My Father Leonard Bernstein and the Need For Citizen Artists

My Father Leonard Bernstein and the Need For Citizen Artists

With a new memoir, 'Famous Father Girl,' Jamie Bernstein writes for Playboy on her father's legacy

Back in November of 1943, when my 25-year-old father, Leonard Bernstein, stepped in at the last moment to replace a flu-ridden maestro and conduct the New York Philharmonic on a live national broadcast (making him famous overnight), there was no such thing as an American-born conductor. Or an American-born Jewish conductor. Or an American-born, Jewish conductor who spoke out in support of the causes that he believed in.

From the time he was a young man, my father spoke out whenever he saw an injustice, or an atrocity, or a dire need. It often got him into trouble. Indeed, by the time he was able to view his own FBI file in the 1980’s, it was 800 pages long. But that was my father’s way: he didn’t shrink from raising his voice in protest when he thought it was necessary to speak up.

And whenever he could, he put his own music to work to express the ideas he believed in. Many of his compositions explore humanity’s struggle to rise above evil. The best known example is his beloved Broadway musical, West Side Story, in which Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is updated to mid-20th century New York City. The Romeo character is Tony, who belongs to the Jets street gang, and Maria is the Puerto Rican Juliet, attached to the Sharks gang. Like the characters they're based on, Tony and Maria fall in love and suffer the consequences of the hate and prejudice in their respective worlds. And that, unfortunately, is a storyline that never seems to lose its urgency.

My father never lost his idealism; there was a part of him that felt if he could write a good enough melody, he just might be able to transform the world. Of course, he knew this was impossible; he wasn’t crazy. But it was that impulse to make the world a better place through his music that drove him forward as a composer.
Bernstein’s message needed to be heard—and it was very much of a piece with his overall message of equality, tolerance and universal brotherhood.
It drove him forward as a conductor, too. On November 24, 1963, he conducted Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Resurrection in a televised tribute to President John F. Kennedy.  On the broadcast he said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” I see that quote all too often these days; it’s a Facebook favorite every time there’s a terrorist incident, or a school shooting. My father would have wept to see how much gun violence is inflicted on young people today; living through the assassinations in the 1960s turned him into a fervent, outspoken advocate for gun control.

Leonard Bernstein spent his entire life reaching out to young people. He was a born teacher. Everything he did was in essence a form of teaching: whether he was rehearsing an orchestra, or or quoting Lewis Carroll, or recalling a favorite Vaudeville routine—it was all driven by the same essential impulse to grab you by the sleeve and say, “Listen to this! I have to share this with you.”

Among the many messages he conveyed to his young audiences—and to their parents as well—was that all kinds of music were worth listening to. To explain about sonata form on his televised Young People’s Concerts, he went to the piano and played (and sang!) the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” The kids in the live audience went nuts, of course. My father knew he seemed like a goofy grownup to them, but he also knew he was making his larger point: that he, a classical musician, was not making a value judgment about one kind of music over another. Those times were not that long after the incidents of parents burning their kids’ Elvis Presley records. Bernstein’s message needed to be heard—and it was very much of a piece with his overall message of equality, tolerance and universal brotherhood.
My father’s words, deeds, and ways of living should provide a shining example to young artists today—musicians in particular—who are newly galvanized to forgo the ivory tower.
During the Vietnam War, my father composed his theater piece Mass, which embodied the angry protests of young people in those days, who were confronting a bellicose and irresponsible government. The piece was commissioned for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

President Richard Nixon was advised against attending the event; his henchmen warned that Bernstein had inserted a “secret message” in Latin to embarrass the president. The secret message turned out to be a standard line in the Catholic liturgy: “Dona nobis pacem.” It was a fine moment of Nixon Administration paranoia. But there was nothing secret about my father’s anti-war stance; not for nothing was Leonard Bernstein’s name included on Nixon’s infamous White House Enemies List.

In my father’s day, it could be damaging to one’s career to admit to homosexuality. My father wrestled with this issue on a personal level; his bisexuality was complicated for him, because he he had a wife to whom he remained devoted, up to her death in 1978, and they had raised a family together. But by the 1980s, he put his reputation on the line once again. He was aghast that the Reagan administration was taking so catastrophically long to acknowledge AIDS as a national crisis. My father put himself on the front lines of AIDS advocacy, dedicating concerts to raise money for patient care and research toward a cure.

Leonard Bernstein lived long enough to see the Soviet Union lose its iron grip on eastern Europe, and to see the Berlin Wall come down. On Christmas Day of 1989, my father conducted a multinational orchestra, chorus and soloists in a historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, broadcast worldwide from the newly reunified city of Berlin. For the occasion, my father changed Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text to “Ode to Freedom.” The event was a magnificent expression, in my father’s final year, of his lifelong commitment to using music as an engine for peace, compassion, and brotherhood—the very same goals that Beethoven himself strove to express through his own symphonies.

All my father’s words, deeds, and ways of living should provide a shining example to young artists today—musicians in particular—who are newly galvanized to forgo the ivory tower and, instead, share their creativity with their communities, and reach out with their artistry to help make the world a better place. These young people refer to themselves as Citizen Artists. It’s a beautiful name for a beautiful way to be, and without a doubt, Leonard Bernstein was Citizen Artist Number One.


Jamie Bernstein's new memoir, Famous Father Girl (Harper Collins), is out now.

Photo Credit: George Talbot/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

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