The Jewish Leonard Bernstein

‘To write a great Broadway musical, you have to be either Jewish or gay. And I’m both.’

Leonard Bernstein is talking to me during dinner in a faded Hapsburg palace in Vienna. It is November 1978, freezing outside, and the rooms are cold. Our host, one of Lenny’s numerous society friends around the world, has fallen on lean times, and apparently cannot afford to keep the heating turned up. But she does have a piano in the adjoining music room, and he is getting fidgety. He growls: ‘When do we get to the piano?’ An evening with this driven insomniac couldn’t possibly end without a midnight session of informal piano duets, when the assembled company — English,  American and Austrian television people — will take turns at the lower end of the keyboard, while he holds court at the top.

We have been filming the cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic in the golden hall of the Musikverein, world famous for its annual televised New Year’s Day Concert. Legendary names, from Brahms to Mahler to Richard Strauss, have woven their magic from that rostrum. This week it is Bernstein’s throne, and he is the darling of the city.

He rubs his hands, sits at the keyboard, and — to a gathering of mostly non-Jews — tinkles the ivories with the repetitive little falling motif that dominates the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Then he sings along: ‘Now I’m barmitzvah’d, now I’m barmitzvah’d …..’ It is incongruous, wacky and will colour my hearing of that music ever after.

Perhaps it was Bernstein’s wry sense of humour that led him to flaunt his Jewishness in the Austrian capital. The tenor Jarry Hadley, asked how he thought an American Jew could enjoy such adulation in notoriously anti-Semitic Vienna, replied: ‘He flung it in their faces. And they loved him for it.’ But the situation was more complex. One of Bernstein’s favourite collaborators, the Berlin-born mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, observed: ‘He was very unhappy there doing excerpts from Wagner operas.’ This alongside the fact that he fell under Wagner’s spell in his youth, and once said he had spent his life trying to solve what he called ‘the central work of all music history’, Tristan und Isolde.

As a Jew, Bernstein’s greatest struggle in Vienna was not with the Viennese public, nor with the music critics. It was with the players of the Philharmonic as, during the early 1970s, he bludgeoned them into accepting the neglected music of Gustav Mahler. During tortuous rehearsals, Bernstein pleaded that Mahler was ‘their composer’, a musician as Viennese as themselves. They derided his scores in scatalogical terms, and their faces during a rehearsal of the Fifth Symphony can be seen on a recently released DVD, sullen and confused as he sweats and strains to motivate them. ‘I know you can play the notes … but where is Mahler?’ Angrily, he overrides union rules, prolonging the session into overtime in his frantic pursuit of the ‘Viennese’ Mahler — for which read the Jewish, angst-ridden, soul-searching Mahler.

Mahler’s oft-quoted lament — that he was ‘thrice homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world’ — struck a chord with Bernstein. It represents the polar opposite of his own experience as a diaspora Jew, growing up in a welcoming American environment where Jewishness could be unselfconsciously celebrated. Hitler’s menace — something eerily foreseen in Mahler’s grinding marches and anguished fanfares — was in faraway Europe. Irony is a mainspring in Mahler’s sound world, where conflicting musical ideas are jammed together. A yearning love-theme is brutally interrupted by a town band, or a barracks trumpet. A passionate, surging crescendo gives way to a trite little folksong. Jewish conductors seem especially qualified to interpret these ironies (one such is Bernstein’s protegé, Michael Tilson Thomas), but none has worn Mahler’s heart on his sleeve to the extent that Bernstein did, living out every note on the podium.

Bernstein’s excessive podium style (perhaps ‘athletic’ is a better word) was as natural to him as it was anathema to others. The pianist and film star Oscar Levant turned his barbed wit on Lenny in full flow: ‘His conducting has a masturbatory, oppressive and febrile zeal, even for the most tranquil passages. He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.’ In other words, there was too much schmaltz.

When I directed, for BBC television, a studio recording of Bernstein conducting Stravinsky’s Les Noces, we hired the young conductor Nicholas Cleobury as a stand-in for the camera rehearsal. At a climax, he called out: ‘And this is where Lenny jumps!’ Came the recording, and Lenny did. Whatever he conducted, he used every muscle in his body, swinging his hips, raising his eyebrows, imploring the strings with crouching gestures, nodding and smiling as details went the way he had rehearsed them. Mahler left us his interpretive ‘running commentary’ in words. Perhaps we can regard Bernstein’s exuberance, whatever the music, as an intensely personal, instinctive commentary through gesture (and without the inferiority complex). As he said in 1967: ‘Life without music is unthinkable; music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.’

Bernstein would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 25 August 2008. One of his closest friends, the Jewish actress Lauren Bacall, said it seemed he would live forever. Realistically, there was never much hope of a long lifespan, given his frenetic lifestyle, chronic insomnia, chain-smoking, and years of driving his body to the limits. Under the circumstances, achieving 72 years was a minor miracle for which he gave thanks. ‘I mustn’t complain about getting old. I haven’t lived one life. I’ve lived five.’ But he did find advancing old age difficult to accept. During a particularly gloomy period, he tapped into irony again when describing his predicament to Michael Tilson Thomas: ‘I am at the peak of my decline.’

Numerous outstanding musicians made it their business to downplay their Jewish roots. The conductor Bruno Walter (who was told by Mahler to drop his real name, Schlesinger) would never talk about it. Schoenberg became a Protestant in Catholic Vienna, eventually rescinding and writing music with Jewish connections (and a manifesto for a proposed Jewish State, though not in Palestine). Bernstein was able to bypass such agonising, largely because of the strength and openness of his Jewish upbringing.

There was no particular presence of music in the Bernstein family. But his father, Samuel, came from a long line of Hassidim. Once young Leonard (or Louis, to give his real name — he changed it legally when he was sixteen) had learned the piano, he accompanied his father in homely renditions of Hassidic folk-tales. Having moved the family from New York to Boston, Sam deliberately attended not the Hassidic synagogue, but the ‘reform’ congregation, determined to merge old customs within a modern American lifestyle. After his son became a celebrity, Sam was asked why he’d urged him to join the family beauty-parlour business, rather than become a musician. Sam replied: ‘Well, how did I know he’d grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?’

Lenny once wrote: ‘To the child, the father is God’, and he recalled how Sam would launch into biblical discourse over trivial matters, such as passing the salt. “You know, Moses said about salt …’ Late in life, Lenny similarly bored the pants off Humphrey Bogart, when he and his wife Lauren Bacall would visit the Bernstein home. Bacall loved Lenny’s convoluted word-games and intellectual pontificating; Bogart would escape and go out on a boat, like his lonesome film character in The African Queen.

Samuel and Jennie Bernstein had a troubled marriage, reflected in the squabbling couple featured in Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, and revisited when he incorporated this work into an extended version of his 1983 opera A Quiet Place. But the irrepressible Lenny found ways of coping with domestic upsets, lunging into such a concentrated pursuit of a musical career that by his early twenties he was becoming famous. This was clinched when he took over a New York Philharmonic concert from an indisposed Bruno Walter, at the age of 25.

He had already dabbled with writing Jewish music — a schoolboy setting of Psalm 148 for his family’s congregation, when he was 17. In 1942 (the year before his sensational debut on the podium), he completed his First Symphony, subtitled Jeremiah. It was written at white heat, to beat the deadline for a competition judged by a man who was to have an enormous influence, the Russian-Jewish conductor Serge Koussevitsky, founder of the Tanglewood Music Festival two years earlier.

Koussevitsky disliked the score, and it failed to win a prize. Nonetheless, it proved the first in a steady outpouring of Bernstein works inspired by his Jewish heritage. Dedicated to his father Samuel, the music moves from a sombre ‘Prophecy’, through ‘Profanation’ (destruction of the Temple) to a final ‘Lamentation’ with mezzo-soprano solo, singing in Hebrew. The composer said: ‘I did not make use to any great extent of any actual Hebrew material’ – a statement pounced upon by his long-time music assistant Jack Gottlieb, who nevertheless identified many themes derived from ancient synagogue cantillation. The opening melody, for instance, comes partly from the Amen sung on major festivals and partly from the Amidah prayers; ‘Profanation’ uses motifs from the Haftara; ‘Lamentation’ is derived from the mournful chanting of Ashkenazic Jews on Tisha B’Av.

Equally significant is the attitude towards the Almighty embedded in the symphony’s text, which became something of a Bernstein fixation. Its closing words are: ‘Wherefore dost thou forget us forever, and forsake us so long time? Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord.’ At a press conference during the recording of the symphony in 1977, he said: ‘I suppose I am always writing the same piece. The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah, I was wrestling with that problem. The faith or peace at the end of Jeremiah is really more a kind of comfort, not a solution.’

Jeremiah — the prophet who railed at God and made him accountable for human suffering — is a biblical Bernstein counterpart, and addressing a personal crisis in faith was a subject to which he kept returning. He did so in his next symphony, inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, though without Jewish connotations.

However, his explosive Third Symphony, dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, is boldly titled Kaddish. For its first recording in 1963 (the year of its première in Tel Aviv), he gave the role of Speaker to his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, representing ‘The Eternal Feminine’. In the second movement, ‘Din-Torah’ (Trial by God’s Law) she hurls accusations at the Almighty for making life so difficult — the antithesis of a supplicating Bach cantata or a celebratory Haydn mass. Bernstein’s ever-questing mind had second thoughts about gender exclusivity, and his 1977 recording featured Michael Wager, the friend in whose arms he would die in 1990, during treatment for terminal emphysema.

Kaddish is scored for large orchestra, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, speaker and soprano solo. The opening movement is a slow ‘Invocation’ which gives way to the first of three appearances of the Kaddish prayer. The angry, second movement mixes a 12-tone row with jazz-like elements and explodes in an anguished, choral outcry before calming into a tender lullaby for the soprano. The third section serves as the traditional symphonic scherzo. In a dream sequence, the Speaker changes places with God and persuades Him to renew His faith in man (the Bernstein obsession). Finally, after further violent confrontation, the Speaker is given a last meditation and establishes a more stable relationship with the Almighty. The symphony moves powerfully from darkness to light, from 12-tone music to the triumphant, traditional tonality Bernstein could never relinquish as a system of composition. With a text in Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew, it is the most intensively Jewish conception Bernstein brought to the concert hall. It was derided by some for its eclectic mix of styles, and for being a ‘tear-jerker’.

Bernstein returned to the question of musical language in 1965, when the Dean of Chichester commissioned a work for his cathedral and said (with cunning English understatement) that ‘a hint of West Side Story would be welcomed.’ Bernstein’s great musical had swept the world in the eight years since its launch in New York. Even that project had Jewish associations, not only through its line-up of collaborators (conceived by Jerome Robbins; book by Arthur Laurents; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), but because Robbins’ original concept for his re-working of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was more of an East Side story, with Juliet as a Jewish girl and Romeo as an Italian Catholic.

What the Dean got has become a classic of the choral repertoire, with Hebrew words from the Psalms, suffused with foot-tapping rhythms and a joyous trust in God. Bernstein had taken a year’s sabbatical to immerse himself in ‘serial’ composition, and could manipulate Schoenbergian tone rows when he wanted to (as in Kaddish). But what had emerged from his year off? Chichester Psalms, which he called ‘the most accessible B-flat-major-ish tonal piece I’ve ever written.’

There are a number of other Jewish compositions, including some early, small-scale pieces. In composition order, the most interesting include Hashkiveinu (1945), a setting of the Sabbath eve version of this prayer, commissioned by New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue; the 50-minute ballet Dybbuk (1974, based on S. Ansky’s 1920 Yiddish drama The Dybbuk), for which Jerome Robbins was the choreographer (proving to be, as always, very difficult to work with as he painfully found his way towards a finished conception), and including sung Hebrew texts from the Havdalah service; Halil (‘Flute’), a haunting, tender piece premièred in Israel in 1981 and dedicated ‘to the spirit of Yadin and his fallen brothers’ (Yadin Tenenbaum was an Israeli flautist killed in the Yom Kippur War); and a setting of the Yiddish poem Oif Mayn Khas’neh, (At My Wedding), a movement in Arias and Barcarolles (1988). This last title, for a suite of eight short movements that exists in various instrumental versions, arose from an innocent remark President Eisenhower made to Bernstein after he had played Mozart and Gershwin at the White House in 1960. ‘You know’, said Ike, ‘I liked that last piece you played; it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles.’ Lenny was never at a loss at writing music ‘with a theme’.

Crossing cultures is the essence of American music, and the words ‘melting pot’ are synonymous with American society (Gershwin intended to write a set of 24 piano preludes representing New York, entitled The Melting Pot). When Bernstein recorded Kaddish for the first time, it comprised a symphony with Hebrew texts, composed by an American Jew of Russian parents, narrated by a Chilean (his wife, Felicia), the great-granddaughter of a rabbi who had been brought up as a Catholic. Small wonder that Stravinsky, summing up Bernstein’s eclecticism, coined the mischievous phrase: ‘a department store of music.’

Bernstein, it seemed, had two impossible ambitions: to meet every person in the world, and for all of them to love him. His passion for people led to a legendary twelve-year series of 50 Young People’s Concerts shown live on American television, and later to six televised talks from Harvard University (both available on DVD). Bernstein identified his urge to teach as stemming from something essentially Talmudic.

No one has come near his greatness as a musical communicator, and no one except the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch has devoted as much energy to bringing Jewish music into the concert hall. (Lenny’s jet-setting concert tours and Broadway hits were in stark contrast to the quiet-living Bloch, who nonetheless established his reputation as a ‘Jewish composer’ having settled in the USA and become an American citizen).

The violinist Isaac Stern said that his friend Lenny had basic loyalties. These could be to his colleagues, especially to his Jewish lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who worked on the hit musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town. But above all, in terms of his Jewish background, stands his loyalty to the state of Israel. His first visit was in 1946 to conduct what was then the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, sparking a love affair between the celebrity maestro from the New World and what became the Israel Philharmonic. It ended only with his death.

In Israel, in its earth and its people, Lenny recognised his roots. A 1953 newspaper headline captured the impression he made in Jerusalem: ‘Lenny is their God, his name is magic everywhere.’ He flew to Israel to conduct in every crisis, always without fee. In 1948, with the fledgling new nation in peril, he played for troops behind the lines and for the Palmach. After the Israel Defence Forces pushed into the Negev desert and captured Beersheba, he rounded up 35 players to drive through the night in an armoured bus to perform a concert for the troops the following afternoon, in what was an archaeological dig. Perched on rocks and crevices, this extraordinary band accompanied Bernstein at the piano in Mozart and Beethoven, with Rhapsody in Blue as an encore. Egyptian scout planes reported the sight to their Cairo command, thinking it was a diversionary military manoeuvre, because ‘who would take time out in war to listen to a Mozart concerto?’

Bernstein was in Israel again for the euphoria following the Six Day War in 1967. He brought his beloved Mahler to Mount Scopus for an outdoor performance of the Resurrection Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. Wounded soldiers and bereaved families mingled with the nation’s leaders; Yitzhak Rabin described it as his greatest experience. The orchestra’s principal horn player, Yaacov Mishori, was well positioned to observe the setting from where he sat: ‘in the last movement, Lenny looked like an angel. It was an orchestra and a choir of angels.’

Much has changed in Israel since those heady times, when Lenny walked among the happy crowds towards the Western Wall and put his hand momentarily over his eyes, overcome by the emotion of so much rejoicing. The man who later took over from him at the New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, is the conductor laureate for life at the Israel Philharmonic — a Parsee who describes himself as ‘Jewish by osmosis’. Two other Jews, Rafael Kubelik and Istvan Kertesz, were popular conductors there too. But Bernstein galvanised his Israeli audiences as did no other maestro. Who knows when we shall again see a Jew of such international fame and charisma, stepping on to the podium at the Mann Auditorium?

Bernstein’s complex personality created havoc at times, particularly when his homosexuality led him to leave Felicia and live for a while with a music researcher, Tom Cothran. Jamie Bernstein, his daughter, said her father needed to know he could also come back home — to his ‘quiet place’. Not long afterwards, Felicia died of cancer. He was consumed by remorse, and never properly recovered. In a scene reminiscent of a Verdi opera plot, she had cursed him: ‘You are going to die a bitter and lonely old man.’ Being Leonard Bernstein had, in effect, become a burden for him. But, in what would have been his 90th year, we should remember Lenny in his prime — a kind of meteor, coming from nowhere, setting the musical world alight through his multifaceted gifts.

He never failed to proclaim his Jewishness, to rejoice in his heritage. Perhaps it’s that unquenchable Hassidic spirit that prompted one of the happiest remarks Leonard Bernstein ever made: ‘If I were someone else, I’d envy me’.

Rodney Greenberg has produced and directed over 300 classical-music television programmes in Europe, Israel and America since 1970. He collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on the filming of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for Unitel; the BBC Mahler documentary The Little Drummer Boy; and a BBC studio production of Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces. He also worked with Bernstein on programmes celebrating Aaron Copland, for the BBC and at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. His 1998 biography of George Gershwin, published by Phaidon Press, will be re-launched in a new edition in spring 2008.

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