Leonard Bernstein ( August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author, and humanitarian. Considered to be one of the most important conductors of his time, he was the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history”. Bernstein was the recipient of many honors, including seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, sixteen Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kennedy Center Honor.
As a composer he wrote in many genres, including symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and works for the piano. His best-known work is the Broadway musical West Side Story, which continues to be regularly performed worldwide, and has been adapted into two (1961 and 2021) feature films. His works include three symphonies, Chichester Psalms, Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”, the original score for the film On the Waterfront, and theater works including On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and his MASS.
Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. He was music director of the New York Philharmonic and conducted the world’s major orchestras, generating a significant legacy of audio and video recordings. He was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, in whose music he was most passionately interested. A skilled pianist, he often conducted piano concertos from the keyboard. He was the first conductor to share and explore music on television with a mass audience. Through dozens of national and international broadcasts, including the Emmy Award–winning Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he made even the most rigorous elements of classical music an adventure in which everyone could join. Through his educational efforts, including several books and the creation of two major international music festivals, he influenced several generations of young musicians.
A lifelong humanitarian, Bernstein worked in support of civil rights; protested against the Vietnam War; advocated nuclear disarmament; raised money for HIV/AIDS research and awareness; and engaged in multiple international initiatives for human rights and world peace. Near the end of his life, he conducted an historic performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was televised live, worldwide, on Christmas Day, 1989 (wikipedia)
The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, on 9 November 1989, changed the world. Leonard Bernstein’s legendary live recording of Beethoven’s Ode To Freedom (Symphony No. 9) captured not only the elation of the moment but conveyed a celebration of and a longing for freedom which extended far beyond the occasion. To mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a special 180g vinyl release, presenting Bernstein’s historic recording of Ode To Freedom on two LPs instead of one for improved fidelity, and a CD accompanied with a DVD of the live concert have been released for the first time.
On Christmas Day December 1989 Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony featuring an international cast in the Konzerthaus at Gendarmenmark, Berlin, following the historical fall of the Berlin Wall. Significantly the words from Schiller’s Ode An Die Freude (Ode To Joy) were changed: the word “Freude” (Joy) became “Freiheit” (Freedom) – an intention that was said to have been in mind of Schiller and Beethoven already.
Four soloists, three choirs and members of six top orchestras, representing the two German States and the four Occupying Power States of post-war Berlin, participated: musicians from orchestras of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, from Dresden, Leningrad (St Petersburg), London, New York and Paris. Three choirs supported Bernstein at his great Berlin Ode To Freedom concert: the Bavarian Radio Chorus; members of the Radio Chorus of what had been East Berlin; and the Children’s Choir of the Dresden Philharmonie. The solo quartet featured June Anderson, soprano; Sarah Walker, mezzo-soprano; Klaus König, tenor; and Jan-Hendrik Rootering, bass. When the musicians gathered in Berlin for the concert residents were chiselling away at the hated Berlin Wall. Leonard Bernstein also carved a chunk of the wall and sent it to his family in New York.
Bernstein’s biographer (and producer) Humphrey Burton noted the festive Berlin performances were to mark the absolute climax in the public life of the world citizen Leonard Bernstein. He was truly more than a conductor: he shook people awake from the rostrum, surrendering to Beethoven’s music and yet rendering it with all his heart and soul at the same time.
Leonard Bernstein observed, “I feel this is a heaven-sent moment to sing “Freiheit” wherever the score indicates the word “Freude”. If ever there was a historic time to take an academic risk in the name of human joy, this is it, and I am sure we have Beethoven’s blessing. “Es lebe die Freiheit!”
Justus Frantz, the organizer of the concert, declared, “May this performance of the Ninth Symphony – the Harmony of the World resounding in Berlin – play a part in ensuring that this joy, ‘bright spark of divinity’, will never end.”
Leonard Bernstein lit a torch for the love of freedom and the longing for freedom that extended far beyond the occasion and is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.
Craig Urquhart Remembers Bernstein’s Ode To Freedom in Berlin 1989
Composer and pianist Craig Urquhart was Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistant for the last five years of his life. He recalled, “It was late December when Leonard Bernstein and I arrived in Berlin. Berlin was an excited city; historic change was taking place there. It was just weeks before that the government of East Germany had allowed its citizens to visit West Germany; the decades-long division of the city was literally crumbling. The thrill of this new-found freedom was electric in the air. Bernstein knew that this was a time for a grand musical gesture: he would conduct an international orchestra.
It was made up of members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra supplemented by musicians from the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Staatskapelle Dresden and the Orchestra of the Kirov Theater, as well as the the Bavarian Radio Choir, Children’s Choir of the Dresden Philharmonic and the Radio Choir of East Berlin – not to mention a stellar cast of soloists – in a historic performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It is common knowledge that Bernstein, had been a lifelong advocate for freedom, he took the liberty of changing the Schiller text from “Freude” to “Freiheit.” He said at the time, smiling, “I’m sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing.”
Under the grey winter skies the muted sound of hammers chiseling at the Berlin Wall became the soundtrack of the city. During the rehearsal period, Bernstein took pleasure in walking through the now opened Brandenburg Gate, mingling with the citizens of a reunited Berlin. The moment weighed heavily on his heart as he remembered all the suffering the city’s bifurcation had caused.
On Christmas Eve Bernstein and his musicians presented the first “Freiheit Concert” in West Berlin’s Philharmonie. It was also presented by a live feed onto a large screen, for a freezing but appreciative audience on the plaza of the Gedänkniskirche in West Berlin. But it was the concert on Christmas morning in the Schauspielhaus (now the Konzerthaus) in East Berlin that caught everyone’s imagination, not only among the public who watched on the big screen on the Gendarmenmarkt, but also of those who watched the live broadcast – over 100 million television viewers worldwide.
German vinly edition:
All were moved by the magic of hearing the word “Freiheit” sung from the rafters. No words can describe the reverent energy, happiness and grave responsibility that was felt in the hall. Even as I write my eyes well up with tears, for we all felt a great divide had been healed. Lenny did not believe in division, and here was a dream come true. Everyone gave their all, and the performance was a historic moment captured forever on film and recording.
As a final gesture after the concerts and receptions, Lenny and I, with a couple of friends drove to the western side of the wall behind the Reichstag: no television, no reporters, just us private citizens of the world. Lenny borrowed a hammer from a young boy, and he took his turn at tearing down, at least this wall, among all those he’d so worked so hard to dismantle in the hearts and minds of man.”(Sharon Kelly)
Recorded live at the Schauspielhaus, Berlin, 25 December 1989
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
members ofOrchestra Of The Kirov Theatre, Leningrad, Orchestre De Paris, Dresden Staatskapelle, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic
June Anderson (Sopran)
Klaus König (Tenor)
Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Bass)
Sarah Walker (Mezzo Sopran)
The Berlin Radio Chorus
Dresden Philharmonic Children’s Chorus
Bavarian Radio Chorus conducted by Wolfgang Seeliger
Symphony No. 9 In D Minor, Op. 125:
01. Allegro Ma Non Troppo, Un Poco Maestoso 18.04
02. Molto Vivace 10.44
03. Adagio Molto E Cantabile 20.13
04. Presto – Allegro Assai 28.55
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Lyrics: Friedrich von Schiller
East German students sit on the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards in November 1989: