The Social Activist


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“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

—Leonard Bernstein on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr.


Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic greet Dmitri Shostakovich in Moscow, 1959.

From The New York Philharmonic in Moscow, 1959, courtesy of The New York Philharmonic Archives.

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Causes and Effecting Change

Leonard Bernstein’s impressive musical gifts can make it easy to overlook his lifelong and sometimes controversial commitment to promoting political change. This commitment was hardly separate from his musical endeavors—music for Bernstein was a means of creating mutual understanding and peace. The porous border between the musical and the political is a recurring theme in Bernstein’s life, and it surfaces as early as 1939, his last year at Harvard when he organized a defiant production of Marc Blitzstein’s radical and recently banned opera The Cradle Will Rock, which dramatized the struggle of workers to resist corruption and corporate greed. In the same year, he wrote a senior thesis titled …

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From Leonard Bernstein: American Original

Paul Boyer on Leonard Bernstein’s Social Activism

Blame it on Tom Wolfe. For many Americans, Leonard Bernstein’s image as a social activist is indelibly associated with a 1970 gathering he and his wife hosted in their elegant Park Avenue apartment that included members of the radical Black Panther party. In a New York magazine article and subsequent book, Wolfe skewered the event as “radical chic”—the fatuous pursuit of radical groups by faddish celebrities desperate to keep themselves in the public eye.

Bernstein explained that the event had not been an endorsement of the Black Panthers, which espoused armed resistance and socialism, but a fundraiser for their legal defense in the face of FBI harassment. But Wolfe’s “radical chic” label stuck. In The New York Times obituary for Bernstein, in 1990, a brief paragraph on his social activism mainly rehashed the 1970 brouhaha while largely ignoring a lifetime of engagement with social issues, from racial justice and civil liberties to environmental protection and world peace.

Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein: American Original, by Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws (HarperCollins, August 2008).


Excerpt from Bernstein’s Mass, “I Don’t Know”

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Kent Nagano, Conductor. Harmonia Mundi.

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Leonard Bernstein: American Original

Leonard Bernstein: American Original

By Burton Bernstein— former New Yorker writer and Leonard’s brother—and the New York Philharmonic’s historian, Barbara Haws.
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