The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.
Kristy Geslain: In our last episode, we brought you an in-depth conversation about the world premiere of Hamlet, led by New Yorker writer and cultural critic Adam Gopnik as part of his popular Lincoln Center series The History of the World in 100 Performances. Today, as part of that same series, Gopnik and his guests take us back in time to November 14, 1943, when a 25-year-old assistant conductor stepped up to the podium at the last minute to lead what was then known as the New York Philharmonic Symphony. His name? Leonard Bernstein.
This is Lincoln Center with Adam Gopnik, David Denby, John Mauceri, Jamie Bernstein, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Adam Gopnik: Step back with me, if you would, to November 14, 1943, right here in New York City at a moment when a kind of folktale, a kind of fable was enacted right here on 57th Street in which the entire consciousness of a country changed overnight. My father was listening as he did every Sunday to broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic and he turned the radio on and he heard this announcement.
[Announcement] Good afternoon. United States Rubber Company again invites you to Carnegie Hall to hear a concert of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of which Artur Rodzinski is musical director. Bruno Walter who was to have conducted this afternoon is ill and his place will be taken by the young American born assistant conductor of the Philharmonic Symphony, Leonard Bernstein.
AG: That’s the moment, that’s the afternoon, and that’s the performance that we want to talk about and think about this evening. Young Leonard Bernstein, he’s 25 years old, steps forward having only known that he was going to be conducting the New York Philharmonic a matter of mere hours before, steps forward, leads Schumann, leads a program of music, which he saw a moment ago, begins with an extremely difficult Schumann downbeat and transforms American music and indeed the world, not just of classical music but the world of American culture by his act.
Step back and think a bit about who Leonard Bernstein was at that moment. Twenty-five years old, he’s really a kid. He comes from a non-musical background. His father, Samuel, is in the beauty business and he completely expects young Lenny to go into the beauty business behind him, to lead the kind of life that every Jewish father who has emigrated and built a little business expects his son to lead, following in his footsteps, making money, living that part of the American experience.
Instead, Lenny puts his fingers on a piano as a boy and realizes that his life resides there. He studies music and studies conducting and he ends up at what’s then the young music festival Tanglewood, and becomes a disciple and a protégé of Koussevitzky, the great conductor. Now think about the condition of classical music in America at that moment. We take it for granted that classical music is part of our daily lives, part of the way we live, part of our common inheritance.
At that moment in American life, classical music belongs largely to Europe and it belongs to the émigré consciousness. It’s something that all of those great émigré conductors and musicians, many of them expelled out by Hitler’s Germany, had brought to America and it’s shared with America. It was a form of cultural aspiration for Americans to attempt to belong, to participate in much less to own the world and the music of classical Europe.
So right away we’re at a kind of fulcrum moment when that young man steps forward to conduct. Bernstein finds out, as I say, only that morning. The night before he had been leading a concert of his own, doing his wonderful song piece called “I Hate Music but I Love to Sing,” an important step in itself in the understanding of American life. He’s told that Bruno Walter is down with an incurable flu.
Rodzinski, the conductor, the very eccentric, goat-raising conductor who had taken him on as an assistant is called and, in fact, he’s close enough - he's up in Massachusetts - that he could get here. In fact, he got here to Carnegie Hall by intermission but in a moment of enormous insightful benevolence, he says, “No, have Bernstein conduct. That's why we hired him as an assistant conductor.” An assistant conductor is like a substitute teacher. One of his jobs is to conduct when the regular conductor gets ill.
It’s an act of enormous self-confidence and an enormous sass on Rodzinski’s part to let him do it. Lenny’s been up all night, he gets to sleep some time about four o’clock and then he’s got to take on the score, analyze the score, and he does what any good New Yorker would do, he goes to the local pharmacy for help and the pharmacist hands him—it's like a scene out of the Matrix—two pills, one red and one green and says, “Take both of these.”That’s the way we work things in New York.
His father and mother are both still in town. They’ve been in town to hear the concert, the planned concert, the night before and when he explains to his father what’s happened, that he’s going to actually have to lead the New York Philharmonic in a national broadcast, his father says in words that were sanctified by the European tradition, oy gevalt. Right away we’re at a fracture point in the consciousness of music in the world.
Father says, “Oy gevalt,” and Lenny knows, Bernstein knows, that he's going to have to get that first downbeat that we heard in the Schumann right because it's a rest. He's going to have to get the silence right if he's going to get the music right. Well, he goes on to make music. It becomes an extraordinary triumph. It's on the front page of the New York Times the very next morning and it begins a transformation and a change first of all in Bernstein's own life in the sense of possibilities.
He becomes a celebrity that evening, a celebrity of a kind that never leaves him, the kind that never vanishes or disappears. That in itself is a terribly significant thing. The invention of American celebrity in many respects begins on this afternoon. But in another sense in terms of the history of performance he, of course, is himself an extraordinary performer. All of those Americans who have gathered together to listen to him on the radio can only hear the control, the dynamism, the power of the young man's conducting.
The people in the hall can see this extraordinary young man who without the aid of a baton, not taking the classical stick, the military symbol of the conductor but conducting only with his own fingers, they can see him performing and that idea of Bernstein, the conductor, as himself a performer who pulls all of the music into him and then allows it back out in an active ecstatic participation with an entire orchestra, that becomes in itself part of the history of performance.
But it goes much farther and much farther than that, I think. Think of all the tensions that were implicit in that Sunday afternoon, November 14, 1943, when this young 25-year-old sets out to conquer the orchestra, to lead them in a way that they had never heard before. First of all and most obviously, there's the tension between America and Europe, the tension between all of the European maestros who had dominated classical music throughout its history in America and the figure of this one brave, slight young man standing up for America against them or beside them.
That’s the first creative tension that continues to inform our lives as listeners now. Then think too of the broader tension between popular music and classical music. Bernstein had spent the night before doing a concert of songs and, of course, Bernstein would shortly start work on Fancy Free, the wonderful Jerome Robins ballet that eventually metamorphosed into the great musical, On The Town. Another tension implicit in this young man’s presence, the tension between classical tradition and the popular musical tradition.
A third tension implicit in this afternoon is about the coming forward of Jewish Americans, the coming forward of American Jews unashamed of their background. You heard the announcer say Leonard Bernstein, unequivocally, unambiguously someone who had no difficulty and in fact was aggressively forward about his own Jewish identity despite the reality that many of his teachers had urged him to change his name to hide or conceal his own Jewishness and this is happening November 14, 1943, not only at the height of the second world war but exactly contemporary with the Holocaust, and Bernstein will go and travel to Israel at the time of the War of Independence and that connection to an affirmative, assertive Jewishness is essential to his career and already implicit in this moment.
And finally, in addition to all of those other tensions, there's the broad tension that’s really shaped American culture in all of its forms from the time of the Second World War to our own time, and that’s the tension that we broadly call the tension between high and low, between high art and low art, between the demands of art taken for its own sake and the demands of audience, the demands of embracing an audience, that fruitful tension that gives us everything from Andy Warhol’s paintings to the musical, Hamilton, that sense that American life is always structured between those two poles.
And what makes Bernstein such an extraordinary figure in the tale of those many tensions implicit in that first performance on that first afternoon is that he never resolves them by cancelling one end of the equation or the other. He attempts to resolve them all by saying yes to both sides, by saying yes to New York Philharmonic and to Broadway, going to compose perhaps the greatest of American musicals, West Side Story. He says yes to an assertive Jewish identity but he goes off later in his life to Vienna and takes on the burden of the European past.
He finds his own identity as Americans seem bound to do, by saying yes to every aspect of these tensions, attempting to resolve tensions by denying their existence. That’s one more way in which this young American helps redefine what it is to be American. We’ve assembled, I think, an extraordinary panel tonight just to talk about those many creative tensions present in one afternoon in one performance in one lifetime.
And I’d love for you to say hello to them if you would. David Denby is a critic at large at The New Yorker. He wrote a brilliant long essay in The New Yorker in 1997 about Bernstein and his many cultural meanings.
John Mauceri is a world-renowned conductor, producer, educator, and writer. He worked with Leonard Bernstein and we’re lucky enough to have someone who worked closely with Leonard Bernstein on a wide range of projects for 18 years, notably as the music director for a revival of Candide and two nationally televised productions of Bernstein’s Mass.
And we’re immensely proud and pleased to have with us tonight, Jamie Bernstein. Jamie Bernstein is a constant narrator, writer, film maker, broadcaster, hosted several seasons of the New York Philharmonic live and recently crafted the documentary, Crescendo, and is, of course, the daughter of Leonard Bernstein.
Before we sit down to talk, we have one more guest to contribute something remarkable. Jake Gyllenhaal, of course, is known to you all as a remarkable actor on stage and in films, but what you might not know about Jake is that his mother’s ambition for him is to play the part of Leonard Bernstein. And when a boy is told by his mother what part to play, a boy listens. Here to read excerpts from letters of Leonard Bernstein from just before and just after this momentous evening is my friend, the extraordinary Jake Gyllenhaal.
Jake Gyllenhaal: All about my mother.
So the first letter is to Aaron Copeland in July, 1943.
Dear and wonderful Aaron: When I got your insidious invitation to go West I dismissed it immediately as a real wacky idea. As time goes by I find it becoming more and more a possibility. The only thing is I want very much to conduct a little concert in Boston. I’ve been asked to conduct and if possible play the piano at the same time.
I plan to do the Création du Monde and a suite from Paul Bowles’ opera. Then I plan to spend a few days with Koussevitzky in Lenox, play him the symphony again, go to Boston, do the concert, and streak out like a wild one for Hollywood. Then Mexico in September, where I’ll meet Paul Bowles and then home to become, God willing, an assistant conductor of the Philharmonic. Sort of a nice way to become 25 years old.
I love you, as if I had to point that out.
This is a letter to Koussevitzky.
Dear Sergei Alexandrovich:
How I would love to be with you now and share my great joy with you. I’m still so excited I can hardly write this letter. I finally had my talk with Judson and Zirato this morning. I realized immediately that they had the situation in hand and that I was simply being told their terms, all of which was perfectly all right with me since I feel so strongly about doing this job that I would probably in my enthusiasm accept it if there were no salary at all.
I’m perfectly willing to seem naïve now as long as I know myself that I am seeming naïve. The main thing to do is my job. If I can do that well enough and can bear the huge responsibilities that come with it the rest will come by itself I'm sure. Believe me, I tried very hard to feel like Koussevitzky while I was in the Judson office, but I was only Leonard Bernstein and I had to act as I did. And in the middle of all this I have only to look at your picture in my room and I am perfectly contented knowing that there is one supreme friend that I have who will understand whatever I do, mistakes included.
Know that my love is with you always.
Leonard to David Oppenheim, October, 1943.
I just ran across in moving your ink copy of a little known piece of mine called “Two,” which sets all kinds of memories, delicious and otherwise, in motion. I have a tremendous desire to see you again. Why did your fertile crop of letters from the army suddenly stop? So much has happened since our last contact. Life has been marvelous, hectic, and unreally beautiful since my fantastic appointment of which you must have read somewhere.
It was a real shock to me since I had no inkling of it beyond a rumor that I might be one of three assistants. The position is unprecedented for one such as me and a really historic step in terms of other young conductors. But I must see you to tell you, as the frau says, what is really going on. Write and spend your furloughs here.
This is a letter to Renée Longy Miquelle.
Steinway has just moved a piano into my room, the same color as yours, the same shape and size, and they’re standing together now side by side like two beautiful horses in a meadow. But one is more in tune than the other.
Guess which? Now what is the action to be taken on baby Steinway or will I have baby’s Steinway? Do let me know. Any nice people in Baltimore? Are you branded a Jew lover yet? Any good students? My job is marvelous, 29 hours a day.
And lastly, a letter to Jerome Robbins one month after his debut.
I’ve been a stinker not to have written sooner, but I guess you know what has been going on with this baby. I’ve hardly breathed in the last two weeks. Nothing but reporters and photographers and calls and mail and rehearsals and I’m conducting this week and my scores pile up mercilessly. My symphony parts lie uncorrected and our ballet lives only in my head, only one scene on paper, but it is on paper.
That should cheer you. Fear not. Somehow I’ll get it done, though it’s a fancy challenge. The scene that’s almost done is the entrance of Girl 1. I have written a musical, “Double Take,” when the sailor sees Girl 2. Has that ever been done before? And the rhythm of your pas de deux is something startling, hard at first but oh, so danceable with the pelvis. Of course, it’s all only three or four minutes, but that leaves only 16 more. God, what a race with destiny!
AG: Thank you, Jake. Well, we’ve set the scene and the context a bit. Jamie, let me turn to you first and ask you, did your father ever talk about this afternoon particularly? Was it part of the family mythology or was it something you discovered later?
Jamie Bernstein: It was something I discovered later, although not that much later. I guess somehow we knew from a very young age that this extraordinary thing had happened, but I didn’t really find out all the extra details until I got older. He himself told the story so many times and embellished it a little more each time.
AG: There’s so many people to—
JB: Yeah, because he was always interviewed and asked about it. So he talked about it many times. The pills that the pharmacist gave him, so the other part of the story is that, according to my father, he was in the wings of Carnegie Hall and about to go out on the stage and he had the pills in his pocket and he pulls them out. You can just see the scene in the movie and he looks at the pills and then he throws them across the floor in the wings and goes out on stage and does the concert.
AG: Do I hear a daughter’s skepticism in your voice?
JB: Skeptical? Moi? Oh, I don’t know. I mean, maybe it happened. It’s possible. It’s very possible.
David Denby: Can I say in a personal way, the thing that’s most extraordinary to me is that knowing the night before that Bruno Walter might not be able to conduct that he went to a party. Well, it was after the concert you mentioned that [Jenny Terrell] sang “I Hate Music,” the little song cycle, very funny, sweet, and he goes to a party knowing that he has to conduct the orchestra possibly the next day without a rehearsal and he does the danceable pelvis and God knows what else and gets home at 4:30 in the morning and sleeps a few hours and the manager of the Philharmonic calls him at 9:00 a.m. and says, “You’re on kid, bye.”
He’s a New Yorker. He goes to a party. It’s like no, you go to a party even if your life might change the next day. I’ll just say one thing that makes it a little less miraculous in this sense only. He knew the scores because that was his job and he had conducted the orchestra according to Humphrey Burton in some run-throughs of American music. Rodzinski, the music director, wanted to introduce some American scores and Leonard Bernstein would conduct them either with one night’s look or maybe just an onsite run through. Would that explain that?
John Mauceri: That I don’t know, but what you’re saying makes a lot of sense because also, in addition to that, the program had been rehearsed by Bruno Walter, and Lenny was in the audience with his scores while that was happening. Now that’ meant to take away from the miracle of it.
JB: That’s what assistant conductors do, they have to sit there with the score at every rehearsal.
JM: And remember, he had already been studying with Koussevitzky and he had two years with Fritz Reiner. What I find really interesting is what was incorrect about what you played earlier, because I wouldn’t have known this, but the first thing that Lenny conducted was the “Star Spangled Banner,” and in one minute and eleven seconds it is the fastest, craziest—
AG: So maybe he did take the pill after all.
JM: I think he was running on the night before because it is absolutely extraordinary, his first sense of this event. But any of us who performed live on television or radio know that that adds something unbelievable to the tension. Yes, he would have known Don Quixote, of course, and the orchestra, they wrote about this. They knew it backwards and forwards, but it’s a very difficult piece because there are two soloists.
Not only is it Richard Strauss in his most complex but there is a viola soloist and a cello soloist. So you’re following and leading them at the same time. The Schumann is particularly interesting. I was looking at his scores which, if you want and you read music, you go to the New York Philharmonic digital archives and you can actually look at Leonard Bernstein's score to the Manfred Overture with his marks. And Lenny was such a teacher that he wrote things in his scores, not just cues for himself like I want to slow down here and all that, but he also wrote notes about the meaning of the music and no one is ever sure whether he wrote that for himself or expecting that there would be people like me and you who would want to read what he had to think about it.
Right? Extraordinary as it was, and it was totally extraordinary, I think the part that is most unusual is that the Rocha piece had not been played for two weeks before. See, the programs changed with Bruno Walter and that's also important to know. The Rocha piece was played on the 4th and 5th of November and it was the New York premiere of it. The other pieces on the program had been played two nights before. There was no Philharmonic concert the Saturday night. And this is also interesting.
Thursday and Friday was the Philharmonic concerts and it began, the Thursday night was 11/11, and that’s Armistice Day. So you were putting it into context about the war, but let’s remember that on November 11 that was the anniversary of the end of World War I. So the American feeling was tremendous. Walter started that program with the victory theme from Beethoven’s Fifth because dah, dah, dah, dah which was dot, dot, dot, dash. It’s a V for victory, right?
AG: It was used throughout occupied Europe.
JM: Right. So dah, dah, dah, dah was a secret word they thought, you know from Morse Code for V for victory. So the concert began with Walter playing dah, dah, dah, dah at that. So the day before Lenny's concert was a children's concert, a young people's concert. Of course, he wasn't doing them then. And of course, the orchestra's playing something completely different so that when he stepped in front of them on Sunday, some of the music had been played 48 hours before and some of it hadn't been played for nine or ten days. So every piece was a different kind of challenge.
AG: But we’ve got the Rocha and we’ll play it in a little bit. Jake, let me ask you something. Have you ever—can you understand, identify with that moment of intense nerves and overcoming in that way? Have you ever had the kind of experience, or is that just simply the experience of being a performer going out on stage?
JG: Yeah, as I’ve thought about that moment in my mind, there’s a reverence and there’s this extraordinary confidence that comes with just being able to feel and know like you’re supposed to be there, which I think as a performer there’s a sensitivity and insecurity that inevitably makes you a performer, and then there’s the ability to overcome that feeling at the same time. And often times that feeling of insecurity and sensitivity will overwhelm you in that moment because it’s made up of a mixture of judgment as well of yourself and then a projection on the audience. So, to see that there's a personality up there that says, "I am here right now. I am supposed to be here. I know this and regardless of being an assistant, this is mine."
AG: That moment, the ‘I am supposed to be here’ moment. Look, David, that’s something you write about in your long essay about Bernstein. In effect, I am supposed to be here, that Bernstein comes to age at a moment when American culture’s coming of age.
DD: It was an exuberant period, particularly after the war. We had helped win in Europe and the economy was starting to boom. We were making goods for the entire world. The country was not divided as nearly as badly as it is now and there was great confidence in the arts in that post-war period.
AG: John Updike says in some play that America, like young Hercules, has strangled two snakes in the cradle.
DD: That was the feeling. In those post-war years you get abstract expressionism and Balanchine getting going and wonderful writers like Mailer and Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal and many others. And Bernstein, I think in himself didn’t necessarily feel there was some tension between pop culture and classical, but for him it didn’t exist, those boundaries because he dissolved them. As far as he was concerned, it was all music. When he was a kid, he listened to everything on the radio and everything he could hear in the Boston area.
JM: I think, by the way, that’s a really important line, that he heard it all on the radio, the media which we frequently make fun of and are worried about today especially. But, in point of fact, it was radio that brought him so much of the eclecticism which was—
DD: And there was a lot of classical music on the radio and in movies. John has revived a lot of these composers, very talented European composers who ended up working in Hollywood, like Korngold and Nicholas Rocha and Dimitri Tiomkin and many others. For him there were no boundaries. He couldn’t see why he couldn’t bring everything together, and for a while there was a center to American culture. It’s not this extraordinary disintegration which has its richness that we have now and its fascination, but there was a mainline, I think, for people who cared about such and he was at the center of the center well into the ‘50s and even into the ‘60s.
JB: It was really in the ‘50s that culture was this thing that the middle class aspired to having and making a part of their lives, and so I think it was a very solicitous coincidence that my dad's career blossomed just at the moment when everybody wanted to know about culture and then they wanted their children to know about it and they had it even in the schools back then. They had music for everyone and it was a such a different environment from the one we have now.
AG: Yes, I wrote about this not long ago. We did a volume of The New Yorker in the 1950s and I wrote an introduction to the critics, and what’s striking about it is that what at the time what was often condescended to as middle brow culture as some of Bernstein’s popular concerts could be or his educational concerts in fact now looks to us incredibly rich because it was kind of a way station between an aspirational audience and a generous minded expertise. Now it seems enviable rather than trivializing it.
JM: But I do think it’s also important to remember that he was really controversial, too. You know, when a person passes away we have a way of making everything look logical. This followed that, followed this but really when Lenny was alive and I can remember really well as a 12 or 13-year-old that he was controversial. The way he conducted, the way he talked. And what Jamie pointed out, it was one of the most moving things you ever said and funny, both at the same time, at the service we had at the Dakota on the Tuesday after he passed away.
You got up and you said "My father was incredibly lucky. Did you ever drive with him?" And he was incredibly lucky because he was there at this moment that you were talking about. We won the war. Remember that concert, two of four composers were alive. Richard Strauss was living in Nazi Germany and Nicholas Rocha, who had escaped the Nazis, was living in Hollywood. The piece he conducted was before he started writing film scores but that year he was nominated for two Academy Awards. He didn't win because he split the vote but then the next year he won the Academy Award for Spellbound.
I knew Rocha in the last few years of his life. He was quite challenged physically at that point in his life. He was in his ‘80s and he was blind and was mostly paralyzed, but his brain was functioning. He suffered from a number of strokes. He had myasthenia gravis and he thought everyone had forgotten him. He was incredibly funny. I remember telling him, Dr. Rocha, I know you think everyone’s forgotten you, but believe me, in the world there are people hearing your score to Ben-Hur before they hear Beethoven, at which point he said, “Also very good composer.” The point being is that the Manfred Overture—
AG: But he’d never won an Oscar.
JM: Yeah, Beethoven never won an Oscar. But the point was that the Manfred Overture ends quietly. It really ends in a whimper because it’s actually the overture to a gigantic piece of music by Schumann that sets the epic poem by Byron. It's got 15 sections. It's got narrators. It's got underscoring. It is like film music but the overture was played by itself so it ends quietly just like a main title or an overture to a movie. Then what followed was the Rocha which had a huge ending to it and the New York Times reported that he was brought out four times to bow after the Rocha.
After intermission he did Don Quixote, which also ends really quietly. So, whenever you do Don Quixote, no matter how great it was, and it’s a wonderful performance by the way, there’s always a kind of smattering of applause and the cellist bows and the violist bows and the concert master, and it’s not that kind of thing. And then they added the overture to Die Meistersinger which, of course, ended loudly and gave him the ovation. But the huge moment where the audience embraced him was with this piece by Nicholas Rocha which was why he had said to me—he said a very sweet thing to me about my career—but he said that that piece was the one that made that concert. That's the electric moment.
AG: Let’s talk a bit about Lenny, and I think part of the extraordinary charm and the lingering allure of his career is that we do call him Lenny. People call him Lenny and feel comfortable calling him Lenny.
JB: Everybody calls him Lenny.
AG: Everybody calls him Lenny.
JM: Except Maria Callas, who called him Lenid. I think my fifth grade teacher, he said, Maria called him Lenid.
AG: But there was a time, as John reminds us, David, you’ve written about this, too, when he couldn’t buy a good review in New York City. What was that about?
DD: Well, it was about what Virgil Thomson called his [chorebantic] ecstasies, which you saw a little bit of, and actually didn’t leap off the podium.
AG: That was really restrained.
DD: Yeah, that was restrained relatively. There’s a couple things to say about that. One, there was a lot of music in that body. Two, whatever he did produced an effect in the orchestra. Nothing was just for show. People said he was conducting in front of a mirror. I think that's absolutely wrong. I think it was totally sincere. He adored what he was doing and he wanted to convey that to the musicians and electrify them.
JB: In fact, the musicians in the Philharmonic have talked about this and how all of the motions that the audience might be seeing from behind him were not intended for the audience at all. Every gesture he made, every motion was a direct instruction to the musicians in front of him and everything had a meaning. It wasn’t extravagant for its own sake.
JM: And I would like to say also, your dad said to me, “I hate the way I look when I see myself on television, but I do that and then I get the sound I want.” So there you are. He didn’t do it for any other reason.
AG: It was in every sense instrumental.
DD: What is wrong with mindless ecstasy?
AG: I could use a lot more of it in my life.
DD: There’s a comedy in that whole New York disapproval of him in the early ‘60s, which was led by Harold C. Schonberg, the music critic of the Times.
AG: A family demon?
DD: Who could actually be offensively stupid when you read these reviews.
AG: That never happens to critics—
JB: Week after week.
DD: He was taken very seriously by the editors of The New York Times.
JM: And the publisher.
DD: And the publisher, yes, but not by the musical loving public necessarily.
JM: But he did hold the job for almost 30 years.
DD: He definitely was there, but the comedy is, it’s all about this America-Europe thing that you were talking about in your introduction was that Bernstein went to Vienna in 1966 and conducted Falstaff at the Vienna Opera and it was an enormous success. And then he did a lot more in Vienna, and when he came back to take over the Philharmonic again, Schonberg discerned a new maturity.
JM: A career for conductor, every career is difficult, but our lives and our careers are the same thing because unlike say, a tennis player or a ballerina, we go on for a long time. We can be conducting in our 80s and whatever. And for Lenny to get a bad review every Friday in the Tribune and the Times, he knew that before he went into the Friday matinee that every person in the audience had read the terrible review about him the night before, and Schonberg I believe said when he stepped down as music director, “It’s too bad, he was just getting good.”
How do you top that? And how you top that and how you come back is you go to the center of it all—Vienna, the city of Schubert and Brahms and Wagner and Beethoven—and you have a triumph with the Vienna Philharmonic and then suddenly everyone sees that he’s a different person.
AG: What you are both saying is that the old sense of American cultural fringe in Europe still persisted.
JM: Absolutely. It still does today, absolutely still does today.
DD: And he came to the Vienna Philharmonic with great humility when it was Mozart. He said, “This is your music. I will learn from you.” But he had to teach them how to play Mahler because Mahler was Jewish. The music was banned. Half of the orchestra were Nazis.
JB: But he did say, “It’s still your music.” It was their music if they’d forgotten.
DD: And talking about the cueing, if you look at those tapes that me made in the ‘70s with the Vienna Philharmonic of the Mahler symphonies, ferociously difficult symphonies, six and seven. He was teaching them how to play this music and he’s shaping the sound. The amount of cueing that he does is just mind boggling physically. As a physical act, it’s mind boggling while he’s holding the big line of the movement.
JM: He called that over-conducting. I remember when he came back from Israel once having taught the Israel Philharmonic one of the Mahler symphonies. Actually, it was “Das Lied von der Erde” and he said it was just exhausting because I had to over-conduct, and by over-conduct he meant that he had with his body—now remember, a conductor has got arms, chest, face, pelvis, as we mentioned. Each part of your body, each plane of your body tells an orchestra something different.
If I’m looking at a trumpet player but my chest is over here, my heart is over here, my mind is over here, my hand is inviting over here, you do all that stuff and actually it’s a very complicated business because we’re doing it all the time. When you have to teach an orchestra and then get them through a performance that they’re not really ready to do, you are what you call over-conducting. And he found that to be kind of offensive but what you had to do to get you to be able to play the piece.
AG: That raises another aspect of Lenny’s genius that I wanted to talk about tonight, and that was his gift as an educator. Like, I’m sure many people who are in this audience tonight, I knew him first and in some ways most deeply as the author and the host of the Young People’s concerts, which were broadcast for so many years, which Jamie has done a great deal back in circulation again. Was he a great teacher in the house? Was that part of his role as a father?
JB: He was never not a teacher. Basically everything he did in his life, whether he was rehearsing an orchestra or performing at the piano at a party or telling a great Jewish joke or anything it was all the same essential process of grabbing you by the sleeve and saying, “Listen to this. I have to share this with you. You have to know what this is because it’s so great.” And that informed his every communication across the board. So yeah, there was no time when he was not teaching.
DD: It’s amazing to think that the Young People’s concerts, once it got going, was on CBS in primetime during the week. It was an hour like on a Tuesday night of CBS television all through the ‘50s and into the ‘60s. It was 14 years it went. There were over 50 broadcasts and there were things like, “Who is Paul Hindemith?” That was actually the name, and the question remains. That was the name of one of the shows. He did a show on Mahler. He did shows on jazz, on—
AG: Folk music. What makes music American? What does music mean? What is classical music?
JM: There were a few moments in my life with him when I was conducting the same piece he was conducting, and there’s a very funny moment in my life where I had just conducted Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Yale. I went up to Cambridge where he was doing Oedipus Rex for the Norton Lectures, and we watched one of his television shows on it and somehow from the beginning of the show to the end his hair goes from being black to being white. We laughed at how he aged during this one hour show. I don’t know what happened. They changed the lighting on it.
I think the fact is that he wanted to share what he knew and, more importantly, what he was interested in learning in order to teach. This is the part that’s so extraordinary. Everything he did was about that. I would say there’s that and then there’s the other thing, which is the fundamental findings of rhythm, the tempo of music to illuminate. The dance is always in his conducting of any piece of music. Of all the things you can think about Lenny and the elucidation of the inner workings of a piece are the two aspects of his genius, this part of how to imagine it.
He once conducted, I’m sure many of you know Brahms third symphony, enormously difficult of the four symphonies of Brahms because it’s in two but the music is actually in six, so it’s one, two, three, four, five, six. [Sings]. When that’s happening, the violas are going [sings], which no one can hear except that you’re a violinist because it’s just part of this energy. But Lenny wanted to hear it, so he conducted it in six, which had never happened since Brahms wrote that symphony. Right? So it went [sings] and when it was over I said, “Well?” He said, “That was just a mistake. I’ll never do that again.”
AG: Your mentioning the Norton Lectures leads me to another aspect of Bernstein’s accomplishment, and that was not just his work as a teacher bringing music to children and learning it, but his serious thinking about music. My own son is a composition student right now and he has been watching religiously "The Unanswered Question,” Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures from 1973 to 1974 where he talks about tonality. David, this is something you wrote about as well and this is something that unites all of his work is his belief that tonality, that Western tonality is truly a universal language, that it's inscribed in some senses in our genes as much as—
JB: Not just Western either. Tonality is universal—
AG: Right. But the tonality is a universal language as much as we have an instinct for spoken language. We have an instinct for music. This put him, David, I think you wrote about this, very much in the minority through much of his life, in his belief.
DD: Those lectures were like a death blow aimed at what he though was avant-garde that was destroying the audience for his music, destroying the compact of composers. You had people like Milton Babbitt who talked about music as scientific research. It came out of Schoenberg, a great composer in kind of academic terms in the United States in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I guess he couldn’t play it. He wasn’t interested in it. He didn’t think the audiences were interested in it and so he found in using Noam Chomsky’s structural linguistics. It’s been a long time, but that was the idea, that there is a structure in all language. Just what you said. The tonality and harmony are part of breathing and walking and being human.
JB: But it took a long time for him to get to the moment where he could express that in the Norton Lectures because as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and a big booster of young composers, it fell to him to premier all these incredibly gnarly, pointy, twelve toned pieces, and he went out of his way to try and make them accessible to his audiences. He started the pre-concert talk. That was something he sort of invented back then and sometimes his talks were longer than the piece as he would kind of twist himself in this pretzel of explanation.
DD: The more minimal the work, the more maximal the explanation.
JM: How much of the pieces that Bernstein introduced that you could legitimately call avant-garde have survived as repertory pieces?
JM: None. I would say none, but you could argue with me. I think the symphony of [barrio] has a certain kind of thing because it quotes from Mahler a lot in it but no, I mean you could argue that about the entire corpus of that music.
I think one of the reasons why he said “Who’s Hindemith?” is because Hindemith argued that tonality was not only the way it is, it’s actually natural to the physical universe the way a string vibrates with the octave above it, the fifth above that. And although when I was studying music at Yale, in 1963 when Hindemith died they were making fun of this naïve idea that music is in any way you explain tonality by the physical universe. Now I’m pretty sure you know where I stand on all of that, but Lenny was taking a great risk in his credibility.
Because he was so smart, I mean he was so brilliant, it sounds so stupid to say, but the academic world always sniffed at him because he wasn’t a legitimate PhD kind of musicologist person. He was just a really talented guy who could play the piano. There was something very anti-Lenny, and I think it’s important to remember how courageous he had to be with that. Reviews really mattered to him. Can you imagine? He would come back from Munich and tell me what a good review he got.
And I wanted to say, “But you’re Leonard Bernstein, what do you care?” When I would do it, he would just look at me like, why do I need to do that? When he would do it, he would just say, “They really liked me.” So, I think that really mattered to him. I think when he got really terrible reviews for his music, which was generally tonal, it really hurt him. I mean, after A Quiet Place he wanted to spend the rest of his life writing operas, but the venom with which his compositions would be met whereas when he was writing the Jeremiah, his first symphony, just after this concert it was generally considered the greatest new symphony written in America.
So something changed. It wasn’t Lenny. It was the critical world, and that has a lot to do with politics and the Cold War, and it has to do with the West and the Soviets. It’s a big, complicated thing but the universities and the academic world of composers who are tenured and can only write for each other no longer have that compact with an audience that can determine whether your music is commissioned or not. That compact is what he was bemoaning.
AG: I think that’s broadly true about that period in American life. On one hand you had this newly aspirate middle brow culture, and at the same time you had the growth of the academy, and the two things, one affected the other.
JB: And he really got squeezed in between.
AG: In retrospect, happily squeezed is one more of those—
JM: Yeah, but Harvard at least brought him up there and let him do these lectures. Thank goodness for that.
AG: Unfortunately, we could talk all night. We’ve barely touched the surface of Bernstein. We haven’t even talked enough about him as a composer.
But I do want to talk some about why all of us here tonight know something about him, why he’s remained as an American figure. I know, Jake, that’s something you’ve thought about and something that is part of your life, the fascination of Lenny Bernstein as a human being, as a creator.
JG: Well, setting aside music and my mother, which is hard to set aside, I just think the issue of identity throughout his life was a fascinating one. Obviously musically as you’re talking and then I think culturally also, just being a Jew at that time and identifying himself very specifically as Jewish, and then also his sexuality, which he struggled with and seemingly always devouring everything in front of him, whether it was a piece of music or whether it was a person or whether it was—I think that to me just as a personality, as a performer, and as somebody as I watch him conduct am just inspired in every moment.
There’s a ferocious sexuality in how he conducts and how he’s just demanding, not attention, but he’s sort of demanding you to see who he actually is. It’s constantly affirmative and it’s not really, even though I know he was contradictory but it was just constantly full of this sexuality that I think is fascinating, has always been fascinating to me. And also, setting aside West Side Story and how it essentially raised me, so he is a part of who I was as a very young child. To me, that was fascinating and actually, when I read your piece in The New Yorker about him, it illuminated all these things that I had always sort of felt but never really could say.
DD: There was a lot of anguish there, particularly in the last years, because if you say yes to that many people you have to say no to that many more people, and when you’re that gifted people always want you to turn your face towards them. Sondheim said to me when I was talking to him about this piece that everyone wanted more of what they liked best out of him, that they wanted him to do more of that. I’d like to hear what Jamie said, but you read some of the letters and accounts of his trying to get away.
He was always into renunciation so could find space for himself. I’m not going to write any more musical comments. "I’m not going to conduct for a while. I’m not going to do this." And he would try to compose and it was difficult. It was hard. He had enormous ambitious, so there was a lot of unhappiness as well as extraordinary—
JB: Well, it’s hard to say yes to everything because you strip yourself so thin, spread yourself thin. And that was his big problem, and he was like two personalities in one body. There was the incredibly gregarious side of him who wanted to connect with everyone and share music with everyone and inhale and devour everyone. And then there was the other side of him who was turned inward, very contemplative, melancholy, and that was the side that composed all alone late at night and that was very much a part of him, too. And the two were completely different from each other. So he spent his entire life trying to strike the balance and it was very difficult.
JM: You know, I can say that of the 18 years I was with him a day didn’t go by where someone didn’t say what he ought to be doing. “You ought to be practicing the piano more. You ought to conduct more Mozart. He ought to be doing this. He ought to be doing that.” Only when he passed away did you realize that everything he did was all of the same piece. It’s just that people were so close to the different elements, they saw the different elements and not the mentality. But to your point about everybody wanting him, we were together and someone wanted to see him for a half hour and Lenny said, “There’s no such thing as a half hour,” one of the great quotes. We use it all the time. "There’s no such thing."
AG: Thank you all for coming. Thank you all for being here.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.
Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.
Archival audio used courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.
Letters by Leonard Bernstein are used by permission of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Incorporated.
For full transcripts and episode extras, visit lincolncenter.org/podcast.
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