Composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein looking intently at himself in the mirror as he dresses for concert which he will conduct at Carnegie Hall
Composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein looking intently at himself in the mirror as he dresses for concert which he will conduct at Carnegie Hall © Getty  /  Alfred Eisenstaedt

Why was Leonard Bernstein under FBI surveillance?

Who framed Leonard Bernstein ? For almost 35 years, the famous composer was the subject of a top-secret surveillance by the internal American investigative agency, the legendary FBI.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the key figures of American 20th-century music, and yet he was investigated by his own country, considered a suspect by the very nation whose culture he embodied in the eyes of the rest of the world. 

For almost 35 years, Bernstein endured endless surveillance and suspicion. Accused of concealing Communist affiliations and ideals, and later defying the authority of the White House, the composer of West Side Story was the subject of several federal inquiries... 

Worrisome ideas

In 1943, Leonard Bernstein was only 25 years old and already a rising star: barely graduated from Harvard, he had been named assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic Orcestra and already composed his first major symphonic work, Jeremiah.

The undisputed poster-boy of the New York scene, Bernstein became the ambassador for an independant American music; a fresh, boundless take on European traditions. Contrary to his contemporaries such as Gershwin and Copland, Bernstein's musical education was 100% forged in the "New World". 

Leonard Bernstein in 1943
Leonard Bernstein in 1943 © Getty  /  Bettmann

And yet, this young national prodigy was a source of concern for his own country's  investigation bureau. Bernstein openly shared his views and ideals, often deemed too socialist by the American government. This assocation made things particularly complicated considering the nation's enemy at the time: the communist Eastern bloc. In 1949, the Truman administration launched its first investigation and ordered the FBI to examine the musician's past...

In 1951, Bernstein's name was added to the Security Index, the famous list of people declared dangerous to the state by the American investigative services. Two years later, the composer was denied the renewal of his passport and was almost sent to jail... 

McCarthyist paranoia

In order to obtain his passport, Bernstein was asked to take an oath that was not, and had never been, a member of any kind of communist organisation: the McCarthyist witch-hunt had made even Bernstein a victim of its madness. 

These "witches" were accused of belonging idealogically to the enemy, the Communist party, and were tracked by Senator McCarthy's commission. Between 1950 and 1954, the United States saw red: at any moment, anyone and everyone could be suspected, accused, and even imprisoned. No one was spared, and even the legendary actor Charlie Chaplin was prevented from working in Hollywood and forced to leave the country. 

Though Bernstein remained in the US, the horrors of McCarthyism influenced him deeply, and several years later, in 1956, he explored this dark chapter of history through his operetta Candide, a profoundly comical work, a parody thinly concealing the composer's furious criticism of the country's anti-Communist policies.

Black Panthers and the Vietnam War

Bernstein's dealings with the FBI could have ended there, with the demise of McCarthyism, but the composer remained in the crosshairs of the authorities... In the 1960s, Bernstein spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam, a war lacking in national support and one that the American government tried, in vain, to justify.

Another cause, another problem. On 14 January 1970, Bernstein and his wife Felicia organised an evening in support of the Black Panthers, an Afro-American movement classified by FBI director John Edgar Hoover as the greatest threat to national security. 

John Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover © Getty  /  Thomas D. McAvoy

Strike three

At the end of the 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John F Kennedy, commissioned a new work from her friend "Lenny", a work for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, a cultural site named in honour of her assassinated husband. 

The work was to be Leonard Bernstein's most politically-charged creation: a grand and modern Mass, recited and sung in English and Latin, with poignant reflections on the chaos and injustice of the modern times. To compose the work, Bernstein sought the input of a Catholic priest, Philip Berrigan, a choice which would cost him dearly... Berrigan was a particularly active pacifist, strongly against the Vietnam war and also under FBI surveillance between two encarcerations. Berrigan and Bernstein together? The FBI became convinced that something was afoot.

Philip Berrigan in 1973
Philip Berrigan in 1973 © Getty  /  Bettmann

Had Bernstein slipped secret anti-government messages into his text? Had he asked his performers to insult President Nixon during the performance? A crisis meeting at the White House was quickly organised: Nixon must not attend, and a negative review must be published in the New York Times the morning after the work's premiere.

Such a review was indeed published, President Nixon did not attend the performance, but the public was enraptured. Mass was a deemed a complex work, organic,  philosophical and timeless yet very much of its time - certainly not an assault against the government. 

One could add that Leonard Bernstein would never have taken the risk of tarnishing the reputation of his dear friend Jacqueline Kennedy, without forgetting the fact that Bernstein had never demonstrated any radical or anarchic behaviour. The composer had simply openly shared his ideas, though following the events at the Kennedy Center he certainly distanced himself from all political activities. Fortunately, Bernstein's dearly-loved multicultural America remains ever-present throughout his works, expressed honestly and passionately through his music. 

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