Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter April 3, 2014

“The Best Diplomats Are Often the Great Musicians”: Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Play Berlin

Jonathan Rosenberg
From the journal New Global Studies


In September 1960, Leonard Bernstein brought the New York Philharmonic to Berlin to play two concerts at the Berlin Festival, where they would also tape a program to be aired shortly thereafter on American television. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, the trip, which occurred at the height of the Cold War, was of considerable political significance. Berlin was one of the most contested places on earth, and the western section of the city, a democratic island in a communist sea, had been a focal point of Cold War tensions since the late 1940s. Thus, the orchestra’s journey to Berlin must be seen as part of the fabric of Cold-War history.

The article looks closely at the Philharmonic’s performance before an audience of German students, in which the orchestra taped Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Bernstein as conductor and soloist, a lecture-concert that would be shown a few weeks later on U.S. television. This event provided a brilliant showcase for Bernstein’s many talents, allowing him to play, conduct, teach, and even to speak about politics and God. Among the matters Bernstein discussed with the young German audience was the idea that musicians of particular nationalities were uniquely suited to play music from the land of their birth – an idea Bernstein rejected, calling it outmoded. The American maestro also explored what he described as the universal character of German music, which he claimed was impossible to quarantine. According to Bernstein, German music transcended ethnic and national categories, though he argued that the idea of musical development lent German music its unique quality. Next, Bernstein the educator became Bernstein the political activist. He explained why his musicians had crossed the ocean to perform the music of Beethoven before a German audience in Berlin, noting, “We have come to take one more step through this kind of cultural exchange along the paths of international understanding that lead to peace.” As will be seen, the Philharmonic’s journey points to the intersection between art and politics during a perilous era.


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  1. 1

    On Bernstein’s trips, see the following: Rosenberg (2010; forthcoming 2014).

  2. 2

    Bernstein quoted in New York Times (1989). See also Los Angeles Times (1989).

  3. 3

    This appealing locution is from a statement made to me by Giles Scott-Smith.

  4. 4

    On Berlin’s significance in the context of the Cold War, see Kelleher (1997); Gaddis (2005, 33–4, 112–15, 137–38, 245–46; 1997, 47–8, 115, 138–51).

  5. 5

    Charles F. Moore to George Judd, May 26, 1960, Box 023–01, folder 41, New York Philharmonic Archives, Lincoln Center, New York City (hereafter NYPA).

  6. 6

    “Ford Motor Company to Send New York Philharmonic to Berlin for Two Concerts, September 22–23,” June 27, 1960, Box 023-03, folder 73, NYPA.

  7. 7

    Ibid. Washburn’s words were originally expressed in a May 27, 1960 letter to George Judd, managing director of the New York Philharmonic. Washburn to Judd, Box 023–01, folder 41, NYPA. On Berlin’s centrality in the Cold War, especially with respect to the cultural competition between Washington and Moscow, see New York Times (1960a).

  8. 8

    Abbott Washburn to George Judd, June 16, 1960, Box 023-01, folder 41, NYPA.

  9. 9

    George N. Butler to George Judd, July 29, 1960, Box 023-03, folder 73, NYPA. On the importance of coordinating the publicity for the tour by both the Philharmonic and the German government, see the following letters sent by Charles F. Moore, vice president in charge of public relations and advertising: Moore to George Judd, May 26, 1960, Box 023-01, folder 41, NYPA; and Moore to Gerhart von Westerman, who represented the Berlin Festival, June 1, 1960, Box 023-03, folder 73, Ibid. In the first letter, Moore raises the possibility of getting Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Berlin Mayor Willi Brandt to say some “kind words” about the Philharmonic’s upcoming appearances.

  10. 10

    On this subject, see Rosenberg (2010; forthcoming 2014).

  11. 11

    U.S. Congress, House, Congressman Frank Thompson of New Jersey Extension of Remarks on the Boston Symphony Orchestra Aid the President in Lifting the Iron Curtain, Congressional Record – Appendix (July 26, 1955): A5492-93. For another example of American concern regarding the world’s perceptions of the United States, see Dwight Eisenhower’s letter to his brother, in which he said that foreign people knew America for its automobiles, rather than for “worthwhile cultural works of any kind.” Dwight Eisenhower to Edgar N. Eisenhower, November 22, 1955, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Diary Series, Box 11, Eisenhower Diary-November 1955, Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas. I encountered this source in Osgood (2006), and I requested and received the original document from the Eisenhower Library. On the importance of American cultural exports in the Cold War, see a 1954 statement from several U.S. senators describing the nature of the east–west conflict and the role such exports could play in helping America achieve victory. U.S. Congress, House Report of a Special Subcommittee to the Committee on Education and Labor, Federal Grants for Fine Arts Programs and Projects, 83rd Congress, 2nd sess., 1954, 7.

  12. 12

    New York Times (1960b). For a sense of the audience response to Bernstein and the Philharmonic as perceived by American observers, see also: Musical Courier (1960a, 27; 1960b, 31). Note, too, an AP wire release (Berlin, September 22, 1960) describing the enthusiasm of the Berlin audience after the first Philharmonic concert. Clipping file from the 1960 Bernstein trip to Berlin, NYPA.

  13. 13

    Ford enlisted the services of the New York advertising and marketing firm Kenyon and Eckhardt, which put together a national campaign designed to generate interest in the documentary, which was shown on Thanksgiving Day in 1960. For the fruits of that campaign, see the file headed “Publicity – Promotion Report for Ford Motor Company: The Thanksgiving Day Concert by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Acc. 1484, Box 3, Thanksgiving TV Concert, December 1960, Corporate Advertising and Sales Promotion Records, Office of Public Relations, Ford Motor Company Records Subgroup, Ford Motor Company Public Relations Records Collection, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan (hereafter “BFRC ad file” for Benson Ford Research Center).

  14. 14

    The Thanksgiving documentary from Berlin, sponsored by Ford and produced by Robert Saudek Productions, can be viewed in the New York Philharmonic Archives, Lincoln Center, New York. This description of the opening text and images reflects my rendering of the film’s opening section.

  15. 15

    On this phenomenon, see Wharton (2001).

  16. 16

    From the unrevised script for the Berlin performance, September 20, 1960, Box 78, folder 23, Leonard Bernstein Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. I have watched the broadcast performance and made all necessary corrections to what is in the unrevised script. That is, everything quoted here reflects what Bernstein said to Berliners that day and what Americans heard on Thanksgiving Day. (Hereafter, I will cite quotations from the documentary as “LB script.”)

  17. 17

    LB script, 2–3.

  18. 18

    LB script, 3.

  19. 19

    LB script, 5.

  20. 20

    LB script, 6. The original unrevised script had used a quite different example to make the same point. That example focused on why New York City has one-way streets, an approach Bernstein and his advisers determined would be difficult for Berliners to comprehend. The New York City example, which concluded with references to capitalism and the American standard of living, was eliminated and replaced by the more powerful local example that Bernstein used on the broadcast. For the deliberations among Bernstein and his advisers, see Bernstein (1961). The evocative piece was written by the conductor’s brother, a journalist, who accompanied him on the trip.

  21. 21

    LB script, 11.

  22. 22

    LB script, 11–12. Bernstein’s decision to recite the Hebrew prayer was not received favorably by the documentary’s producers, who thought it would be out of place on American television on Thanksgiving Day, which they identified as a Protestant holiday. Bernstein refused to be dissuaded, claiming the holiday had universal significance. Moreover, he said, it would not do the Berliners “any harm to hear a little Hebrew once in a while.” More than that, he said, it was “the Hebrew in Berlin on Rosh Hashana that will really make this show for me.” Quoted in Bernstein (1961, 96).

  23. 23

    “Bernstein Brings TV Hour of Good Music,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. BFRC ad file. Another Ohio columnist, writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer, spoke of the conductor’s “eloquence and virtuosity,” while highlighting his larger message concerning international comity. According to Luke Feck, Bernstein’s dedicating the performance “to the spirit of brotherhood with emphasis on the fact that the day was Rosh Hashana... was not lost on the assemblage of young Germans.” “No Place,” Cincinnati Inquirer, BFRC ad file.

  24. 24

    For a rich record of those many reviews, see the BFRC ad file.

  25. 25

    “A National Asset,” New York Herald Tribune, undated, BFRC ad file.

  26. 26

    Describing its efforts, the agency noted that material had been mailed to more than six hundred newspapers, and stated that “exclusive stories were sent to many editors and ‘highlight listing’ services” for television promotion. AP and UPI also received exclusive stories. The nationwide publicity also included “pictures, features, program stories, column items, shorts, best bet listings, syndicate columns, syndicate mentions.” Undated Kenyon and Eckhardt item in BFRC ad file.

  27. 27

    Letter from Wauhillau La Hay (of Kenyon and Eckhardt Inc.) to Editors, November 7, 1960, BFRC ad file.

  28. 28

    The publicity drawings, along with many newspaper photos of Bernstein leading the orchestra, are contained in the BFRC ad file.

  29. 29

    The ad was slated to appear in newspapers in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., on November 23–24. See the BFRC ad file.

  30. 30

    Letter from Wauhillau La Hay to “Dear Friends,” November 7, 1960, BFRC ad file. The quotation is from the accompanying program story, “Bernstein and Philharmonic: Tape Telecast in Berlin.”

  31. 31

    Unlike classical music, jazz or rock music might have a politically meaningful impact on foreign listeners. For a suggestive account, see Wagnleitner (1994, chap. 7).

  32. 32

    On music and emotion, see Ball (2010, 254–321).

Published Online: 2014-4-3
Published in Print: 2014-3-1

©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston