Through his music-making, Leonard Bernstein found innumerable ways to speak out against the injustices of the world. Over the decades, his music — as well as his own voice — advocated courageously for causes from civil rights to anti-fascism to AIDS awareness. His role as a citizen-artist provides an inspiring model for the politically engaged artists of today.
Bernstein’s humanitarian efforts began early in his career. In 1948, Bernstein led an orchestra of 17 Jewish survivors in a concert at Landsberg and Feldafing Displaced Persons camps. Later that year, he conducted for soldiers in the Negev desert as the state of Israel was being forged.
In the 1950’s, the State Department sent Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic far and wide as good-will ambassadors, from Latin America to the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Bernstein went out of his way to invite to his concert the writer Boris Pasternak, who was out of favor with the Soviet government.
In the 1960’s, Bernstein was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and an outspoken anti-war activist in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, his efforts focused on protesting the nuclear arms race, as well as advocating for research and resources for the AIDS crisis. Such organizations as Music for Life, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and amFAR continue to do the work that Bernstein’s early efforts helped to make possible.
In 1989, Bernstein refused to accept a National Medal of the Arts in protest of the first Bush Administration’s policies toward the National Endowment for the Arts. Later that year, Bernstein conducted a historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Christmas Day broadcast was watched by millions worldwide. For the occasion, Bernstein changed Schiller’s wording from “Ode to Joy” to “Ode to Freedom.”
To honor his late wife Felicia, who devoted much of her life to social justice issues, Bernstein started the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund at Amnesty International. This fund provides resources and organizing support for Amnesty workers worldwide.
Bernstein frequently expressed his political views through his music. An enthusiastic supporter of President John F. Kennedy, he composed and conducted a special fanfare for Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Bernstein dedicated his Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, to the slain president. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis subsequently commissioned Bernstein to compose his theater piece Mass, to inaugurate The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. in 1971. The work had a pointed anti-war sensibility, which so alarmed the Nixon Administration that the President was persuaded to skip the Kennedy Center inaugural.