Bernstein, Broken


With 2018 marking 100 years since the birth of composer-conductor-educator Leonard Bernstein, musicians everywhere are busy offering joyous celebrations of his life and music. At the same time, though, the United States is experiencing perhaps the darkest moment yet along the bleak road that leads to a politically divided nation. Left bereft by the profound partisan divide, Americans long to celebrate a more innocent, united America. On the surface, Bernstein’s joyous tunes are promising contenders for such an effort. But sadly Bernstein’s America was no utopia. And in fact, Bernstein’s career is an important reminder that even the most dynamic, optimistic artists can be profoundly shaken by the politics of “us and them.”

Bernstein had always wanted to write innovative, but appealing American-sounding music. After World War II, though, doing so became really problematic. The Nazis had exploited popular patriotic music to boost their fascist nationalism. America’s new enemy, the Soviet Union, was requiring all its composers to write accessible, nation-celebrating music. As a result, leading composers of the day were using new methods of organizing the 12 pitches of the scale, particularly serialism, to compose serious, abstract music that rarely drew a large audience. Nationalist music, in this climate in the West, was not only out of fashion. It risked raising eyebrows.

At the same time as he weighed the potential dangers of musical nationalism, Bernstein was feeling increasingly troubled by political nationalism in his own country. By the 1950s, being an American patriot seemed to require vocal opposition to Soviet communism. The result was a toxic climate for those, like him, whose politics leant heavily left.  In 1950 Bernstein appeared on a list of suspected communists involved in the culture industries. Three years later, in order to renew his passport, he had to submit an affidavit stating he was not a communist.

How could Bernstein write distinctively American music, but also reject the “us vs. them” of Cold War politics? Could he, like his mentor Aaron Copland, create music for and of the United States, but still avoid sounding like a communist? Was it possible for a left-wing “Americanist” composer to avoid inadvertently offering up nationalist fodder for right-wing causes?

Bernstein and Copland, 1945
Bernstein and Aaron Copland, 1945

Bernstein grappled intensely with all of this. He wrote out “imaginary conversations” with himself about the pros and cons of musical nationalism. In his classical compositions, he experimented with the newest methods, but often had them fighting musically with accessible, Copland-like music (as in his “Kaddish” Symphony, for example). At the peak of his crisis in 1963 he wrote, exasperated,

Is this world of NATO and Birmingham and the Faith-7 a world in which a composer is forbidden to write a melody?

In essence, Bernstein was experiencing the ideological conflict artistically. He saw where he was supposed to sit, musically and ideologically, but he wasn’t sure if that was where he belonged. And as a pacifist he wanted urgently to try to break down the polarizations the Cold War exacerbated. He strove to find the grey in a political world of black and white. In that striving, at least, he offers an example for our own times. But such an effort came at a cost.

Interestingly, this struggle didn’t affect Bernstein’s theatre music in anything like the same way. Here he apparently felt less obliged to address the politics of musical style, and with musicals like West Side Story (1957) he enjoyed huge success. Surrounded by a community of fellow homosexuals and leftists, in the theatre he could be the politically active Americanist he wanted to be.

The problem was, Bernstein didn’t want to give himself fully to Broadway. He longed for the status enjoyed by a successful classical composer and yet–in part because of these political issues–he felt consistently dissatisfied with his contributions in this vein. Bernstein’s career was not all glory and celebrity. His was a complicated life, profoundly shaped by a very complicated ideological conflict.


For more on Bernstein’s Cold War experience, see my new book: The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War. Bernstein is one of a number of American composers I look at in the book, considering how their lives and music were shaped by this ideological conflict.

Photos from the Library of Congress’s Leonard Bernstein Collection.


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