Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. Flickr Commons: Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.
Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. Flickr Commons: Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.


Leonard Bernstein. His name needs little introduction to anyone familiar with twentieth century music, whether in the classical or musical theatre mould. He was perhaps the defining musician of the ‘Age of Extremes’ – that short twentieth century that coincided with his life almost entirely (to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s conceptualisation). Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918, Bernstein died of a heart attack in October 1990, just a few months after his 72nd birthday. Such outline facts as it is possible to give about Bernstein’s musical career barely encapsulate his achievements and his social commitments. Coming of age amidst the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he spent his entire life actively pursuing social and political change. The culmination of these twin commitments came in December 1989, a matter of weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall had signalled the end of the Cold War, when Bernstein conducted two performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Berlin. On both occasions the famous song in the final movement – the Ode to Joy – was transposed to read ‘Ode to Freedom’. It was a remarkable moment of reconciliation, which capped a journey that Bernstein’s music had taken in East Germany over a thirty year period. That journey is the subject of today’s blog.

Bernstein first came to the attention of the East German press in the early 1950s at the height of McCarthyism when his work was denounced as subversive by Senator McCarthy whom the Berliner Zeitung called an ‘infamous witch hunter and enemy of culture’. But it was to be in the mid-1960s that the name Leonard Bernstein came to mean something more than a fellow-traveller from the United States. Radio DDR II, the East German equivalent of BBC Radio 3, began broadcasting Bernstein’s concerts featuring the New York Philharmonic on a regular basis, beginning with the Young People’s Concerts and extending as his own touring schedule did. In September 1965, for instance, the station produced a ‘musical portrait’ of the conductor, and in 1968 sister station Radio DDR I broadcast a special programme to mark his 50th birthday. No other western classical musician featured so heavily in the DDR’s broadcast schedules.

By the early 1970s, Bernstein’s presence in East German society was such that the famous Kosmos cinema on Karl Marx Allee ran the 1961 film of West Side Story for several weeks. The film later moved through the Berlin suburbs, to the Forum in Köpenick and the Sternwarte-Kino (observatory) in nearby Treptow, both in the south-eastern corner of Berlin, and then on to the Colosseum in the Bohemian Prenzlauer Berg district, and to the International Kino in the centre of East Berlin. In fact, West Side Story could be viewed by an intrepid enthusiast every day from the beginning of June 1973 to the end of January 1974; it was revived again at the end of September 1974 before finally ending a substantial run in December of that year.

Ten years later, in 1984, the first theatrical production of Bernstein’s broadway hit came to East Germany: to the Opera House in Leipzig. Neues Deutchland described the forthcoming premier as an ‘outstanding contribution’ to the country’s cultural life. It was Neue Zeit agreed, ‘long overdue’ and a symbol of hope for reconciliation in an unsettled world. At the end of the opening night, the theatre critic Georg Antosch reflected that the experience was ‘a moving evening of theatre in the best sense’. His colleague at Neues Deutschland agreed but wondered whether the production team could have imagined New York a little better! Perhaps not surprisingly, West Side Story found its place on East German television in the run-up to Christmas, 1984. The success of a production grounded in ideas of reconciliation and peace across seemingly insurmountable boundaries must have struck home to audiences. It is apt that Leipzig became, in the words of one journalist, the ‘cradle of East Germany’s freedom movement’.

And so, five years later when Bernstein arrived in East Berlin on Christmas Day to conduct Beethoven’s 9th, he finished the story of reconciliation begun with his own music. The concert was broadcast simultaneously on East German radio and television for those unable to get a seat at the venue. Such was the sign of the radical changes being experienced in East Germany at the time, that even the columns of the otherwise loyal Neues Deutschland could reflect on the power of Beethoven’s message for brotherhood and peace as both ‘challenging and encouraging’. After all the crimes committed, the paper said, under the ‘banner of socialism’, the music – so well-known after all – seemed completely new. That was before they heard Bernstein’s subtle change in the message. Once they had heard it, they declared that it was a ‘festival of freedom’, a concert of superlatives that would ‘long be remembered’. In that most typical of journalistic echoes the Berliner Zeitung declared it a ‘joyous festival of human freedom’.

As for Bernstein himself, he said on that dramatic Christmas Day, 1989, that ‘I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life’. The Guardian’s Hugh Hebert captured the essence if not the point when he wrote that ‘there was Leonard Bernstein on the rostrum in East Berlin, shaking his white mane, conducting an orchestra of the nations’. The Sunday Times was somewhat friendlier, reflecting in a more sardonic manner on the rush of capitalist exigency to make a fast dollar or deutschmark out of the event. ‘I doubt whether the emotional charge of this performance came over on television’, reflect Hugh Canning, ‘but it may well survive on Deutsche Grammophon’s live recording of the concert’. He continued: ‘this kind of commercialism carries a warning for the people of East Berlin who went to the concert in the belief that it was a predominantly humanitarian gesture’. Whatever the realities of the situation – and the twenty five years of inequality that have continued in East Berlin – the moment itself was remarkable; the concert similarly. As the American journalist Paul Moor noted in The Times:

If the bass soloist’s first declamation of the word Freiheit, sung at this particular moment in European history, could reduce a hardened foreign journalist to a mass of tingling goose-flesh, one can scarcely imagine the concert’s impact on the millions of listeners more personally involved.

Hope, after all, relies on a belief that the world can become a better place.

Here in Britain, Mass Observation took the opportunity of the changing times to issue a directive to participants calling on them to provide a retrospective of the previous ten years. Many of them are now available on the Observing the 80s project website – which I’ve discussed before on the blog. They speak of hope and a different future. One wrote simply that ‘the 1980s have shown very markedly that nothing stays the same for ever’.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (a matter of weeks away on the 9 November). It simultaneously marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first performance of Bernstein’s masterpiece in East Germany and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at a moment of optimism and opportunity. Nothing really does stay the same for ever, but I wonder whether the possibilities presented to the world a quarter of a century ago  were ignored in favour of the triumphalism that accompanied the ‘fall of the wall’ and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Historians have already begun to work on that question; Timothy Garton Ash even sought the answers in the midst of the changes. But that’s a matter for another day. For now, listen out for that word Freiheit and imagine what might have been.