Leonard Bernstein ‘39, who showed the joy of music to audiences of all ages, is an alumnus that the Harvard artistic community keeps revisiting.
By Sasha Barish ‘20
I heard about the recent project on Leonard Bernstein ’39 last summer. Marcelo Hanta-Davis ’20 was working with the New York Philharmonic’s archives for the summer, in preparation for a Harvard research project and a fall 2017 music class on Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, a series of performances intended for children. I wanted to write about this project, but stories didn’t come together within the time frame of the class itself. In the process of talking to people and reading up on the iconic composer, however, I discovered that a piece about Bernstein and Harvard is almost always timely.
My favorite primary source for Harvard student life is the online Crimson, and it brings up several articles from 1939 that explore a young Bernstein’s conducting projects. He seems to have composed and music directed a Harvard Classical Club production of Aristophanes’ The Birds, and to have co-directed and provided musical accompaniment for a production of The Cradle Will Rock. In the same year, Bernstein’s senior thesis on “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music” aptly anticipated the social issues in music that he would contend with for the rest of his life.
August 25, 2018 will mark a hundred years since Bernstein’s birth. To celebrate this, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra has included Bernstein pieces in almost all of its concerts this academic year, including the upcoming concert February 24, which will include the magnificent overture to Candide – not to be missed.
Last semester’s course on the Young People’s Concerts also coincided with this Bernstein centennial. Professor Carol Oja described the class as “an oral history project fused together with a seminar” examining the composer and conductor but with a special focus on his Young People’s Concerts. A New York Philharmonic series that continues to this day, the concerts were one of Bernstein’s first projects when he started as music director in 1958.
“He would pull from popular music of the day, like the Beatles, and present those in Philharmonic Hall,” said Maddie Snow ’20, who was also in the class. “He made it so that the kids would really identify with what was happening in the music emotionally and intellectually; he never dumbed it down for the kids.”
The true impact of the concerts, though, comes from their widespread distribution on TV. “Many of the concerts were televised,” said Oja, “so a lot of people across the country of a certain generation saw these concerts and were inspired by them.”
Oja’s course culminated in a trip to New York city, where students interviewed people who had seen the early Young People’s Concerts as children. Back at Harvard, students examined and discussed Bernstein’s life and work more broadly. They talked to his daughter Jamie Bernstein, attended HRO concerts and learned about Bernstein’s interactions with social issues in music. Daniel Callahan, who teaches at Boston College, visited and spoke to the class about Bernstein’s life as a gay man in the public eye.
“Callahan was talking in class about Bernstein as a conductor, and the interpretation of many of his physical gestures on the podium in relation to perceptions of him as someone who is gay, perceptions that changed over the decades,” said Oja. “He was Harvard Class of 1939, a class when there were very few Jews and being out was impossible, and as a conductor he was launched into a world where, similarly, heteronormativity reigned.”
Throughout his career Bernstein also confronted racial divides in American music, just as his Harvard thesis had.
“The book that got me to this class was about Leonard Bernstein’s first Broadway show On The Town,” Oja said, “which had a racially integrated cast in 1944, and was completely remarkable for Broadway at the time.”
Bernstein’s interest in diversity and inclusion in music was closely tied to the views on music education that led to the Young People’s Concerts. When I spoke to Snow during the fall semester, she was working on her final project, a performance of Bernstein’s song cycle I Hate Music.
“It’s a song cycle that Leonard Bernstein wrote from a child’s perspective, looking out on the wider world and specifically the music world and concert-going,” Snow told me. “It’s centered around the middle song… saying that ‘I hate music,’ and ‘concert-halls are silly’, and ‘it’s all about men with tails, and women wearing diamonds’. It says ‘I hate music but I like to sing’. So it’s an interesting commentary on the formal, concert-going world in classical music and the jazz-inspired music that Bernstein was also drawn to and that comes out in this song cycle.”
Oja said she hadn’t expected beforehand that the class would focus so much on social justice, but recognizes that it’s an integral part of the concerts’ history. “He was a champion of social justice in many different dimensions,” she said, “and that fact had a great impact on him as a conductor and composer.”