Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lenny and the Berlin Wall (good band name)

Leonard Bernstein was born a year after the Soviet Union was founded and lived only a year after its demise. Nearly his entire life was spent as an American who lived under the shadow of a looming Soviet threat. He was in so many ways the epitome of of a Cold War progressive, often idealistic to the point of blindness, but never blind to the responsibility which his eminence endowed him to make the world a better place.

While at Harvard in the late thirties, he became involved in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee which engaged in often all-too-futile attempts to grant amnesty to refugees from fascist governments all over Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. In his senior year, he mounted the second production of Marc Blitztein's censored left-wing opera, Cradle Will Rock (Orson Welles mounted the first). In 2948 he threw himself into the work of creating a Zionist state in Palestine when such a belief was considered the acme of progressivism - and made a number of trips to Israel/Palestine to play for Israeli troops at great personal risk. In 1948, he threw himself equally hard into the cause of promoting Henry Wallace as a presidential candidate. Such activities landed him as a prize candidate for HUAC blacklisting, and in the early 50's Bernstein's career appeared stymied forever.

But only a few years later came Candide and West Side Story, dramas with volumes of social commentary erupting barely beneath their stylized surfaces. Soon after that the New York Philharmonic came calling and Bernstein found himself with the largest bully pulpit ever bequeathed to a classical musician in America. And did he ever use it! Cancelling concerts to march in Selma, using his television program to advocate for arts education, hosting benefit dinners for the Black Panthers, playing Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on national television after JFK died, playing Mahler's Adagietto at RFK's funeral. And then, perhaps inevitably, for gay rights and AIDS research even as he led the public life of a family man. He had, of course, more musical friends than any musician in history, but many of his closest friends had much less to do with music than he did with politics. He numbered among his friends not only Jack and Jackie, but also Bobby, and Teddy, and Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer, and Arthur Schlesinger, and Huey Newton, and Willy Brandt, and Bruno Kreisky, and Helmut Schmidt, and Michael Dukakis, and John Lindsay, and Richard Burton, and John Kenneth Galbraith, and Teddy Kollek, and many many more.

As a musician, he was a man ahead of his time. As a public figure, he was quite squarely of it. He was a modern liberal in the first American generation for whom advocacy was expected of its public figures. And he lent his name to causes with extravagant nondiscrimination. And in his later years, when the political commitments he espoused showed that they needed unglamorous pragmatism in order to succeed, he seemed to withdraw from his commitments as so many of his compatriots did as well. He abandoned both his television show and his post with the New York Philharmonic to rededicate himself to composing. But the flood of new compositions never came. Had he wanted it, he could have used his music making for practical applications galor: promoting younger musicans and composers, bringing music to the inner city, giving popular musicians the chance to experiment with classical sounds, promoting arts education in schools. Perhaps all that would have even given him the impetus he needed to relaunch his composing career.

Instead, he traveled the world as an itinerant conductor, feted everywhere as the legend he was. In his own words, his job as an older conductor was to 'show the English how to play Elgar, show the Hungarians how to play Bartok, the French how to play Berlioz.' He would travel from world capital to world capital and lay to waste the prim and proper interpretations of less risky conductors. Audiences had not heard a conductor interpret the score with such a free hand since the days of Furtwangler and Mengleberg.

But his last great statement as a conductor was in the aftermath of Communism's fall. Bernstein assembled an international ad-hoc orchestra of musicians from many of the best orchestras from either side of the iron curtain and lead them in two performances of Beethoven's Ninth. The first performance was done in West Berlin on Christmas Eve. The second performance was done in East Berlin on Christmas Morning.

For these performances, Bernstein not only contradicted the score but also Schiller's text. Everybody who knows classical music knows how Schiller's Ode to Joy begins: 'Freude, schoene gotterfunken, tochter aus elysium' (Joy, thou source of light, immortal daughter of elysium.) But Bernstein changed the text to 'Freiheit, schoene gotterfunken.' Freiheit being the German word for Freedom. For this day, the Ode to Joy became the Ode to Freedom. It was Bernstein's last unforgettable gesture. Ten months later, Bernstein would be dead and the entire world would mourn his passing as no classical musician had been mourned in half a century.

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