Leonard Bernstein’s Radicalism

Leonard Bernstein’s Radicalism

Bernstein used his status as a public figure both to popularize classical music and to support civil rights, the antiwar movement, and other political causes.

Leonard Bernstein at the piano (Al Ravenna/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Bradley Cooper’s new biopic Maestro is masterful in many ways. Cooper embodies Leonard Bernstein’s persona, his dramatic conducting style, his many talents, and even his voice and looks. (Much was made of Cooper using a prosthetic nose to more closely resemble Bernstein.) The film has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

If the film introduces a new generation to Bernstein and inspires them to learn more about the man and his music, that alone will be an important legacy. But Maestro itself focuses almost exclusively on Bernstein’s personal life—including his troubled relationship with his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, and his affairs with men—while downplaying his music, his politics, and his enduring presence as a public figure.

Bernstein is the most important classical conductor in American history. He was hugely influential because he crossed so many musical boundaries—classical, folk (a legacy of his friendship with Aaron Copland), musical theater, choral works, ballet, opera, chamber music, and piano pieces. Throughout his career, Bernstein was also notable for linking his work to his progressive political beliefs—for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, peace, workers’ rights, and AIDS research and awareness.

Bernstein was the first classical conductor to reach a large audience through television, most notably with his Young People’s Concerts, broadcast live on CBS television, which introduced baby boomers to the world of classical music. They turned Bernstein into a celebrity. During his first Young People’s Concert program in 1958 (called “What Does Music Mean?”), accompanied by the New York Philharmonic orchestra, he playfully demonstrated the joy of music starting with the theme song of the popular Lone Ranger TV show (“Hi-Yo Silver”) before explaining that it was written in the 1820s as the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini, who had no knowledge of the American West.

Over fourteen years and fifty-three concerts, Bernstein taught young Americans about harmony, rhythm, notes, scales, chords, and syncopation, and about great composers like Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, and Copland. He discussed jazz, boogie-woogie, folk music, and other musical styles. He insisted that music was about emotions and feelings that words could not express. Bernstein communicated his infectious enthusiasm for music without condescension.

Bernstein planned the programs based on the New York Philharmonic’s regular concert season, and he wrote the scripts himself. He continued to lead these programs until 1972, three years after he had stepped down as the Philharmonic’s director.

Maestro suggests that Bernstein’s most enduring conflict was over how much of his genius to devote to composing classical music and conducting versus his desire to shape popular culture and influence a wider audience. Some of his critics believed that Bernstein was wasting his talent writing scores for Broadway shows and movies. In fact, Bernstein’s more popular work—such as the music for West Side Story and On the Town—was infused with classical elements. During most of his adult life, Bernstein was constantly and simultaneously engaged in writing for Broadway, film, and classical orchestras; making recordings; conducting orchestras around the world; appearing on TV; and teaching in various venues, including Brandeis University, Harvard, Tanglewood, and the Young People’s Concerts.

Maestro mostly skips over Bernstein’s most famous co-creation, West Side Story—a 1957 Broadway hit that won two Tony awards, and four years later a film that won ten Oscars. The musical and the movie were the result of a collaboration between four prodigiously talented gay Jewish men: Bernstein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Robbins had the idea of making a modern musical based on Romeo and Juliet about a conflict between two working-class families—one Catholic, the other Jewish—living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Easter–Passover season. The Jewish daughter had survived the Holocaust and immigrated to New York from Israel. The antisemitic Catholic street gang (the Jets) fought with their Jewish counterparts (the Emeralds)—reflecting tensions that were pervasive in New York and other big cities during the 1930s and 1940s.

Eventually, Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents, and Sondheim changed course and set the conflict on the Upper West Side between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white Jets (with no obvious ethnic identity). The film directly confronts the racism endured by Puerto Ricans living in New York’s slums. It also addresses the obstacles faced by working-class teenagers regardless of race. West Side Story put a human face on the teenagers who were cast out by and alienated from mainstream society, at a time when “juvenile delinquency” was considered a serious social problem. In the song “Gee Officer Krupke,” the Jets make fun of oversimplified psychological explanations for their rebellious behavior.

West Side Story, incorporating a tragic love story, remarkable dance scenes, barrier-breaking songs, and sociological sensitivity about class and race, was a major turning point in musical theater. In Maestro, we are only exposed to a small part of the wonderful prologue to West Side Story, as the backdrop to a scene of Bernstein arriving at his home in Connecticut.

This is in keeping with the film’s treatment of most of Bernstein’s music. When he gets a phone call inviting him to step in as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943, we hear the drums from the opening of his suite from On the Waterfront. We see a snippet of a dance number from Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet (written in collaboration with choreographer Robbins) about three young sailors on leave in wartime New York City. The show was later expanded into On the Town, a production that broke racial barriers on Broadway (with its multiracial cast and a Black concertmaster, Everett Lee) and later became a 1949 film starting Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin. The film’s only sustained musical moment is not one of Bernstein’s own compositions but of him conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at England’s Ely Cathedral in 1973.

 
Bernstein’s political activity is similarly seen only as backdrop for the interpersonal drama of Maestro. Many people are familiar with a fundraising party he and his wife held for the Black Panthers at their apartment in 1970—an event that journalist Tom Wolfe covered in a long, derisive article in New York magazine. Bernstein became inescapably associated with what Wolfe called “radical chic.” That image was and is unfair, more a reflection of Wolfe’s cynical conservatism than Bernstein’s lifelong left and liberal political commitments.

While at Harvard between 1935 and 1939, Bernstein was associated with the American Soviet Music Society and other radical groups. During his senior year, he staged the controversial pro-union opera, The Cradle Will Rock, by the left-wing composer Marc Blitzstein, who attended the performance. Soon after he graduated, Bernstein occasionally accompanied a musical group called the Revuers, which performed satirical and politically oriented songs championing unions and the working class, on the radio and in progressive nightclubs with mixed-race audiences.

At some point in the 1940s, the FBI began keeping a record of his political activities and affiliations, including with the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief, the Civil Rights Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Morning Freiheit (a leftist Yiddish newspaper), the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. After the war, Bernstein also raised funds for striking workers and embraced Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid on the Progressive Party ticket. In his first TV appearance, in 1949, Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall at a concert that celebrated the first anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and featured an address by that document’s leading proponent, Eleanor Roosevelt.

At the height of the Red Scare, Bernstein was a target of the anticommunist witch hunters. The FBI put Bernstein on its Security Index, identifying him as a communist who posed a threat to national security. He was also named in a widely read 1950 pamphlet called Red Channels, which purported to identify Communist Party members and sympathizers. That year, the State Department banned the performance of Bernstein’s music at its overseas events. In 1952, while teaching at Brandeis, Bernstein organized its Festival of the Arts and picked, as its major work, The Threepenny Opera, a biting satire by two well-known radicals, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. The performance, along with a glowing review in the New York Times, led to the musical’s revival, including a nine-year run on Broadway.

In 1953, the State Department refused to renew Bernstein’s passport, the FBI pressured CBS to keep him off television, and he was either fired from or voluntarily quit the New York Philharmonic as a result of the blacklist. Eventually he got his passport back and returned to TV and the New York Philharmonic, but he remained under FBI surveillance at least through the 1970s. Nevertheless, Bernstein continued to express his political convictions throughout his life, as reflected in his 800-page FBI file, which documented his leftist views on racism, war, and inequality.

The FBI kept tabs not only on his political views and affiliations but also on his sex life. During the McCarthy era, gay people were considered a security threat because, the FBI and State Department claimed, they could be blackmailed by communist forces. The FBI used the same logic to pressure some well-known gay people, including Robbins, to secretly testify and name other communists and fellow travelers. During the “Lavender Scare,” the federal government fired many gay employees, as depicted in the recent Showtime TV series Fellow Travelers. Homosexuals who were also left-wing radicals were considered doubly dangerous.

Collaborating with left-wing writer Lillian Hellman, Bernstein wrote the music for an operetta of Candide. Their original treatment drew clear parallels between Voltaire’s novel and the anticommunist hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee. By the time the show premiered on Broadway in 1956, the producers had watered it down to avoid making a political statement. Still, some of its best songs have survived and become popular.

Bernstein used his talents for other political purposes, too. In 1965 he joined Martin Luther King Jr. on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and participated in the Stars for Freedom Rally, a makeshift concert organized by Harry Belafonte that brought together famous entertainers to inspire the marchers. A few years later, Bernstein and actor Paul Newman co-hosted Broadway for Peace at Lincoln Center. The event, featuring major celebrities, raised funds to support antiwar candidates for Congress. Bernstein accompanied Barbra Streisand, who sang “So Pretty” (not to be confused with “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story) with music by Bernstein. The song’s message was unmistakable:

We were learning in school today
All about a country far away
Full of lovely temples painted gold,
Modern cities, jungles ages old.
And the people are so pretty there
Shining smiles, and shiny eyes and hair . . .
Then I had to ask my teacher why
War was making all those people die.
They’re so pretty, so pretty.
Then my teacher said, and took my hand,
“They must die for peace, you understand.”
But they’re so pretty, so pretty.
I don’t understand.

That June, Bernstein, Streisand, and a number of other famous artists headlined an event that raised $900,000 for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar presidential campaign. Bernstein also raised money for the legal defense of six antiwar activists, including radical Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who had been arrested for protests against the Vietnam War.

In 1971, Bernstein met with Philip’s brother, Daniel Berrigan—a Jesuit priest who had been imprisoned for destroying draft files—as part of his research for Mass, a major composition with elements of jazz, gospel, blues, rock, folk, and symphonic music, and with a libretto that included parts of Latin and English Catholic liturgy as well as Hebrew prayer. The FBI informed Nixon’s staff about the meeting, and the president’s advisors successfully urged him not to attend the world premiere at the newly built Kennedy Center.

Bernstein continued to stage politically charged performances throughout his life. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973, Bernstein organized a Concert for Peace at the Washington National Cathedral, conducting Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. The concert began at the exact time that inaugural concerts for Nixon were scheduled at the Kennedy Center. Bernstein’s event attracted an audience of about 18,000 people. And in 1989, a year before his death, Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 
Like his politics, Bernstein’s Jewishness is likewise an understated aspect of Maestro. It is the unspoken context for one early-career scene, where we see Serge Koussevitzky, one of Bernstein’s mentors, encouraging him to change his name from Bernstein to Burns. (Toward the end of the film, Bernstein also wears a sweatshirt that spells “Harvard” with Hebrew letters.)

The son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Bernstein was not a religious man, but he was well-versed in Jewish liturgy and committed to his Jewish identity. Some of his best compositions are based on Jewish or Biblical themes, including his 1942 Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah; his 1963 Symphony No. 3: Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead, dedicated in this case to “the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy”); and his 1965 Chichester Psalms, a composition for orchestra and chorus whose text, in Hebrew, comes from the Book of Psalms. In the 1970s, Bernstein again collaborated with Robbins on a ballet called Dybbuk, a Jewish folklore story about people possessed by a malicious spirit. Bernstein conducted its premiere with the New York City Ballet in 1974.

Like most U.S. leftists and liberals after the Second World War, Bernstein supported the creation of the Israeli state, and he felt a strong connection to Israel as a refuge for Jewish people. In 1947, Bernstein conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv, beginning his long association with the nation and its musical institutions. The following year he conducted an open-air concert for Israeli troops in the desert town of Beersheba. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium. He later conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (with celebrated violinist Isaac Stern) at a concert on Mount Scopus. But Bernstein was not a blind loyalist to Israel’s government. In 1979, he joined fifty-eight other prominent Jewish artists, intellectuals, and rabbis in signing a statement to Prime Minister Menachem Begin protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Maestro is mostly concerned with the private life of a very public figure. For the millions of people around the world who have admired Bernstein, what endures is his music and his commitment to harnessing his talent to help improve the world.


Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Professor of Politics at Occidental College.  Among his nine books are The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America.