FBI had compiled 700 pages of documents on Bernstein at the time, and a special investigation of the Latin text in Mass was investigated for “secret messages” it may have contained. Nixon did not attend the premier of this work in Washington DC, and claimed it was because it should be Jackie’s night to shine.Nixon, who was known to use profanity, had been heard calling Bernstein things like a “son of a bitch” on archival tapes.
The United States White House played another important role in Bernstein’s life, becoming the backdrop for his musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which explored race relations between blacks and whites living in the White House and beyond during the years leading up to the Civil War. This musical highlighted and analyzed atrocities against African Americans, but had an unfortunately short run on Broadway, closing after only 7 performances. The musical was later re-compiled and made into A White House Cantata. At the conclusion of the original show, the leading man playing the Presidents reveals that all he wants is to be proud of his country and to try and do the right thing.
This was not the first time Lenny caused conflict with authority and aggravated those in government. Because of the Red Scare, the fear of communist influence, in the 1950s, many artists, writers and musicians were blacklisted and interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Miller, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein were called into questioning, among others. HUAC, run by Senator McCarthy ended up becoming a caricature in Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, inspired by Voltaire’s novel, and reimagined with quippy lines by dramatist Lillian Hellman, poet Dorothy Parker, and music by Bernstein.
The Cold War was a period of conflict both with Russia and Vietnam, as well as on the United States mainland. The US Government, in its need to drive out Communism also drove out the political leanings of artists, play writes, and musicians. In 1949 the Red Channels were released, blacklisting many Hollywood stars and other celebrities for being affiliated in some way with Communism. This was often a way for the government to avoid anyone speaking out against policies at the time, including Civil Rights issues, international relations, and the conflict in Vietnam.
Bernstein had a reputation for having homosexual relationships with men, not the least of which being purported communist and fellow composer, Aaron Copland. He became engaged to Felicia Montealegre Cohn, with whom he was good friends, and they were married in 1951. This curbed many of the allegations against him based on his sexuality. He was called into questioning by HUAC, though no evidence of Bernstein’s participation in Communism was found. He did take a hiatus from his conducting for a time being, living short term in Mexico at the time the lists of blacklisted celebrities were released.
Among those blacklisted were Bernstein’s future collaborators for the libretto of Candide, lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. This story is of the illegitimate son of a baron who loses everything he has, faces his mortality multiple times, finds wealth, then loses that again and still wakes up with a smile on his face. Bernstein and his writers used this optimistic story as a lens on HUAC’s investigation activities, parodying Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt” with ridiculous accusations and forcing the main characters to answer ridiculous questions.
Leonard Bernstein reflected American life in the McCarthy era in a theatrical way, a parody and sense of edgy humor, paired with music of a varied flavor, including syncopated rhythms, some Latin American musical styles, large orchestral score, and massive choral ensemble. He revised the libretto for Candide in 1973, removing some of the bits that were no longer relevant to the period (and unfortunately, a large amount of Hellman’s texts) and completed a final revision in 1989.
Bernstein composed a large body of music across several genres, and continued to do so until 1988. He conducted orchestras up until the month of his death, when he passed away from complications from lung cancer and emphysema in October of 1990.
Through exploring the works of this prolific composer, we can see the large influence of the world on his body of works. We can see how those years were challenging, but that Bernstein remained a champion of peace in difficult times. He uplifted the American spirit through his music. If we look closer at the heart of these texts and this music, we can see the world he dreamed of: A place where social justice isn’t something fought for, but the everyday reality. The world we should live in and make music so beautiful that there cannot be hate. To drive out the darkness with our music and our singing.