Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

Leonard Bernstein and the Harvard Student Union: In Search of Political Origins

DREW MASSEY

Abstract

In spite of the publicity generated at times by the politics of the mature Leonard Bernstein, the roots of his entanglement with political causes have been little-explored. As part of a larger collaborative project investigating Bernstein's ties to Boston, this article traces his role in the Harvard Student Union's theatrical productions. These shows were important because they represented some of Bernstein's earliest efforts at writing and directing for the theater. Bernstein worked on two shows sponsored by the Union: the production of Marc Blitzstein's Cradle Will Rock in 1939, during Bernstein's senior year at Harvard, and that of Aristophanes' play Peace in 1941, two years after he graduated. Although the Harvard Student Union was a major progressive political force on campus, Bernstein's relationship with the group appears to have been surprisingly casual. Examination of archival materials surrounding the productions, as well as selected interviews from the larger collaborative Bernstein project of which this article is but one part, reveals Bernstein as a man who was primarily interested in the Harvard Student Union insofar as it was an organization amenable to supporting his musical activities. As the heat of Bernstein's celebrity cools with time, such findings are an important aid in avoiding drawing overly deterministic conclusions about the significance of Bernstein's affiliations while ignoring his own immediate aims, political or otherwise.

Footnotes

I would like to thank a number of individuals who provided valuable feedback on this essay: Carol Oja, Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Gabriel Boyers, Ryan Raul Bañagale, and all of the students who participated in the collaborative research seminar of which this paper is one result.