Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing my book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

Looking back to the post-war decades, one can understand why so many thought so highly of Leonard Bernstein as an artist and intellectual: music director of the New York Philharmonic and televised performer of Young People’s Concerts and the highbrow CBS show Omnibus; composer of symphonic works including one based on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, an adaptation of Auden’s Age of Anxiety and a meditation on Plato’s Symposium; art song; an opera, Trouble in Tahiti with themes of suburban angst; musical score to the film On the Water Front with themes of urban angst; the works for dance, Fancy Free and – yet more angst -- Facsimile; and the Broadway shows On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story. His Harvard inflections only enhanced his reputation as a man of great artistic and intellectual cultivation. Small wonder that he was a virtual mentor to my generation of Americans.

I had seen him in performance over the years, but what has remains in my mind took place – I think it was 1959 -- at the City College of New York when, one afternoon, I came out of class to hear music across the street in Lewisohn Stadium, the wonderful amphitheater where we held gym classes during the semester but where the Philharmonic performed each summer. I ran over to the stadium and stood with a few other students within yards of the podium to see the visiting conductor, Josef Krips, rehearsing (again, if memory serves) the Beethoven Triple Concerto, with Bernstein in shirt and tie at the piano. It was noon, and the orchestral players were asking Krips for a lunch break. “Not yet!” said a heavily perspiring Bernstein, but Krips replied something like “Ach! Lenny, let them have lunch,” a cue for the musicians to put down their instruments and thereby preempt Bernstein’s attempt at rejoinder. When a few students approached him with pens and open notebooks in hand, a clearly irritated Bernstein barked “No autographs!” And that was that.

Did I think him petty? Not at all! I admired him for his discipline, his dedication to his art.

Now I also admired Bernstein for his politics, or at least what was rumored about his politics, but never elaborated, that he was a man of the political Left. In those days, to be on the Left was for me a matter of great honor, maintaining the memory of the now mystical (and rather romanticized) Popular Front while the McCarthy inquisitions were victimizing left-wingers and the Eisenhower regime was cozying up to Franco and ex- (or not so ex-) Nazis. This was the era when the blacklist was in full force, and when American political debate between Democrats and Republicans was virtually bipartisan because no Democratic politician dared support, for example, full employment or universal medical care policies, for fear of being labeled a communist. (You hear shrill reminders of those illiberal debasements of discourse these days from those who would stop debate on Obama’s policy proposals by labeling them with the scare term “socialist.”)

Years later, with my academic career well established, I was searching for a topic to sink my teeth into. I had done some writing on matters of civil liberties and cultural politics when, in 1995, I learned that the Southern California Civil Liberties Union had obtained Bernstein’s FBI dossier, a file of hundreds of pages apparently loaded with information about his political life. A week or so and thirty five dollars later – to cover costs of Xeroxing and mailing – I received a copy of those hundreds of pages of dossier material and discovered that the FBI had been collecting data on Bernstein’s multifarious political activities since the early 1940s. I learned from other sources that the Truman administration blacklisted him and that the Eisenhower administration had withheld his passport but, back to the FBI documents, then released it only after he signed an affidavit that he was not nor had been a member of the Communist Party. In that affidavit, which has never been published and which until now has been buried within the FBI documents, Bernstein repented his sins, claiming they were only the product of his youthful naiveté, testified that he had voted only for Democrats or Republicans, and that he was religiously observant – all the benchmarks of the loyal American citizen as defined by the witch hunters. As I would learn from Bernstein’s correspondence – more of which in a moment -- the affidavit was kept secret save for its circulation by Bernstein’s attorney amongst the vigilante groups that had the power to give or withhold clearance necessary for him to work in the film industry. Even with that clearance, however, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was convinced that Bernstein had lied about his communist party membership, and now charged his agents to find the evidence to get Bernstein indicted for perjury. Hoover also listed Bernstein for incarceration in a detention camp in the event of a national emergency.

All of this FBI material had not yet seen the light of day. And I was lucky in another way: the Bernstein family had made available to researchers the hundreds of boxes of correspondence and other materials at the Library of Congress. Between this archive and the FBI dossier was a goldmine of materials; interpreting these together now permitted me to understand Bernstein’s intellectual and political preoccupations; his life under blacklist; to form a good hunch about why he was away from the podium of the Philharmonic from 1951 to 1956; his terror of having to appear before the Committee on Un-American Activities; how he came off the CBS blacklist; how his career was helped by those enlisted in the so-called cultural cold war. I was also able to understand his choice of texts to set to music, and his political philosophy as he expressed it in his 1973 Norton lectures, in fact, too see these all of a piece, rather than so many disparate elements as presented by, ignored by, omitted by, or unknown to, previous biographers. In this fashion I came to see Bernstein not simply as the exuberant and larger than life individual and celebrity, but a man deeply committed to a progressive political position which found expression not only in his public addresses, but in his compositions: he even went so far as to far as to visit the anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan in Danbury (Connecticut) Penitentiary as he prepared to compose his 1971 Mass – an act that Hoover jumped on to link Bernstein to a supposed Berrigan-led terrorist conspiracy, and that, along with Bernstein’s well-known support for the Black Panther Defense Fund, led Nixon to put Bernstein’s name on his enemies list.

As I noted above, much of Bernstein’s life comes into focus with the reporting and interpretation of the materials heretofore secreted in the FBI dossier and the Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress. So too did I come to understand Bernstein’s championing of the works of Gustav Mahler; so too his greatest frustration, his self-proclaimed failure to compose a work of the highest significance, a matter very much on his mind when he was dying in 1990. What I write in the book is that Bernstein was, in the end, seeking to find a compose a tragic work, but searched in vain for a libretto or other text to inspire such a work. That he was unable to compose that highly significant American operatic or a multi-genre work lies, I speculate, less in his supposed failure to concentrate – an explanation offered by a number of critics and even his friends -- than in the flux of social forces that configured American political life. I suspected that the fault lay not so much with Bernstein as with the progressive imagination. I worked up a method to understand his predicament. It turned out that Bernstein was not alone in this particular frustration: Neither Arthur Miller nor Norman Mailer, men of very different temperaments but men whose political outlook was similar to Bernstein’s, was able to find a way to address the American population’s decades-long departure from American progressive ideals through the Cold War and its march to the right from the seventies and into the Reagan-Bush years. In earlier decades, progressive writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos and Steinbeck had studied the effects of economic forces and deeply embedded political power on social classes. Mailer very briefly, and Miller in two works, continued in this vein up to, but not beyond the late 1940s. But by the 1950s, and though the decades into the 1980s, progressive writers turned away from these issues to explore instead erotic themes, family tensions and breakup; absurdism, e.g., how runaway technology rules life; or the benumbing effects of war. Touching on those earlier themes had become virtually taboo, considered naïve by the liberal but aesthetic modernists who set the tone for the creative imaginative work in the post-war and Cold War years, and who thereby abetted the McCarthyite blacklisters. What resulted was a political language that assumed every American to be a member of a vast middle class America, thereby classless, and therefore no longer needing discussion of those older progressive themes. These were now repressed, their reality rendered inexpressible. I think that Bernstein was trying to find a way back those repressed themes. These would provide him with that long sought libretto, but he never found it. In short, Bernstein’s frustration was due, not to personal idiosyncrasy but to the lasting power of those forces that inhibited the progressive imagination.

In the end, I understand Bernstein as a man who lived in what Bertold Brecht and Hannah Arendt called dark times. If he were unable to express in musical-theatrical composition his deep brooding over the crisis of his times, he did find another way to express himself, and that was at the podium, bringing to life and championing the music of Gustav Mahler. To Bernstein, Mahler’s music sounded deep areas of crisis and tragedy. Bernstein found in Mahler a man at the dark crossroads of politics and culture. But in this case Mahler was Bernstein's predecessor. Of course this was the case in terms of both as composers and former music directors of the New York Philharmonic. But Bernstein saw in Mahler a prophet of catastrophe; as surveys of Bernstein's essays and lectures will reveal, so Bernstein was himself.

1 comment:

maurice isserman said...

This is an admirable and balanced appreciation of Leonard Bernstein's musical career and politics. I look forward to reading your book.