Lenny & Vi­enna

Leonard Bern­stein’s nephew ex­plores the icon’s love for the city of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler and how it helped him over­come Aus­tria’s Nazi past


Mounted out­side Vi­enna’s Konz­erthaus en­trance is a bronze plaque dis­play­ing the pro­file of Gus­tav Mahler. Its in­scrip­tion marks the date – June 3, 1945 – when “the art of this great mu­si­cian” – banned as “de­gen­er­ate” dur­ing the Nazi regime – “was again made part of Aus­trian cul­tural life.” On the other side of the doors, an­other bas-re­lief plaque de­picts an au­to­graph on a mu­si­cal score. The caption: “In this con­cert hall on May 28, 1948, the great di­rec­tor, com­poser and pi­anist made his Vi­enna de­but.” In the el­e­gant yet semi-leg­i­ble sig­na­ture, the hon­oree is Leonard Bern­stein – ar­guably the most ac­com­plished Amer­i­can-born mu­sic celebrity of the 20th cen­tury.

Of all the renowned com­posers, in­ter­preters and mu­si­cians who have left their mark on Vi­enna over the cen­turies, it might seem an odd choice to honor ex­clu­sively these two Jewish maestri – the for­mer a na­tive son who was shunned by Lueger era anti-semitic Vi­en­nese so­ci­ety; the lat­ter an ex­u­ber­ant New Yorker who through his Broad­way mu­si­cals and tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances be­came a world­wide celebrity.

Still, the con­nec­tion be­tween Bern­stein, Mahler and mu­si­cal Vi­enna is wor­thy of a mon­u­ment. None of these three can be de­fined today with­out men­tion­ing the oth­ers. More than any other con­duc­tor, Bern­stein is cred­ited with reviving Mahler’s opus, through per­for­mances, broad­casts, record­ings and films made with the Wiener Phil­har­moniker (Vi­enna Phil­har­monic Orches­tra – VPO), who, as a re­sult, atoned for their ear­lier wrongs against Mahler dur­ing his life­time, if never quite shed­ding the his­tory of their Nazi era shame. Through his Vi­enna record­ings (and films of re­hearsals), Bern­stein’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions con­tinue to in­spire today’s clas­si­cal mu­si­cians.


Bern­stein’s 1948 de­but in Vi­enna, how­ever, was with Vi­enna’s other orches­tra, the Wiener Sym­phoniker (VSO) – per­haps his protest against the Phil­har­monic’s ex­pul­sion of its Jewish mem­bers dur­ing the Third Re­ich. Only a few years af­ter his leg­endary Carnegie Hall de­but with the New York Phil­har­monic (when, on short no­tice, he stood in for the ail­ing Aus­trian con­duc­tor Bruno Wal­ter), Bern­stein bravely – or per­haps naively – risked his ris­ing fame by step­ping into the po­lit­i­cal in­trigues of post­war Vi­enna. On the heels of his tri­umphant Bartók per­for­mance in Bu­dapest, Bern­stein was asked by the VSO to swap his own Jeremiah sym­phony on the planned pro­gram with a Bartók vi­o­lin con­certo. Ap­par­ently, they wanted to one-up the Phil­har­moniker, whose Bartók con­cert the pre­vi­ous week un­der Her­bert von Kara­jan had been roundly booed.

Bern­stein re­sented be­ing used as a pawn in a mu­si­cal chess game. Writ­ing home to his sec­re­tary, he said that Vi­enna was “a chau­vin­is­tic, pro­vin­cial, na­tion­al­is­tic town, con­vinced that only Vi­en­nese can do any­thing, and that all Amer­i­cans are fools ... [I]t took me three re­hearsals to over­come the nat­u­ral hos­til­ity of the orches­tra. But we made it! Love and mu­sic con­quered all; and the con­cert turned out a great triumph.” Nev­er­the­less, the de­ceit and hos­til­ity he en­coun­tered in Vi­enna and in Ger­many on that tour only fed into his own prej­u­dice against these “Nazi” coun­tries. It would be nearly two decades be­fore he would re­turn.


Cer­tainly, the Nazi his­to­ries of cer­tain mem­bers of the Phil­har­monic did lit­tle to as­suage Bern­stein’s doubts. On the ad­vice of fel­low Jewish con­duc­tor Ge­org Solti, Bern­stein swal­lowed his pride and ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to con­duct in 1966, de­spite the con­tin­u­ing pres­ence of trum­peter Hel­mut Wo­bisch, the orches­tra’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor from 1953 to 1967. Wo­bisch had been an SS of­fi­cer and Gestapo spy whose VPO post was re­in­stated af­ter he had been ex­pelled in 1945. Over the years, Bern­stein and Wo­bisch would strike up a cau­tious yet

“What they call the ‘Bern­stein wave’ that has swept Vi­enna has pro­duced some strange results; all of a sud­den it’s fash­ion­able to be Jewish.”

LEONARD BERN­STEIN, in a let­ter to his par­ents

mu­tu­ally sup­port­ive re­la­tion­ship. Bern­stein halfjok­ingly re­ferred to Wo­bisch as “my dear­est Nazi.”

Be­tween his de­but as a guest con­duc­tor and his death in 1990, Bern­stein gave VPO con­certs ev­ery year at the Konz­erthaus or the Musikverein. Deutsche Gram­mophon is­sued record­ings of their per­for­mances of ev­ery Beethoven, Brahms and Schu­mann sym­phony, as well as most of Mahler and dozens of other works by Mozart, Haydn, Ravel, Si­belius and Bern­stein’s own work. He toured with the orches­tra around Europe and North Amer­ica, and led them at the Salzburg Fes­ti­val five times. In 1982, the Phil­har­monic awarded Bern­stein with its Ehren­ring, a ring of honor sym­bol­iz­ing their “mar­riage.” Had Bern­stein known that in 1966 Wo­bisch had se­cretly given an er­satz Ehren­ring to Bal­dur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth and Vi­enna’s Re­ich gover­nor, upon his re­lease from Span­dau Prison, their re­la­tions might have been less col­le­gial.


1966 also marked his con­duct­ing de­but at the Vi­enna State Opera, where he and Ital­ian film di­rec­tor Luchino Vis­conti staged Verdi’s Fal­staff. In a let­ter to his wife Feli­cia, Bern­stein wrote fondly about his com­ing-out in Vi­enna. “I’ve just come from a place in Nuss­berg ... where some mem­bers of the orches­tra took me to play ‘Schram­mel­musik’ for me – old, au­then­tic, ‘kitsch’ Vi­en­nese tunes ar­ranged for four in­stru­ments – the orig­i­nal Rosenkava­lier stage mu­sic. Fan­tas­tic. Lots of glo­ri­ous wine, plat­ters of hot roast chicken, hams, Gott weiss was. Very touch­ing, from orches­tra men: toasts, good feel­ing. As I say, a very strange mo­ment for me.”

A few weeks later, he wrote to his par­ents: “I am en­joy­ing Vi­enna enor­mously – as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad mem­o­ries here; one deals with so many ex-nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the pub­lic that is scream­ing bravo for you might con­tain some­one who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s bet­ter to for­give, and if pos­si­ble, for­get. The city is so beau­ti­ful, and so full of tra­di­tion. Ev­ery­one here lives for mu­sic, es­pe­cially opera, and I seem to be the new hero. What they call the ‘Bern­stein wave’ that has swept Vi­enna has pro­duced some strange results; all of a sud­den it’s fash­ion­able to be Jewish.”

Two years later, he bravely re­turned to con­duct a new and far-from-tra­di­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Strauss’ Der Rosenkava­lier. “Ev­ery taxi driver in Vi­enna knows the score bet­ter than I do,” he claimed, with only a bit of false mod­esty. The New York Times called it “an act as dar­ing as any since Daniel put his head in the lion’s den.” The per­for­mances, staged by the renowned Vi­en­nese di­rec­tor Otto Schenk, were ac­claimed as “elec­tri­fy­ing” (there were nearly 50 cur­tain calls at the premiere) and Bern­stein was praised for rous­ing the Staat­soper from its Kara­jan era dol­drums, much as Mahler had done in his day.

Ear­lier that year, the Ger­man-lan­guage pro­duc­tion of Bern­stein’s sig­na­ture work, the mu­si­cal West Side Story, pre­miered at Vi­enna’s Volk­soper. Aus­tri­ans were al­ready fa­mil­iar with the film ver­sion based on the Broad­way orig­i­nal re­leased years be­fore. The pro­duc­tion was a hit and would go into Volk­soper reper­tory. With his suc­cesses at both opera houses and on the con­cert hall podi­ums, Bern­stein be­came the talk of the town – the news­pa­per Die Presse wrote that he was now “an idol in Vi­enna for all time.” Newsweek magazine re­ported that a “‘Salute to Leonard Bern­stein’ drew 6,500 saluters to the lo­cal sports arena.” Hav­ing an­nounced his im­mi­nent re­tire­ment as prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic, Bern­stein was ac­tively courted to take over the reins of the Staat­soper.


Over the next two decades, the mu­tual love fest be­tween Bern­stein and Vi­enna only grew stronger. Noth­ing stood be­tween him and his mu­sic mak­ing with the VPO, not even an earth­quake that rocked Vi­enna on April 16, 1972 dur­ing a Sun­day morn­ing per­for­mance of Mahler’s Fifth at the Musikverein. Bern­stein was re­port­edly so ab­sorbed in the mu­sic that he didn’t stop con­duct­ing, even as the au­di­ence headed for the ex­its.

With en­thu­si­asm bor­der­ing on re­li­gious fa­nati­cism, those who bore wit­ness to the Bern­stein era in Vi­enna gush even today over his ge­nius, his in­ter­per­sonal rap­port and Men­schlichkeit. In his re­cently re­leased bi­og­ra­phy Leonard Bern­stein: Magier der Musik, Vi­en­nese author Michael Horowitz gath­ered sev­eral in­ti­mate rec­ol­lec­tions from Bern­stein’s lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors, such as the diva Christa Lud­wig and di­rec­tor Otto Schenk.

Craig Urquhart was Bern­stein’s per­sonal as­sis­tant dur­ing the last half of the 1980s, in the fi­nal years of the con­duc­tor’s ca­reer. He ex­pe­ri­enced “the rev­er­ence of the pub­lic to­wards the Mae­stro, but most im­por­tant of all was the ‘mu­sic mak­ing’ with his beloved Vi­enna Phil­har­monic. Ac­tu­ally, ‘Mu­sic Magic!’ is what it was – a true, lov­ing con­nec­tion of mu­si­cians cre­at­ing beauty to­gether.”

Michael Bar­rett, Bern­stein’s as­sis­tant con­duc­tor

and pro­tégé dur­ing those same years, re­calls his men­tor’s great re­spect for the Musikverein, the The­ater an der Wien and all the places where “his fore­bears from Beethoven to Mahler had made mu­sic.” He also rem­i­nisces about the many “echt Wiener­ische things we shared: Or­der­ing Tafel­spitz with plenty of fresh Kren (horse radish) on the side. Sacher­torte. Shop­ping at Lo­den Plankl, strolling through town amidst the cary­atid­festooned K. und K. build­ings. Vis­it­ing Heuri­gen (wine tav­erns).” Bern­stein had clearly gone na­tive.


Aside from the Konz­erthaus plaque, Vi­enna hasn’t done very much to of­fi­cially memo­ri­al­ize its “idol for all time.” While Mahler’s name graces the street ad­ja­cent to the opera house that de­fined his rep­u­ta­tion (for bet­ter or for worse), don’t look for Leonard-bern­stein-strasse within the Ringstrasse – in fact, it’s an exit ramp tun­nel off the A22 in Kais­er­mühlen. Of the 70 com­mem­o­ra­tive “stars” orig­i­nally em­bed­ded in con­crete along the “Musik Meile Wien” walk of fame in 2001, Bern­stein’s – near The­ater an der Wien – is cur­rently one of the few re­main­ing and is un­likely to sur­vive the next street re­pair. A glass vit­rine at the Haus der Musik ex­hibits Bern­stein’s Frack (white-tie tails), which many doubt is au­then­tic, due to its diminu­tive size. But yes, he re­ally was that short – he just ap­peared larger than life on the podium.

“Lenny” – as Bern­stein was known by in­ti­mates and strangers alike – will turn 100 this com­ing year and his rich life and ca­reer are al­ready be­ing cel­e­brated around the world. Vi­enna is cer­tainly no ex­cep­tion – with a re­spectable num­ber of events, ex­hi­bi­tions and con­certs sched­uled for the months to come.

While Bern­stein’s last­ing legacy as a com­poser and con­duc­tor are all but as­sured, it is not so cer­tain that his Vi­en­nese legacy will out­live such mod­est memo­ri­als. The gen­er­a­tion who wit­nessed his magic first hand is grad­u­ally dis­ap­pear­ing. His record­ings with the Phil­har­monic are still pop­u­lar, yet sooner or later these will be re­placed by newer per­for­mances by con­tem­po­rary con­duc­tors, recorded with state-of-the-art tech­niques.

Un­like Mahler, Bern­stein was a Wahlwiener – a Vi­en­nese by choice, you might say – not one of the city’s na­tive sons. But then again, so was Beethoven.

Ot­takring is an epi­cen­ter of the for­mer Yu­gosla­vian com­mu­nity, with many Balkan restau­rants and night­clubs on and around Ot­takringer Strasse and Brun­nen­markt.

Ot­takring is an epi­cen­ter of the for­mer Yu­gosla­vian com­mu­nity, with many Balkan restau­rants and night­clubs on and around Ot­takringer Strasse and Brun­nen­markt. Leonard Bern­stein would even­tu­ally em­brace Vi­enna, a feel­ing that was re­turned. Here he...

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