Leonard Bernstein: American Icon

National Museum of American Jewish History

In March 2018 the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia will open a special exhibition celebrating the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth (1918-1990). Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music will explore Bernstein’s original works for stage, screen, and orchestra; his leadership as a conductor; and his social activism. Here is a sneak peek at a few of the stories you’ll find on view in Philadelphia through original artifacts, film, and interactive media. 

Image: From the Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress
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Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 to Jewish immigrants Jennie and Samuel Bernstein, then living in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The family maintained a strong Jewish identity. Leonard learned Hebrew Bible and Talmud from his father and the family belonged to Congregation Mishkan Tefila, a Conservative synagogue that featured approaches to worship and liturgy that were progressive for their day, including a mixed-gender choir and organ music. Later in life, Bernstein regularly drew from Jewish life, scripture, and tradition when creating symphonic works, theater pieces, and film scores—from the Jets’ call to action that opens West Side Story, to the liturgical motifs and text in the Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies, to MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.

As Bernstein would later recall, being young, American, and Jewish in 1940s America had meant “three strikes” against becoming a great conductor. Serge Koussevitsky—who was born Jewish and converted to Russian Orthodoxy to advance his own career—once advised his student that to pass in the world of classical music he should change his name to Leonard S. Burns. Doubling-down on his Jewish identity, Leonard spurned his beloved mentor’s advice: “I’ll do it as ‘Bernstein’ or not at all.” Safe to say, he did it as Bernstein.

Image: Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
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Samuel Bernstein nourished his son’s love of the piano, but his idea of a “professional” musician was a traveling klezmer barely able to scrape by. He once advised Helen Coates, Leonard’s instructor and later long-time secretary, that “from a practical standpoint I prefer that [he] not regard his music as a future means of maintenance.” Despite his reservations, Samuel took pride in Leonard’s achievements and eventually supported his choice of career. Leonard began formal piano lessons at age 10 and studied at Boston Latin School, Harvard University, the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where he earned his conducting diploma in 1941. Within months of graduating Bernstein led the Boston Pops in his first appearance with a professional orchestra. On November 14, 1943, he famously made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut, broadcast nationally on radio, when Maestro Bruno Walter fell ill. Just months later Bernstein premiered Jeremiah, the first of his three symphonies. Where would a life in music lead—the spotlight of the conductor’s podium or the solitude of the composer’s studio?

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History, Gift of Arthur Simientkowski
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Throughout his life, Bernstein supported the idea of a Jewish homeland and lent his support at key moments in the life of the State of Israel. In April 1947 he gave the first of nine concerts with the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic). The State of Israel declared its independence in May 1948, and that fall Bernstein led concerts throughout the country. This photo was taken in Tel Aviv, possibly during that visit. In a letter home to his parents, Bernstein wrote, “...this last week in Israel? It was the most thrilling experience of my life--and the half-hour at the Wall...was perhaps the most moving." Bernstein conducted the Palestine/Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 25 different seasons— touring, recording, and filming concerts in the United States and Europe. He brought the New York Philharmonic for concerts in Israel, and premiered new works with the Israel Philharmonic well into the 1980s. (National Museum of American Jewish History, Gift of Arthur Simientkowski)

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History, 2009.22.1, Dedicated in honor of George Ross by Jane Barr Pino
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The Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s coincided with Bernstein’s growing renown as a conductor, composer, social activist, and educator.—. Like his friend and frequent collaborator choreographer Jerome Robbins, Bernstein easily could have been called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of alleged Communist sympathizers, particularly in the entertainment industry. Bernstein had attended events in support of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and signed petitions printed in the Daily Worker in support of Communist-Party (and African-American) candidate Benjamin Davis for New York City Council.

He had reason to be nervous. Jewish and ambiguously gay, Bernstein made an easy target for HUAC’s accusations of “un-Americanness.” In June 1950, he found his personal life and career in crisis when this book, Red Channels, listed 151 radio and television personalities suspected of having Communist sympathies. It included his name. CBS, which had broadcast his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, now considered him “blacklisted.” In July 1953, just months before a scheduled appearance as the first American to conduct an opera at La Scala, the State Department denied Bernstein’s passport renewal until he signed a humiliating affidavit swearing that he was not a Communist. Between 1949-1963 the FBI compiled an 800-page file on Bernstein’s activities, philanthropy, and personal relationships.

Image: Photo by Bachrach
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In 1946 Leonard Bernstein met Costa Rican-born actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn (1922-1978). A descendent of American Reform rabbi Dr. Elkan Cohn of Albany and San Francisco, Felicia was raised in Chile as a Catholic before moving to the US to study piano under Claudio Arrau. A glamorous actress, accomplished musician, and respected social activist, Felicia seemed the perfect match (and best at-home critic). She converted to Judaism and the couple married on September 9, 1951 at Bernstein’s family’s synagogue, Mishkan Tefila, with the groom dressed in Serge Koussevitsky’s white suit. Felicia acknowledged Leonard’s attraction to men early in their marriage but believed it did not prevent them from living a happy and healthy life. The couple had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina, before separating in 1976.

Image: From the Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. By permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
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Bernstein and Robbins started outlining a stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet during at a time of significant political and cultural change. Originally conceived as a dramatic story of Jewish-Catholic gang rivalry set on New York’s Lower East Side, the musical that became West Side Story drew upon gang violence in New York and Chicago that was making headlines. It embodied the anxiety of its era, haunted by the Red Scare and changing ideas about race and ethnicity —fundamentally, what it meant to be an “American.” Moreover, for the Jewish team that created the musical (Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein, and Robbins) the production represented an expression of their own sense of Jewish identity during this period of public and private instability. Note Bernstein’s scribbling in the margin—“an out and out plea for racial tolerance”. How did the racial and religious identities of Jews and other immigrant groups shift during the Red Scare? In what ways did Jews and other ethnic minorities feel pressure to prove their American-ness during this turbulent time?

When it premiered in 1957, the musical’s creators had written their own sense of Jewish “otherness” into the Puerto Rican “Sharks’” questioning of who gets to be “American.” At least one member of the creative team has asserted that it was a shared Jewishness among the artistic team that inspired their effort “to travel out of invisibility and assimilation to proud self-declaration.” As Arthur Laurents put it, “We’re Jews… West Side can be said to be informed by our political and sociological viewpoint; our Jewishness as the source of passion against prejudice…”

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History
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In 1958 Bernstein took the helm of the New York Philharmonic, where he continued as Music Director until his retirement in 1969, after 939 concerts with the orchestra (831 as Music Director) and 53 Young People’s Concerts (through 1972). But as this Time Magazine cover story notes, conducting was but one of five simultaneous careers Bernstein juggled,: orchestra conductor, composer of Classical and Broadway scores, talented pianist, gifted educator, and celebrity. As Bernstein once quipped when reviewing his daily schedule, “My God! Who do I think I am—everybody?”

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1999.5.1, Gift of Sylvia Stein
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Bernstein’s based his third symphony, Kaddish, on the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. The work takes the form of an argument with God over the essence of faith. “All our great Judaistic personalities of the past including Abraham who founded Judaism, and Moses and the prophets all argued with God. They argued with God the way you argue with somebody who's so close to you that you love so much, that you can really fight. You know how the more you love someone the more you can get angry with them and when you have a reconciliation, the more close you become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of this piece,” Bernstein said. The symphony made its world premiere in Tel Aviv with the Israel Philharmonic in December 1963, just weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, and was dedicated to the slain president, a close friend of the Bernsteins. The New York World-Telegram and Sun called this recording of Kaddish “the most deeply felt music Bernstein has written, and his best.”

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1998.38.5, Gift of Evelyn Wankoff in memory of Laura Scheinfeld
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Just one month after the 1967 Six Day War, Bernstein led the Israel Philharmonic in Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, and concluded with the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony in C Minor. In his pre-concert remarks, Bernstein explained his choice of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, noting “that this restatement of faith takes place here on this mountain in Jerusalem, a city which is this day is united and at peace.”

Image: National Museum of American Jewish History
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When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis asked Leonard to compose an original work to inaugurate the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in September 1971, the composer used this auspicious occasion as both a political platform and a memorial to the nation’s only Catholic president. Working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Bernstein reimagined the traditional Catholic rite as MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. The Vietnam War, draft, escalating violence, and the imprisonment of anti-war activists had led Bernstein to a deep reckoning with his faith, expressed in this new work as a generational crisis of faith and longing for peace at home and abroad.

MASS required over 200 performers, including singers, dancers, and classical and rock musicians. It combined Latin and Hebrew liturgical texts with blues and jazz, rock, a gospel chorus, a children’s choir bearing kazoos, instrumental meditations, and dance interludes choreographed by Alvin Ailey. For two hours, a street chorus increasingly prevails upon the Celebrant (priest) to challenge Church doctrine, question tradition and authority, and find his own spiritual solace. By the end, the Celebrant’s faith has been completely broken down and the audience is left roused, baffled, and hopeful.

Image: Courtesy: Indiana University William and Gayle Cook Music Library, Jacobs School of Music
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In his later years Bernstein continued to leverage his national platform to advocate for social causes. He conducted Kaddish and selections from MASS for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. He spoke on peace and nuclear disarmament at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and brought a “Journey of Peace” Youth Orchestra to Hiroshima on the 40th anniversary of the bombing. He refused the National Medal of Arts in protest of President Bush’s revocation of NEA funding for an art exhibition that dealt with AIDS. He conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in an historic concert on Christmas Day following the fall of the Berlin Wall—a concert that featured an ode “to Freedom” sung by three choirs in the final movement.

Image: INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo
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A generation of American families gathered around television sets to watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. For many, Bernstein’s legacy is as the face of classical music and music education. Bernstein traveled the world as an internationally recognized conductor, iconic Broadway composer, and a talented educator. He helped found music festivals and academies at home and abroad—nurturing young talent, popularizing classical music, and bringing young composers, conductors, and compositions to a wide audience. But he truly loved all music, from Bach to Basie to the Beatles. In his eulogy, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer reflected that Bernstein was a man who, “sought out ambiguity, paradox, risk. He delighted in the dangers of ambiguity.” As the world celebrates the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, it may be his “delight in the dangers of ambiguity”—pushing boundaries, breaking down walls, bucking tradition—that is his lasting legacy.

Credits: Story

Images and text curated by Ivy Weingram, Associate Curator, National Museum of American Jewish History


Images courtesy of:
Indiana University William and Gayle Cook Music Library, Jacobs School of Music
INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo
The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
Library of Congress
National Museum of American Jewish History
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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