“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein’s role as a larger-than–life figure is well-documented, especially in this year of celebration for the one hundred-year anniversary of his birth. Questions remain as to what one can learn from his music, political activism, legacy, and writing. What are the key points that should be carried into the future? What essential and profound truths can be learned from a study of his philosophical writings? And what about the music—will it continue to have a relevant message? Indeed, what exactly is it that Bernstein did, that contemporary musicians need to know about? This interview with Bernstein’s oldest son, Alexander, shows how his father’s seminal ideas remain worthy of study and emulation and are indeed vital today. The interview was part of a presentation given by Alexander Bernstein at the Music, Business, and Peace Summit on May 12th, 2017.
Leonard Bernstein was as practical as he was idealistic and sought to increase diversity and inclusivity within the classical music realm by supporting underserved minorities in conducting positions, within orchestras, and as soloists. He also worked in public non-musical roles to increase awareness for a variety of Civil Rights issues. He established an educational paradigm that incorporates the arts into all academic areas with the goal of creating a positive and expansive learning tool for underserved populations. Today, Leonard Bernstein’s children actively work towards social change through music in numerous ways. They carry on their father’s legacy through the “Artful Learning” educational program; and through their involvement in El Sistema, which is a program of music-training for underserved children that originated in Venezuela.
Through a perusal of Bernstein’s letters, essays, personal life, political activities, and music, Alexander Bernstein talks about his father’s legacy. He highlights Bernstein’s lifelong effort to tackle difficult social problems through both artistic and personal means while challenging individuals to make their art relevant and meaningful on the large scale. The interview includes important quotes that show the insight of Leonard Bernstein’s worldview and understanding of the essential nature of the arts in society.
Alexander Bernstein’s unique position gives us a window into his father’s mind and his ideas of rationality, art and world impact, saying: “My father deeply believed that art and reason, art and rationality, were inextricably connected.” [Music, Business, Peace Summit, May 2017]. His father’s persistent optimism comes out in quote after quote. Sometimes, Bernstein’s legacy has been underestimated and cast aside as a relic of past generations. It is time to reconsider the challenges presented by this iconic figure. In the words of another Bernstein child (Jamie):
Leonard Bernstein grew up in a world of stark political contrasts—a world full of evil and damage, tempered by powerful forces of good. 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. https://leonardbernstein.com/about/humanitarian