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Beethoven and Bernstein
A Reason To Smile
We have several motivations for choosing today’s A Reason To Smile. Most simply, it offers a journey into sublime beauty. At a time when the world is struggling with ugliness, horror, and sadness, when we are forced to question the kinship of our common humanity, it is essential that we reflect on the wonders that the human mind can create and how it can bind us to one another.
We are featuring two people today who had an inspiring dialogue across centuries through the power of their art: the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven and the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Their collaboration spoke to the endurance of music and how exquisitely it can expand the limits of our quotidian existence.
Beethoven is obviously one of the greats of Western music, and Lenny, as he was commonly known, was no slouch himself. Not only was he an inspiring creator of new compositions (like the musical “West Side Story”) and a famed conductor, he was also a popularizer of classical music to the public. He had a genius for teaching and communication, able to allow even those who could not read a single note to understand what music meant, how it worked, and from where its inspiration came.
Bernstein’s own life story can also give us a reason for hope as we see the world pulled apart. He was Jewish and had a long affiliation with Israel, dating back to its founding in the wake of the Holocaust. But he also was renowned for his work with German and Austrian orchestras, especially the famed Vienna Philharmonic. In 1966, just a little over 20 years after the end of the war, he became the first American to conduct the orchestra and later was celebrated as an “Honorary Member.” That a Jewish musician could have such a deep connection to an orchestra that had only 25 years earlier purged its Jewish members under Nazi rule and sent seven of them to their deaths is a powerful symbol that hatred is not inevitable.
Another inspirational moment for our current times comes from a concert Bernstein conducted on Christmas Day 1989 in Berlin. Many of you may remember it. An estimated 100 million people tuned in around the world. The work before him was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its famed “Ode to Joy” (which Bernstein reworked as “Ode to Freedom”). The occasion was a joyous celebration of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall a month earlier. Leading a group of musicians from Germany and the four “Occupation Powers” (the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France) and a chorus that combined singers from East and West Germany, the maestro took the podium for one of the last great acts of his public life.
For all of us who had lived through World War II and the Cold War, those were heady days of peace when anything seemed possible. But we should remember that there had been a time when those reconciliations seemed as distant as peace does today in places like Ukraine, the Middle East, and other war zones. Let us never forget that sometimes the seemingly impossible is possible. That a gay Jewish man can go into what was once the capital of Nazi rule and the most visible exemplification of the Cold War and celebrate a new era of unity and freedom is a beacon of hope for our current darkness.
We are offering three wonderful and very different videos today of Bernstein’s collaboration with Beethoven. The first is Lenny talking about the genius of Beethoven and specifically his Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” one of the most revered:
Here is Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of the work:
And last, but certainly not least, if you are still interested in more Bernstein/Beethoven, here is that Christmas 1989 concert from Berlin of the Ninth. You can listen to the whole thing, of course. If you want to skip to the “Ode To Freedom” section, it begins around 1:01:47.
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