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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Tuesday, August 25

Bernstein asks a musical question in Moscow

Synopsis

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

Additional Information

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