Leonard Bernstein’s 1972 Counter-Inaugural
I recently posted a piece about Alex Ross’ three New Yorker articles based on the material released as a result of his Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the government’s interest in Leonard Bernstein. The bulk loyalty investigations were earlier —beginning with Truman in ’49 and continuing through LBJ in ’68— but the polymath composer-conductor-writer-lecturer-activist also made some brief and belated appearances on the Nixon tapes in the fall of 1971.
In that post I unaccountably failed to include one of my favorite passages from H. R. Haldeman’s Diaries — for 9 September 1971 — in which they discussed the previous night’s premiere of Mass. It provides one of the Diaries‘ few glimpses of RN’s mordant sense of humor:
I was fascinated this morning to get a report on the Kennedy Center opening of the Mass last night. I described the program, and Bernstein’s performance, and after asking a few questions and making a few comments, he paused a minute, this was over the phone, and then said, “I just want to ask you one favor. If I’m assassinated, I want you to have them play “Dante’s Inferno” and have Lawrence Welk produce it,” which was really pretty funny.
RN: “I just want to ask you one favor. If I’m assassinated, I want you to have them play ‘Dante’s Inferno’ and have Lawrence Welk produce it.” Despite his frustration over the several brouhahas surrounding the Kennedy Center’s various openings, the President retained his sense of humor. Liszt’s A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Commedia was first performed in 1857; it’s two movements reflect the the first two parts of its inspiration: Inferno and Purgatorio. This YouTube video of the “Inferno” is not attributed, but it’s a safe assumption that the orchestra isn’t Lawrence Welk’s.
The program for the NSO’s opening concert at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on 9 September, attended by RN, was completely Lisztless. It began with Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture, and included Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G (K.216) with Isaac Stern as soloist, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and William Schuman’s A Free Song: Secular Cantata No. 2, a stirring choral work, composed in 1942, on two poems by Walt Whitman.
What RN heard on 9 September 1971: the opening piece on the NSO’s opening program at the opening of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture. It was written in 1822 for the opening of a new theater in Vienna. In this spirited performance, the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Zoltán Kocsis
RN had earlier told Haldeman that he would have preferred Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or something by Lizst. The reviews of the opening concert —mine among them— commented on the oddly eclectic program. In a conversation a few days later with movie star Ginger Rogers, RN had a smart —and undoubtedly correct— explanation:
They picked numbers that were more for the acoustics —this is the symphony opening — rather than for the music. But it’s famous for this. I must say it doeesn’t send me. I’m not completely square on that sort of thing. I like a bit of jazz from time to time. But when I hear a symphony, I want it to be a great symphony. I mean I don’t see why they can’t play Beethoven, or, you know, Tchaikovsky, or Lizst or so on or so on. But these days the modern conductors, they have to go off on some Bernstein thing…
Antal Dorati, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, chose a Lizstless program that showcased the new Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s acoustics, but failed to “send” the POTUS in the audience.
A few days after the “Mass Appeal” post appeared, I received an interesting (and much appreciated) email from a reader —David Taylor— who has given me permission to quote it here:
Although my day job is now lawyering for the CFTC, in those days I was a graduate student in conducting at the University of Maryland and assistant conductor of the University of Maryland Chorus. Your post brought to my mind an experience I had involving President Nixon, Leonard Bernstein, and the Nixon inauguration in 1973, that I thought you might find of interest.
In 1973 and throughout most of the 1970s, the University of Maryland Chorus performed several times each year with the National Symphony under its great music director Antal Dorati. In January of that year, the Chorus sang four performances with the NSO of Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis (an amazing musical experience I will never forget). Given the times, those performances intersected with both President Nixon, the Vietnam War, and Leonard Bernstein.
As luck would have it, our Beethoven performances were slated for the week of the inauguration. It had been a tradition for decades that during the week of each Presidential inauguration the NSO played (outside its normal subscription season) what was labeled the Inaugural Concert, as part of the festivities of inauguration week. The performance was usually attended by the President-elect, and after the building of the Kennedy Center it always took place there. Normally, this would have had nothing to do with the Beethoven concerts. However, it turned out that President Nixon had been a life-long fan of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and for what was going to be his final inauguration he expressed a wish to have the Philadelphia play the Inaugural Concert, which they did. The NSO leadership was very gracious about this change, and responded by dedicating the week’s regular NSO subscription concerts to the inauguration of the President.
Of course, the anti-war movement, further fueled by the developing Watergate affair, wanted to protest the Nixon inauguration. One musical consequence of this, as you may remember, was the hasty arranging of a sort of “Anti-Inaugural Concert” consisting of a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Mass in Time of War at the National Cathedral by a large chorus (I believe it was either the Cathedral Choral Society, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, or parts of both) and a pick-up orchestra, conducted by none other than that famous musical leftist, Leonard Bernstein. I was not present, since we were singing Beethoven at Kennedy Center, but was told by people who did attend that the Bernstein performance drew a huge attendance, including 2000+ inside the Cathedral and thousands more listening on loudspeakers outside.
There were also nearly consequences for our Beethoven performances. A signficant number of the approximately 140 members of the University of Maryland Chorus shared the sentiments of the anti-war, anti-Nixon protesters and were upset that the NSO had dedicated the Beethoven concerts to the President’s inauguration. Quite a few of them initially refused to go onstage to sing something dedicated to President Nixon. Paul Traver, the conductor of the U. of Md. Chorus (and my major teacher) and I had to do a considerable amount of fast talking to convince them that they owed it to the Chorus, to Maestro Dorati, and to Beethoven to sing as scheduled. In the end that view prevailed, and the Missa Solemnis—one of humanity’s greatest choral treasures, and a work that dwarfs Bernstein’s Mass into utter insignificance—went forward magnificently and without incident. But it was a close-run thing.
I remember Bernstein’s anti-Inaugural —the “Concert for Peace”— very well. It was performed on 19 January —the night before RN’s second inaugural— and it was, to put it mildly, given saturation cover by the local media. It drew an overflow crowd to the National Cathedral — which it would have done even if it hadn’t been free. In addition to Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, the program included Bernstein’s song “Take Care of This House” — based on a letter from Abigail Adams— and concluded with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
The 1973 Inaugural Committee was chaired by J. Williard Marriott. Several concerts were planned — including an Inaugural Concert (with, as Mr. Taylor mentions, RN’s favorite Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, and Van Cliburn as soloist), and an American music concert led by Sammy Davis, Jr. There was also, for the first time, a youth concert, produced by Mike Curb and starring pop singer Tommy Roe, for the many young campaign workers who came to Washington to celebrate. As vice chairman Mark Evans said, “President Nixon is pretty dedicated to these youngsters who confounded the experts.” Along with Evans’ statement, The New York Times reported an announcement from “leaders of the militant Students for a Democratic Society” that a demonstration march on the Capitol would be staged to coincide with the President’s inauguration.
Ormandy’s Inaugural Concert program, chosen by RN, included the 1812 Overture Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with Van Cliburn as soloist. In RN’s diary, dictated the next night (Inaugural night), he noted:
When Mike Curb stepped up at the end of the performance and said that the President had done more to bring peace in the world than anybody else, I thought we would get a few boos. Interestingly enough, he got a pretty good cheer for it, which alloyed one of the fears I had as we went to the inaugurals, having read earlier that eleven of Eugene Ormandy’s orchestra members requested the right not to come, and he had put his foot down and told them to come. When Steve Bull informed him that I would not be coming down to the platform because it simply couldn’t be worked out from a logic standpoint, Ormandy said that he would have liked to have me come to the stage and stand there beside him “just to show those left-wing sons of bitches.” What a man he is.
“What a man he is”: Eugene Ormandy, of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In January 1970, RN went to Philadelphia to present him with the Medal of Freedorm. RN said: “Usually the awards are made in the White House. I found, however, when I suggested that Mr. Orrnandy might come to the White House for the award, he said: ‘Only if I can bring the 105 people in my orchestra–all 105.’ Now, we would have been delighted to have the 105 in the orchestra there but we could not have had any guests. And so since the orchestra could not come to Washington, I thought that the President ought to come to Philadelphia and come to the orchestra.” Later in 1973 he became the first western conductor in many years —and the first American conductor ever— to bring his orchestra to the People’s Republic of China.
After the Concert, at 1:04 AM, RN called his aide Charles Colson to indulge in a post mortem of their respective evenings (Colson had attended the American Music concert featuring Bob Hope and Roger Williams):
President Nixon: Hello.
Charles Colson: Yes, sir, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Well how’d you like the evening?
Colson: Well I enjoyed it. We had–
President Nixon: Which one did you go to?
Colson: We were at the American music concert and–
President Nixon: You didn’t do the symphony?
Colson: I did not do the symphony. No, sir. …..
President Nixon: That was really–the American was great but the symphony just–they had some magnificent things there that just, you know, patriotic and the rest. The 1812 Tchaikovsky Overture and other things that I’d asked [Philadelphia Symphony Music Director Eugene] Ormandy to do and a [Edvard] Grieg [concerto] that [pianist] Van Cliburn did. Being somewhat a student of music, I played Grieg when I was a sophomore in high school.
Colson: Did you really?
President Nixon: Yeah, well, I was quite advanced in music at an earlier age. But anyway it was fantastic…..
President Nixon: ….. And God, Ormandy was fantastic. ,,,,, And so much better than ’69 and ’52 and ’56, when we just went over to Constitution Hall and heard the Washington Symphony go through a rather routine–I mean, they aren’t that bad and with Dorati they’re better than ordinary, but who the hell is equal to Ormandy? Do you know anybody?
Colson: No. No one.
President Nixon: Nobody could’ve played, well, you weren’t there.
President Nixon: Cliburn did the Grieg routine, and some of Grieg is bad, but this is the best. And he played for a half hour and, by God, you’d never know that the symphony was there. They were so good, the way he fitted in, the sound of Ormandy. Goddamn, it was great.
Colson: I didn’t realize —
President Nixon: And everybody got–he got a standing ovation. They finished with the 1812 Overture, you know,
Colson: I love that.
President Nixon: –with the Los Angeles chorus of 200 and the Valley Forge military band and it brought the audience to its feet. It was fantastic.
Mr. Taylor tied things up with the ending of his email:
It has nothing to do with this story, but it always felt to me like a sort of post-script to it that in 1977, as a member of the Choir of Men and Boys of Washington Cathedral, I got to sing performances by the NSO and the Cathedral Choir at Kennedy Center of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms—a much better piece of music than his Mass, in my view—conducted by the composer.
Leonard Bernstein conducts the second of his three Chichester Psalms. The choral piece —for boy treble and small orchestra— was commissioned in 1965 and premiered that year in New York and in Chichester Cathedral. The Hebrew text for the plaintive second movement juxtaposes the gentle Psalm of David — “The Lord is my shepherd”— with the more anguished “Why do the nations rage?”. In 1977 the Choir of Men and Boys of Washington National Cathedral, of which David Taylor was a member, performed the Chichester Psalms at the Kennedy Center, conducted by the composer. This recording, also conducted by Bernstein, features the New York Philharmonic with the Camerata Singers and John Bogart.