Leonard Bernstein, the renowned conductor, composer and liberal political activist, came to Germany in December 1989 as the Berlin Wall was cracked open and thousands of East Germans poured through to be united with their German brothers and sisters after twenty-eight years of separation. Bernstein was 71, and in failing health. In ten months he would die of cancer. “Lenny,”as he was called by those who knew him, was a magnetic advocate for the belief that music could transform lives and in the process transform the world.
In that Christmas season trip to Berlin, Bernstein would famously conduct two performances of Bethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an international orchestra and chorus assembled from the four countries that once shared the city—the U.S., Russia, England and France. And he would change one word so that the “Ode to Joy” became the “Ode to Freedom.”
Kerry Candaele tells the story of Bernstein’s trip, along with exploring Beethoven’s other political/cultural influences in Japan, Chile (protesting Pinochet torture), China (in Tiananmen Square), along with two Billy Bragg segments, in his new film Following the Ninth. The film (you can watch the trailer) gets its world premiere Tuesday night in Santa Barbara. There’s also a new, updated edition of the book it inspired, which I co-wrote with Candale, Journeys With Beethoven.
Here’s an excerpt from our book (written by Candaele) on Bernstein.
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Bernstein’s identification with Beethoven was long lasting, and more than just musical. Bernstein’s social activism for left-wing causes began in his youth, and was consistent throughout his life. His support for organized labor and the civil rights movement, including his notorious (in mainstream media circles, at least) 1970 fundraiser for members of the Black Panthers, and his protests against the Vietnam War earned him an FBI tail and a place on the U.S. State Department blacklist for a time. Leonard Bernstein was at one point put on a list of people to be moved to an internment camp in case of a national political crises.
Tom Wolfe labeled Lenny’s political commitments “radical chic,”but Bernstein didn’t play at politics, as his New Deal idealism existed both before and after his rise to celebrity. In the final decade of his life, he campaigned for nuclear disarmament, for AIDS research funding, for the abolition of world poverty, and for the utopian impulse articulated in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that one day “All Men Will Be Brothers” (Alle Menschen werden Bruder).
Bernstein had described his feelings about the Ninth years earlier in one of his television broadcasts that were a hit on American television during the 1950s (he also devoted an entire program to dissecting the Fifth Symphony). Bernstein associated the words of love, peace, brotherhood, joy to the year of his birth, 1918, when an armistice brought the World War I to an end. He added the folk song phrase “ain’t gonna study war no more” to the key words that he associated with Beethoven’s Ninth. “We are all children of one father,”he added, “let us embrace one another, the millions of us.”