As a senior at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein conducted Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a Brechtian musical play and searing indictment of corruption and corporate greed. The production was threatened with censorship due to its overt anti-establishment message; Bernstein refused to water down the controversial elements and recreated the work’s premiere. The composer’s early inclination for art with a radical message heralded a lifelong attachment to music that promotes societal change. On Saturday, August 4, Leonard Bernstein’s eldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein, will give a ShowTalk at the Otesaga Hotel about her father’s political engagement.
Though the thread of political engagement runs clearly through Bernstein’s life and career, it is not always easy to follow. As a young musician, he identified as a communist throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. As he matured as a conductor and composer, the winds of change were sweeping the country and anti-communist sentiment was high. Despite his ideals, Bernstein was also a realist and savvy when it came to his career. To protect his ambitions, he renounced his communist loyalties at the height of the Red Scare.
But though Bernstein embraced the political status quo and was performing for President Eisenhower at the White House by the 1960s, his choice of repertoire for the New York Philharmonic and his own compositions reveal that he remained committed to unconventional artistic choices. As a conductor, he eschewed programming the conventional greatest hits of European classical music and instead selected music by American composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. Similarly, he instigated a revival of works by Gustav Mahler, who at that time was a relatively unknown composer in the United States. Bernstein felt an affinity with Mahler’s struggles with antisemitism, and he also felt that Mahler’s music, composed at the end of the Romantic era, foreshadowed the catastrophic events of the 20th century and was therefore a fitting response to the injustices faced by the Civil Rights movement and the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Critics like Tom Wolfe accused Bernstein of skin-deep activism but failed to recognize that the composer often used music to express his political inclinations when overtly voicing his positions would endanger his career and family. His choice of source material for his musicals and symphonies were shaped by his progressive views. From The Age of Anxiety Symphony (1949), to Candide (1956), West Side Story (1957) and even Kaddish (1963) and Mass (1971), his works amplified important social themes of the day, such as the civil rights of racial minorities and immigrants, the atrocities of war and the right to independent political expression.