The politics of a composer

Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s best-known composers, conducts while Joseph Flummerfelt watches in Westminster’s Playhouse. Bernstein has an honorary degree from Westminster and conducted multiple performances of the Westminster Symphonic Choir with the New York Philharmonic.

By Amber Cox
The FBI was keeping a close eye on a great American composer by going through his trash, clipping newspaper articles about him and obtaining information from secret informants.

That scenario was the picture of Leonard Bernstein’s life, beginning in the 1940s, when he was accused of being part of the Communist Party.

Dr. Barry Seldes, a deep-voiced professor of political science at Rider University, took on the difficult task of delving into the political part of Bernstein’s life. The end result was a book entitled Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician.

Acclaimed as a conductor, pianist and composer of both symphonic and Broadway music (including West Side Story), Bernstein frequently appeared on television and helped educate a generation with his long-running series of Young People’s Concerts on CBS. As music director of the New York Philharmonic, he conducted the Westminster Symphonic Choir 18 times between 1956 and 1989. He received an honorary degree from Westminster in 1966.

Despite all his musical achievements, the impact of politics on Bernstein’s life was “pretty major,” according to Seldes.

“That’s one of the things I discovered early on as I started to look at what was going on in his life, which I got from not only reading the biographies, as everyone did of course, but because I was the first person to use the entire FBI files,” Seldes said. “The FBI began to collect information on Bernstein’s political life in the 1940s and of course it was kept secret, as all of those files are.”

When J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI, Bernstein was a person of considerable interest to the agency. Hoover’s operatives began tracking Bernstein’s left-wing activities in the mid ’40s, but the first serious investigation began in 1949 when President Truman’s administrative assistant asked the FBI to look into the young musician’s background.

A memo addressed to Hoover claimed that Bernstein was “connected, affiliated, or in some manner associated” with various organizations described as Communist fronts. With that memo began the long road of Bernstein’s troubling times with politics and even keeping up with his musical career.

In 1950, Bernstein was blacklisted by the State Department. He voluntarily exiled himself from the New York Philharmonic in 1951 for fear of further blacklisting and was forced to sign an affidavit to regain his passport. The details of the affidavit were not released before Seldes’ book. Bernstein was forced to swear that he had never been a Communist, and that he voted only for candidates who were either Republican or Democrat, and had attended synagogue regularly.

“It was terribly humiliating,” Seldes said.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Southern California Civil Liberties Union got a hold of the files in 1995.

“I read the story in The New York Times when it was revealed, so I very quickly wrote to the Southern California Civil Liberties Union [saying], ‘Can I get those files?’ and they said yes,” Seldes said. “It was 35 bucks to Xerox them and off went the check. About a week or so later, a box arrived and I began to look at this stuff and I was amazed to discover that Bernstein had been so very, very, very active in politics.”

Seldes made it clear that some information had been released, but it was only material from the 1970s.

“But the stuff in the 1940s and ’50s, none of that,” he said. “No one had seen that stuff — well, maybe someone saw it — but nobody had reported on it. This was an eye-opener for me.”

The FBI had blacked out names when the files were finally released to the American Civil Liberties Union. Some of the files had also been released to the Bernstein family.

“In their copy, one of the names of an informer had not been blacked out,” Seldes said. “In my copy, it was blacked out. So I thought that, that was pretty hilarious that they screwed up on that particular person’s information. Some of [the informants] may have been people very close to them.”

People were continually informing on Bernstein and operating a kind of “garbage detection,” where they went through his trash.

“Imagine someone doing that to you,” Seldes said. “Imagine how much information could be collected. But imagine also, from a different point of view, how interesting, because you can find out bits and pieces of a person’s life that you normally wouldn’t find out. In fact, not information you necessarily want to [find out]. But, in finding that out, you get a much deeper impression about the person.”

Bernstein’s diaries, journals and datebooks were all collected to try to get a deeper insight into his life.

“You begin to create a picture of a man from the more intimate details of his life,” Seldes said. “You begin to find a different person from the one who is the public figure. I found that tremendously relevant to the extent that I understood him, and I also began to understand his music.”

Seldes made it clear that he is not a musician, but that he grew up with music. At the age of 3 he was able to identify Mozart’s work. Seldes focused on the texts Bernstein set music to, instead of the music itself.

“He often wrote his own libretto, the book that the opera is based on,” he said. “I began to look at these carefully as signals, as coded ideas that would tell me about his attitudes and feelings at a particular moment. If I knew that he was under terrible political pressure at the same time he was writing a Broadway show, was the music telling something about his own feelings? Often times, yes, [it was].”

Seldes began to listen to the music for political implications and narratives that he otherwise wouldn’t have without the FBI files.

“Now with this material, I began to see a whole new unity in Bernstein’s life,” he said. “To see a person only from the point of view of his aesthetics, his culture, without seeing the forces behind it, you miss out.”

When the FBI files came out, Seldes knew he wanted to write about the political part of Bernstein’s life.

“I wanted to write a book,” he said. “I knew there was a book in me at this point, something I could really sink my teeth into and develop.”

Seldes found the conclusion of the book to be one of the hardest parts to write.

“Suddenly, you come together and have to sum up somebody’s life,” Seldes said. “How do you do that? How do you say goodbye to someone? How do you represent that man — he was 72 when he died — how do you take 72 years and try to distill from that an essence? You can’t do that with any human being, but a biographer has got to try to say, ‘Here’s what that person stood for, here’s what we’re getting from that person.’”

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