Leonard Bernstein speaks with his Russian cousins. Credit: New York Philharmonic Digital Archives

Bernstein in the USSR

The summer of 1959 was, by most American measures, an uninteresting one. The Postal Service, with the feeling of an impending postal revolution, attempted delivery of mail by rocket. The 49th star was sewn onto the American flag,acknowledgment of Alaska’s admission earlier that year. Hawaii rounded out the state count, though its star wasn’t added until 1960.

Politically, of course, most attention was being paid to the Cold War. Despite apparent de-Stalinization, Kruschev still presented a continual nuclear threat, and Americans felt threatened by the Soviet Union’s first steps in the Space Race. Nevertheless, the two nations had agreed to a modicum of cultural exchange in 1957, and in July 1959, the first high-level meeting occurred in a bizarre purportedly-prototypical American home on exhibition in Moscow.

As part of this cultural exchange, the New York Philharmonic, led by the 41-year-old Leonard Bernstein, was allowed to make stops in the Soviet Union as part of its international tour. Now, that’s a great and heartwarming story. But it is of particular interest because the NY Phil recently released all documents from the period in public digital archives, and a little digging reveals a number of really outstanding artifacts.

The Philharmonic’s board president, David Keiser, sent back frequent reports on the tour and their reception. He noted the difficulty of transporting about ten tons of baggage and instruments (which had to be sent by barge through the canals of Venice), and detailed an amusing prank the Philharmonic played on Bernstein for his birthday.

I initially found indication that Copland’s “Billy the Kid” had been turned down by Soviet officials because “it was about a murder & so is ‘immoral’” (see picture—the green handwritten text is Keiser’s), though it appears an agreement was reached by removing descriptive notes from the program. Keiser was unhappy with this, reporting to the board that “the [piece] would mean so much more with them.” The following year, Copland was one of two American composers (the other being Lukas Foss) to take a brief residency in the Soviet Union as a continuation of the cultural exchange.

Midway through the trip, Thomas Schippers flew in to the country as an assistant conductor to give Bernstein a chance to rest. Upon his arrival, he found that the airline misplaced his luggage. Keiser relayed the hunt for a replacement suit to the board back in New York:

“He had parted from his baggage, nowhere to be found… His first two concerts were in one of our player’s suits. To find one tall enough meant various pinning up jobs of sleeves and waist, but our lady guides vied for this privilege!”

The orchestra later toasted to Schippers, proclaiming that they “love him with or without his clothes!”

Despite the moderate artistic and social thaw that followed the death of Stalin in 1953, society was still conservative; despite this, at an informal gathering a group of brass players “put on some excellent jazz hastily put together that morning — Bernstein on piano, with accompaniment of drum and bass fiddle” that gave their hosts (including Kabalevsky) “some Boogie-Woogie that shall we say, really wowed them.” Ah, to have seen Bernstein and members of the NY Phil play boogie-woogie for Kabalevsky at an “old fashioned and charming club house” in the Soviet Union…!

Also worthy of mention is an interview of Bernstein conducted by the Literaturnaya Gazeta, published on 25 August 1959. I couldn’t find the name of the translator, though I’m guessing it was probably Steve Rosenfeld, the NY Phil staff translator that traveled with the orchestra.

Gazeta: “Can you make some remarks about contemporary symphonic music in the U.S.A., — about new tendencies which are noticeable in modern music?”
Bernstein: “That is a very hard question. […] If Soviet musical culture — not considering the multi-national character of your state and the richness of the musical cultures of the people of the U.S.S.R. — could be considered as a single musical school, then American music is something else. We have very many different schools, and each of them develops independently. However, the most clearly defined two schools, which are sharply distinguished from each other, are tonal music… and atonal music […] The most interesting aspect… is the well-known rapprochement of these two extreme schools. The rapprochement between them proceeds… by the mutual enrichment of the traits and characteristics of these two competing schools. I don’t believe in making predictions, but I think that as a result of this process going on, there will emerge a certain synthesis, a new direction in contemporary symphonic music.”

Unfortunately, some Soviet critics were unhappy with Bernstein the lecturer. In an article titled ‘Good — but not All Good, Mr. Bernstein,’ a writer criticized both Ives’s four-minute ‘The Unanswered Question’ and Berstein’s explanation, which preceded the performance, and then Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Winds.’ Emphasis mine.

Before the Ives, L. Bernstein violated all traditions and spoke to the public. […] The importance of Ives’ work we could readily understand by the fact that its creation preceded the compositions of ultra-left avant-garde composers—Stockhausen and Boulez—who scandalously destroyed musical culture. Bernstein finished—the music began—and then what? — We heard a primitive, modernistic piece without heart, an exchange between trumpet and woodwinds played against the stagnant and uncertain background of the strings which was meant to signify a ‘great silence.’ Only the good manners of the hospitable public resulted in cool applause. Nevertheless, the conductor, setting modesty aside, himself suggested that the piece be repeated. This had never before occurred at a serious concert. It is simply strange that L. Bernstein, a great artist, could see something important in this music. […] Bernstein several times called Stravinsky a revolutionary in art. But he never explained what this revolution was in substance. […] To be frank, we should say that Stravinsky’s Concerto belongs to the tragic period of his creativity, when the composer—in exile, separated from his nationalistic roots—took the road of open cosmopolitanism in art. It is a kind of manifesto of musical coldness, dryness and lifelessness. […] It is well known where this road brought the talented composer… the graveyard of decomposed musical composition… It’s quite natural that the public did not feel too happy in having Bernstein open the curtain on this sad period of creativity of this well-known composer. But Bernstein said to us, ‘There are two Stravinskys—and I love them both.’ It is difficult and simply impossible, Mr. Bernstein! The tendencies of destruction and creation in music are incompatible.

I hasten to note that this telling of the concert differs from other reports. Keiser indicated that all reception of the Ives was positive, or at least “interested,” and never made mention of an undeserved encore. Another account—though possibly from a different night in which the Ives was performed—indicates that the encore was demanded “at the insistence of the enraptured audience.” Certainly, this article may have been the result of the unblinking eyes of the censors and the chills of the Stalin-era modernism freeze, as well as a continued Soviet hostility towards the west. I was able to turn up the comments given by Bernstein, given in running translation to the audience by Anatole Heller:

Shostakovich (center, in glasses) and Bernstein (left) receive applause

The entire concert series was extremely well-attended, and included all of the Soviet artists elite. There was rumor that Premier Khrushchev himself might appear, but his box—reserved at all times—remained empty. On the 11 September concert, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and Boris Pasternak (author ofDoctor Zhivago, having recently made news for being forced to reject the Nobel Prize) were all present; after the show, Shostakovich and his son played duets backstage.


Nearly all the information in the above report was parsed from documents freely available on the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives, which retains all copyright privileges for the documents and pictures above.

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