My Father's Idealism

by Jamie Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein grew up in a world of stark political contrasts: the Depression, Roosevelt and the New Deal, Nazism and World War II — a world full of evil and damaged tempered by powerful forces of good. In his middle life, the forces of good suffered the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the two Kennedy brothers.

Through it all, he retained the idealism of his youth. Surely by creating beauty, he felt, and by sharing it with as many people as possible, one could ultimately tip the balance in favor of brotherhood and peace — the human equivalents of musical harmony. This was the force behind Leonard Bernstein's political beliefs, which he was not shy about sharing with the world. Nor was he afraid of the various epithets — Liberal, Jew, Radical Chic, Commie-Pinko-Fag — stuck like so many Post-its to his coattails. He spoke out and fought doggedly for the causes he believed in. He donated fees, wrote letters and campaign songs, even entire musical works, in order to communicate his desire and hope for a better world.

Bernstein did not always act prudently. His passion sometimes got the best of his logic. But when he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin on Christmas day 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, the feeling that he had attempted tp convery all his life was at its most palpable: that if enough hearts would open themselves to the beauty of great music, there would be no room left in them for evil, greed or hate. We need his music more than ever.

The American Scholar, in an article by Carol Oja, discusses Bernstein's views on terrorism, with an accompanying speech by Bernstein himself. [Read article at]
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