Composers Datebook®

Bernstein asks a musical question in Moscow


On today’s date in 1959, Leonard Bernstein celebrated his 41st birthday in Moscow. The New York Philharmonic was embarked on an extensive world tour, which included three weeks in the Soviet Union.

Their August 25th concert proved controversial, offering two works of Igor Stravinsky, a composer still condemned in the Soviet Union as “bourgeois” and “decadent.” Even more daring, Bernstein opened his concert with “The Unanswered Question,” a short piece by the American composer, Charles Ives.

Even worse, Bernstein broke traditional Soviet protocol by talking directly to the audience through an interpreter, explaining Ives’ unusual philosophy of music. The enthusiastic audience response after the Ives led to it being encored.

This really upset the Soviet authorities, and the music critic of the Ministry of Culture wrote, “Before this four-minute piece Bernstein spoke for six minutes. Only the good manners of the hospitable public resulted in a ripple of cool applause. Nevertheless, the conductor, setting modesty aside, himself suggested that the piece be repeated.”

Bernstein, although furious at what he called “an unforgivable lie,” was persuaded to forgo any further controversial lectures from the podium for the remainder of the Soviet tour.

Music Played in Today's Program

Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) The Unanswered Question New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, cond. Sony Classical 46701

On This Day


  • 1880 - Austrian operetta composer Robert Stoltz, in Graz;

  • 1902 - German-born American composer Stefan Wolpe, in Berlin;

  • 1918 - American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, in Lawrence, Mass.;


  • 1742 - Portuguese composer José Antonio Carlos de Seixas, age 38, in Lisbon;

  • 1774 - Italian opera composer Niccolò Jommelli, age 59, in Naples;


  • 1830 - Auber: opera, "La muette de Portici" (aka "Masaniello"), in Brussels, igniting political riots leading to expulsion of Dutch and the Belgian Revolution of 1830;

  • 1948 - Henze: Symphony No. 1 at Bad Pyrmont;

  • 1978 - Rorem: "Sunday Morning" at Saratoga Springs, New York, by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy;


  • 1830 - Auber: opera, “La muette de Portici” (aka “Masaniello”), in Brussels, igniting political riots leading to expulsion of Dutch and the Belgian Revolution of 1830;

  • 1870 - Richard Wagner marries Cosima Liszt von Bulow;

  • 1959 - On his 41st birthday, Leonard Bernstein conducts a tour performance by the New York Philharmonic in Moscow; The program includes Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Ives' "The Unanswered Question."

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®