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Leonard Bernstein and the FBI: Fear and Music in 1950’s America

The arts were not exempt from excessive and irrational vigilance. … Staging this musical [“The Threepenny Opera”] at a high-profile event demonstrated audacity in the era of rampant McCarthyism.

Stephen Whitfield, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, says Leonard Bernstein used music and the Brandeis stage to resist Cold War interference with his beliefs and values. Brandeis is hosting the National Museum of Jewish History’s Bernstein at 100 exhibit, The Power of Music, through November 18, 2018.

By Stephen Whitfield

Leonard Bernstein’s last musical, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” (1976), with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, was intended to be a searing Bicentennial critique of slavery and racism. Bernstein’s most overtly political work abjectly failed. But another musical suggests even more forcefully how his artistic gifts and his political courage entwined.

The 1950s in America: “Red Scare” and the FBI’s Monitoring of Bernstein

In the era immediately after the Second World War, the “Red Scare” cast a shadow over much of American public life. The legitimate fear of the Soviet Union was heightened domestically by an inordinate suspicion of the influence of Communists as traitors and spies. The arts were not exempt from excessive and irrational vigilance.

The Red Scare coincided with the rise of Brandeis University, and even threatened Leonard Bernstein, the most famous musician ever to serve on its faculty. The 1950 edition of Red Channels, the pamphlet that purported to identify Communist Party sympathizers, members and fellow travelers, named Bernstein. That same year, the FBI succeeded in getting him temporarily blacklisted from the CBS television network.

In 1951, the FBI placed Bernstein on its Security Index, which meant that, in case of a national emergency, he could be arrested and placed in a detention camp as an “enemy sympathizer” under the Custodial Detention Program. The bureau had begun compiling a record on Bernstein in 1939 (the year he graduated from Harvard), and would eventually need more than six hundred pages to trace the extent of his political activities. This swollen dossier suggests the risks that he took (perhaps unwittingly) by signing the numerous progressive petitions that circulated in the cosmopolitan cultural circles he inhabited.

In 1953, the Department of State refused to renew his passport — though Bernstein eventually got his travel documents when he expressed remorse for his association with what the government deemed to be Communist fronts.

The FBI failed to prove that Bernstein was a Communist.

Bernstein begins at Brandeis

Bernstein began teaching at Brandeis, a non-sectarian university rooted in Jewish history and experience, in 1951. As an American Jew, he was better protected from political surveillance at Brandeis than he may have been at other universities. He did not need to soft-pedal his ethnicity or his values; he taught works by Jewish composers, both American and European.

An undergraduate reporter for the Brandeis Justice noted that when “the mood of the music” made Bernstein joyous, the class followed “the movement and [roared] with laughter.” Yet when he found himself swept by “a sea of torment and despair,” his students wept “passionate tears.”

By the summer of 1953, it was evident that Bernstein’s conducting responsibilities would not allow him to remain on the faculty. He wrote to founding president Abram L. Sachar, who had become a close friend, “it has finally dawned on me that I have been dancing at far too many weddings (please translate).”

Nevertheless, he stayed through fall 1954 and served as a Brandeis Fellow for the following two decades, as a trustee from 1976 until 1981, and as a trustee emeritus until his death in 1990.

Leonard Bernstein letter to Abram Sachar, Brandeis University, July 12, 1953. (Credit: Library of Congress Music Division. Courtesy: The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Leonard Bernstein letter to Abram Sachar, Brandeis University, July 12, 1953. (Credit: Library of Congress Music Division. Courtesy: The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

Fame, Felicia, and the FBI

International fame had long eclipsed whatever threat Bernstein faced in the years of his close association with Brandeis, and his liberalism rather faithfully mirrored the values of postwar American Jewry. He supported civil rights and racial equality, objected to violations of civil liberties, and opposed the military intervention in Vietnam.

The zeitgeist affected him deeply, whether in response to the emptiness of suburban success (as portrayed in his opera Trouble in Tahiti) or to the shadow of the bomb (as depicted in Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety).

Bernstein’s public activism came back to bite him in 1970, when he and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein, hosted a party to raise legal defense funds for a group of Black Panthers. Among the guests was author Tom Wolfe, who discredited their efforts with the phrase “radical chic” in a subsequent report in New York magazine.

Bernstein’s reputation never quite recovered from the jab, which was even repeated in his 1990 obituary in The New York Times. But Wolfe failed to mention that the FBI trolled through newspapers’ social columns to identify the Bernsteins’ guests, generating files on Americans who had no previous paper trail.

A scheme by the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) operation was also designed to neutralize the host himself. Its nastiest tactic was to try to plant gossip about the homosexuality that Bernstein was so carefully concealing.

The press was not interested.

1952: Bernstein Resurrects Blitzstein’s “The Threepenny Opera”

In 1952, Bernstein launched the Festival for the Arts, a legacy which continues at Brandeis to this day.

He chose “The Threepenny Opera” for the festival centerpiece. This stinging, left-wing masterpiece by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht flopped on Broadway in 1933 and had not been revived.

Bernstein championed a brand-new translation and adaptation by his friend Marc Blitzstein, a former Communist and composer of the pro-labor union musical “The Cradle Will Rock” (1937). (Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, even came to campus to resurrect the role that had made her famous in Berlin: the ferocious, vengeful Pirate Jenny.)

Rehearsals for the 1952 Brandeis production of "The Threepenny Opera." Lotte Lenya seated front left, Marc Blitzstein far right. (Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department, Brandeis University.)
Rehearsals for the 1952 Brandeis production of “The Threepenny Opera.” Lotte Lenya seated front left, Marc Blitzstein far right. (Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department, Brandeis University.)
Audacity amid fear?

The Brandeis performance was a success. With an audience of about 3,000 people and coverage by The New York Times, Bernstein’s revival helped fuel an off-Broadway run later in the decade. Rediscovered, “The Threepenny Opera” ran nearly nine years, topping the Broadway record then held by “Oklahoma!”

Staging this musical at a high-profile event demonstrated audacity in the era of rampant McCarthyism. The national atmosphere, Bernstein wrote to his Brandeis colleague, composer Irving Fine, encouraged “caution” and “fear.” (Of the 221 Republicans elected that year to the House of Representatives, 185 requested to be assigned to the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

This fear, Bernstein believed, needed to be punctured.

In transplanting a cabaret work from West Germany to a suburban Massachusetts campus, Bernstein asked audiences to consider a savage satire of capitalism as an economic system indistinguishable from criminality, a musical that equated free enterprise with predatory “freebooting”.

By paying tribute to the work that Weill and Brecht had created as their own nation edged toward the abyss, Bernstein, American-born, American-trained, validated the heritage that several of his faculty colleagues personified.

In a decade so timorous that even “A Lincoln Portrait” (1942) was dropped from the program of the 1953 Eisenhower inaugural because the left-leaning Aaron Copland (one of Bernstein’s most important mentors) had composed this manifestly patriotic piece, the university had positioned itself as something of a refuge from the excesses of the domestic Cold War.

About the author and content

Stephen Whitfield is the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization, Emeritus, at Brandeis University.

This essay, edited by Classical.org for clarity and context, originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Brandeis University’s State of the Arts Magazine and on Brandeis Now. Special thanks to Ingrid Schorr and Chloe Morse-Harding.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Brandeis University, WGBH, or The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org.

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