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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Leonard Bernstein

By Alexander B. Fabry, Crimson Staff Writer

In September of 1980, Leonard Bernstein ’39 was in Lowell House’s Master’s residence, on all fours, bellowing the cry of the Wild Sasquatch.

He was in Boston for the premiere of a piece he had written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But at that particular moment, he was being initiated as an honorary member of the Harvard Krokodiloes.

Although best known for a number of legendary contributions to modern music—from his opera, “Candide,” to the music of “West Side Story”—strange anecdotes like this one, so revelatory of Bernstein’s artistic origins in Boston and at Harvard, have gone largely undocumented.

But next week, Harvard will be hosting a weekend-long festival to celebrate the Jewish and Bostonian origins of Bernstein, who died in 1990.

According to those who knew him, Bernstein’s blinding intellect was matched only by his wild lifestyle.
 

SCOTCH ON THE KROKS

Gordon M. Bloom ’82, a former member of a capella group the Krokodiloes, says that Bernstein had heard the Kroks singing in the street as they went by the Lowell rooms where he was staying. He invited them up, yelling down that their singing was "fan-fucking-tastic!"

As always with Bernstein, flirtation and Balantine’s Scotch were abundant. Nevertheless, the theme of the evening was music.

In exchange for his honorary membership, he decided to compose a new song for the Kroks, called "Screwed on Wrong," a brilliant but devilishly difficult number.

Bloom says they sang everything they knew to Bernstein, who in turn played snippets of songs he was composing. Though it was past midnight and Bernstein was 62, he was indefatigable—reliving his undergraduate days when he would stay up all night talking, playing music, and drinking beer.

Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939 with a degree in Music and seemed to always be drawn back to Cambridge. "For all that has been written about Bernstein, his early, formative years…haven’t been researched fully," says Jack Megan, the director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) and co-producer of the festival along with the Department of Music.

"As we peeled back the layers of this man, and his music, we discovered new dimensions, new fascinations," Megan says.

JUDAISM AND SEXUALITY

Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935. He had grown up nearby in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as the son of a well-off Jewish immigrant family.

In the 1930’s, Harvard was not welcoming to Jews, says fellow composer Harold S, Shapero ’41, a friend of Bernstein’s in Eliot House.

"I would say that Harvard was pervaded by anti-Semitism at that point," Shapero recalled in an interview last spring with the OFA.

The music world, however, was full of gifted and influential Jews at the time, such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Arnold Shoenberg, and Marc Blitzstein.

According to biographers, Bernstein knew that he was bisexual by the time he arrived at Harvard and lived in an era when homosexuality was socially unacceptable.

Myron Simons ’40, who lived downstairs from Bernstein in Eliot House describes an incident in which a professor "sent over his Steinway to replace Lenny’s $20 beat up piano."

Simons recalls that Bernstein’s roommate then "started circulating rumors around college that Lenny had ulterior motives, sexual motives. Lenny and I stayed up all night waiting for [the roommate] to come back to beat him up."

"It wasn’t as easy to be bisexual as it is now, and it was nasty talk if someone talked about it, so we didn’t talk about it," he says.

PRE-PROFESSIONAL AT HARVARD

Rumors aside, Bernstein was making a name for himself at Harvard.

"He was already—not, I wouldn’t say famous. I mean, he definitely wasn’t Leonard Bernstein yet, but he was playing piano concertos or solos," recalls Shapero.

Bernstein was largely indifferent to his classes, managing good grades despite skipping most lectures. He was extremely involved in music on campus, playing piano for the Glee Club (before being fired for being late to rehearsal), putting on concerts, and playing the accompaniment to silent movies in Sanders Theater, according to William Powell Mason Professor of Music Carol Oja, who is also co-director of the festival.

In 1939, Bernstein put on Blitzstein’s musical "The Cradle Will Rock," a pro-union, pro-communist show that caused a sensation when it premiered in New York two years earlier.

"He was 20, 21-years-old, and he produces this major, controversial, infamous, performance," says Oja.

Bernstein even found time to write a new arrangement of Gershwin’s legendary "Rhapsody in Blue." The piece will have its world premiere at the festival.

"He was an active, thriving musician, growing, changing, exploring while at Harvard," Oja says.

He could also become combative about his taste for musical experimentation.

During one seminar on 16th-century counterpoint, a professor chastised Bernstein for playing a nontraditional and dissonant composition. According to Shapero, who was also in the class, "Lenny took his fist and went BANG, like that," playing the piece despite the protestations.

Defying a powerful musical trend among musicians of his generation, Bernstein doggedly stuck to the doctrine of tonality—which centers a piece of music around major and minor chords based on a single key—as opposed to the 12-tone scale, which was being popularized by composer Arnold Schoenberg.

"It was very controversial at the time, because serious musicians were not supposed to write tonal music," says his daughter, Jamie A. M. Bernstein ’74.

"He wished to have been taken more seriously as a composer, but he refused to go atonal," says Bernstein’s other daughter, Nina M. Bernstein ’84.

Bernstein epically defended tonality when he was invited to deliver a series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, given in 1973, after a year’s residency in Eliot house.

The return to campus for the lectures also gave Bernstein a chance to return to his youth. "He was having the time of his life, staying up all night, hanging out with young people," Jamie Bernstein recalls.

WILD, WILD LIFE

Bernstein’s relationship with the Kroks lasted for the rest of his years, and the group would periodically visit him in New York, such as in April 1983 when they visited Bernstein at his apartment in the Dakota in New York City.

Kroks alum George E. Overholser ’82 writes in an e-mail about the decadent scene with "Emperor Bernstein" that ensued.

"He sat there in his satin robe, flanked by two ‘pretty boys,’ whom he ignored entirely, except for when he reached his hand out to the left (without looking at it) so a cigarette would be lit and, three minutes later, reached his other hand to the right (again still looking straight at me) to receive a small flask," Overholser writes.

The entire session was recorded on tape, and Bernstein later sent it along to the Kroks with a note saying, "The enclosed tape is rapidly becoming one of my cherished possessions," and signing it, "Twelve big hugs, LB."

The recording catches the clink of ice in tumblers, as well as Bernstein’s candidly expressive language. After the Kroks sang a song he’d written for them, Bernstein gave the young musicians an analogy they were bound to remember: "You know what you understand, what very few jazz people understand, except the good ones, is that every beat is a downbeat, and no beat is a downbeat," he says on the tape.

"It’s like one, one, one, ONE, ONE, I mean it’s like fucking…its not a ONE and two and a ONE."

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Despite the flamboyant life described by his associates, Bernstein also bridged the gap between high culture, elitist culture, and popular culture and the popular song

"What was interesting for me was to get back to him as a young man, to see his deep humanity, to see his loyalty to family and religious traditions," says Oja.

Bernstein’s Jewish background was an important—though often unnoticed—influence on his music. Perhaps his best-known piece of explicitly Jewish music was the "Kaddish Symphony," which explores one’s relationship to god, and contains extensive references to traditional Hebrew music.

Even in his senior thesis in Music—dealing with race relations and the origin of an American musical identity—Bernstein tried to address questions of heritage.

These dilemmas plagued the composer through some of his most famous works as well. "Bernstein thought about having ‘West Side Story’ be about Jews and gentiles," Oja, returning to the tension between the Jewish and Irish while Bernstein was growing up in Boston.

"I think [the festival’s] going to cause us to reconsider him as a serious composer, born of a specific historical period, when America was changing ethnically and technologically," Megan says.

Bernstein’s daughter Nina says that the return of her father’s music to Harvard is fitting, given that he never quite got over his salad days in the Yard.

"He adored Harvard, always did," she says. "Whenever he would show up, he would get a get a big lungful of Cambridge air, and declare himself so much better for being there."

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at fabry@fas.harvard.edu.



SCOTCH ON THE KROKS

Gordon M. Bloom ’82, a former member of a capella group the Krokodiloes, says that Bernstein had heard the Kroks singing in the street as they went by the Lowell rooms where he was staying. He invited them up, yelling down that their singing was "fan-fucking-tastic!"

As always with Bernstein, flirtation and Balantine’s Scotch were abundant. Nevertheless, the theme of the evening was music.

In exchange for his honorary membership, he decided to compose a new song for the Kroks, called "Screwed on Wrong," a brilliant but devilishly difficult number.

Bloom says they sang everything they knew to Bernstein, who in turn played snippets of songs he was composing. Though it was past midnight and Bernstein was 62, he was indefatigable—reliving his undergraduate days when he would stay up all night talking, playing music, and drinking beer.

Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939 with a degree in Music and seemed to always be drawn back to Cambridge. "For all that has been written about Bernstein, his early, formative years…haven’t been researched fully," says Jack Megan, the director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) and co-producer of the festival along with the Department of Music.

"As we peeled back the layers of this man, and his music, we discovered new dimensions, new fascinations," Megan says.

JUDAISM AND SEXUALITY

Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935. He had grown up nearby in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as the son of a well-off Jewish immigrant family.

In the 1930’s, Harvard was not welcoming to Jews, says fellow composer Harold S, Shapero ’41, a friend of Bernstein’s in Eliot House.

"I would say that Harvard was pervaded by anti-Semitism at that point," Shapero recalled in an interview last spring with the OFA.

The music world, however, was full of gifted and influential Jews at the time, such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Arnold Shoenberg, and Marc Blitzstein.

According to biographers, Bernstein knew that he was bisexual by the time he arrived at Harvard and lived in an era when homosexuality was socially unacceptable.

Myron Simons ’40, who lived downstairs from Bernstein in Eliot House describes an incident in which a professor "sent over his Steinway to replace Lenny’s $20 beat up piano."

Simons recalls that Bernstein’s roommate then "started circulating rumors around college that Lenny had ulterior motives, sexual motives. Lenny and I stayed up all night waiting for [the roommate] to come back to beat him up."

"It wasn’t as easy to be bisexual as it is now, and it was nasty talk if someone talked about it, so we didn’t talk about it," he says.

PRE-PROFESSIONAL AT HARVARD

Rumors aside, Bernstein was making a name for himself at Harvard.

"He was already—not, I wouldn’t say famous. I mean, he definitely wasn’t Leonard Bernstein yet, but he was playing piano concertos or solos," recalls Shapero.

Bernstein was largely indifferent to his classes, managing good grades despite skipping most lectures. He was extremely involved in music on campus, playing piano for the Glee Club (before being fired for being late to rehearsal), putting on concerts, and playing the accompaniment to silent movies in Sanders Theater, according to William Powell Mason Professor of Music Carol Oja, who is also co-director of the festival.

In 1939, Bernstein put on Blitzstein’s musical "The Cradle Will Rock," a pro-union, pro-communist show that caused a sensation when it premiered in New York two years earlier.

"He was 20, 21-years-old, and he produces this major, controversial, infamous, performance," says Oja.

Bernstein even found time to write a new arrangement of Gershwin’s legendary "Rhapsody in Blue." The piece will have its world premiere at the festival.

"He was an active, thriving musician, growing, changing, exploring while at Harvard," Oja says.

He could also become combative about his taste for musical experimentation.

During one seminar on 16th-century counterpoint, a professor chastised Bernstein for playing a nontraditional and dissonant composition. According to Shapero, who was also in the class, "Lenny took his fist and went BANG, like that," playing the piece despite the protestations.

Defying a powerful musical trend among musicians of his generation, Bernstein doggedly stuck to the doctrine of tonality—which centers a piece of music around major and minor chords based on a single key—as opposed to the 12-tone scale, which was being popularized by composer Arnold Schoenberg.

"It was very controversial at the time, because serious musicians were not supposed to write tonal music," says his daughter, Jamie A. M. Bernstein ’74.

"He wished to have been taken more seriously as a composer, but he refused to go atonal," says Bernstein’s other daughter, Nina M. Bernstein ’84.

Bernstein epically defended tonality when he was invited to deliver a series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, given in 1973, after a year’s residency in Eliot house.

The return to campus for the lectures also gave Bernstein a chance to return to his youth. "He was having the time of his life, staying up all night, hanging out with young people," Jamie Bernstein recalls.

WILD, WILD LIFE

Bernstein’s relationship with the Kroks lasted for the rest of his years, and the group would periodically visit him in New York, such as in April 1983 when they visited Bernstein at his apartment in the Dakota in New York City.

Kroks alum George E. Overholser ’82 writes in an e-mail about the decadent scene with "Emperor Bernstein" that ensued.

"He sat there in his satin robe, flanked by two ‘pretty boys,’ whom he ignored entirely, except for when he reached his hand out to the left (without looking at it) so a cigarette would be lit and, three minutes later, reached his other hand to the right (again still looking straight at me) to receive a small flask," Overholser writes.

The entire session was recorded on tape, and Bernstein later sent it along to the Kroks with a note saying, "The enclosed tape is rapidly becoming one of my cherished possessions," and signing it, "Twelve big hugs, LB."

The recording catches the clink of ice in tumblers, as well as Bernstein’s candidly expressive language. After the Kroks sang a song he’d written for them, Bernstein gave the young musicians an analogy they were bound to remember: "You know what you understand, what very few jazz people understand, except the good ones, is that every beat is a downbeat, and no beat is a downbeat," he says on the tape.

"It’s like one, one, one, ONE, ONE, I mean it’s like fucking…its not a ONE and two and a ONE."

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Despite the flamboyant life described by his associates, Bernstein also bridged the gap between high culture, elitist culture, and popular culture and the popular song

"What was interesting for me was to get back to him as a young man, to see his deep humanity, to see his loyalty to family and religious traditions," says Oja.

Bernstein’s Jewish background was an important—though often unnoticed—influence on his music. Perhaps his best-known piece of explicitly Jewish music was the "Kaddish Symphony," which explores one’s relationship to god, and contains extensive references to traditional Hebrew music.

Even in his senior thesis in Music—dealing with race relations and the origin of an American musical identity—Bernstein tried to address questions of heritage.

These dilemmas plagued the composer through some of his most famous works as well. "Bernstein thought about having ‘West Side Story’ be about Jews and gentiles," Oja, returning to the tension between the Jewish and Irish while Bernstein was growing up in Boston.

"I think [the festival’s] going to cause us to reconsider him as a serious composer, born of a specific historical period, when America was changing ethnically and technologically," Megan says.

Bernstein’s daughter Nina says that the return of her father’s music to Harvard is fitting, given that he never quite got over his salad days in the Yard.

"He adored Harvard, always did," she says. "Whenever he would show up, he would get a get a big lungful of Cambridge air, and declare himself so much better for being there."

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at fabry@fas.harvard.edu.

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