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Bernstein’s table talk ranged from verbal games, such as identifying the first sentences of famous — or obscure — literary works, to “harelip jokes,” in which the punch line is delivered by spitting as if with a speech impediment, to compositional ideas misunderstood by critics. He seemed to have memorized every critical slight, even from otherwise laudatory reviews, such as one by the critic Andrew Porter of “A Quiet Place.”
After dwelling on the negative reception of “A Quiet Place,” he shifted to the topic of “Tristan und Isolde.” The record producer John McClure had complained about Bernstein’s slow tempos, particularly in the opera’s prelude. Bernstein reported indignantly: “John said, ‘We’re dying in here!’” referring to the sound engineers in their studio booth, waiting for the prelude to finally end. At the end of the session, Bernstein said that he saw a figure that hurtled down the aisle and embraced him. It was the old Austrian conductor Karl Böhm, who, despite having been a fervent Nazi during World War II — conducting official concerts to celebrate Hitler’s birthday and Nazi military organizations — became a friend of Bernstein’s later in life. Bernstein recalled that he could smell Böhm’s “fetid breath” as he exclaimed, “At last someone has dared to conduct ‘Tristan’ the way it should be heard.”
If Böhm and Bernstein seemed unlikely chums, they are only one example of sometimes unexpected alliances — including the friend whom Bernstein called “Herbert,” another notorious Austrian Nazi conductor, Herbert von Karajan. These could baffle some onlookers. The American Jewish composer Marc Blitzstein wrote to Bernstein angrily, asking how Bernstein could work and socialize with the choreographer Jerome Robbins after the latter had betrayed friends by denouncing them to the House Un-American Activities Committee to save his own career. Bernstein apparently felt that his friend’s talent excused vile behavior, or that by forgiving others, he himself might be more easily forgiven for his own trespasses.
I had been introduced to Bernstein as a friend of the poet James Merrill, whom Bernstein much admired, particularly for his “The Changing Light at Sandover,” in which the poet communicated with the dead via a Ouija board; this was not long after the death of Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre. Yet Merrill had been offended when, in response to a luncheon invitation to his home in Key West, Fla., Bernstein appeared, without forewarning, accompanied by an entourage of admirers, all of whom expected to be fed. An earlier poetic enthusiasm of Bernstein’s, W.H. Auden, who inspired his “Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety,” was equally exasperated by Bernstein. This may have been because Auden, as he wrote in an essay on Oscar Wilde, disapproved of gay men marrying women, believing that pain would inevitably be caused by such betrothals.
Despite such personal missteps that alienated others, Burton Bernstein, his brother, wrote in a memoir that Bernstein had “absorbed the Jewish concern for ethical principles.” Even when his later lifestyle could seem akin to an ancient Roman emperor’s, Jewish ethics and self-restraint remained part of Bernstein’s emotional makeup. This is evident from the most insightful publication to appear so far about him and his Yiddishkeit, Jack Gottlieb’s “Working With Bernstein.” Possessing sincere feelings about a conductor’s sacerdotal role in society as educator, Bernstein refused to appear in advertisements or commercials, unlike today’s conductors, like Lorin Maazel, who shill for Swiss watches and other luxury goods. Some maestros advance their careers by befriending political tyrants, as in the case of Valery Gergiev’s hero worship of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or Gustavo Dudamel’s admiration for Venezuela’s anti-Semitic dictator, Hugo Chavez. Bernstein was ready to be unpopular with those in power if he disagreed with what they stood for. Richard Nixon notoriously despised Bernstein’s left-wing beliefs, and in 1989, Bernstein refused the National Medal of Arts after the administration of President George H.W. Bush censored a gallery exhibit that featured a work with AIDS as its theme.
Usually exhibitionistic, Bernstein could also be discreet about tzedakah, making regular unpublicized charitable donations. His good intentions did not always lead to the best results: Our dinner concluded with a loud meltdown from one of the domestic staff, who wailed in Spanish about the late hours her job required; Bernstein embraced and comforted the weeping employee. But despite such crises, and beyond the interpretive details of the many recordings that he left behind, all music lovers must admit that here was a mensch.
Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.