Spring 2024

Leonard Bernstein and the Psychology of Music

Prior to the premiere of “Maestro,” HMS alumni discussed the influence of music on emotion with Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter

March 2024

  • by Allison Eck
  • 6 minute read

Holographic short score sketch in pencil of Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein collection

Holographic short score sketch in pencil of Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein collection

What effect does music have on our inner world? And how does a composer’s psychology manifest in their work? Jamie Bernstein, AB ’74, Samuel Wong, MD ’88, and Patrick Whelan, HMS part-time lecturer on pediatrics, explored these questions on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 Norton Lectures in Poetry.

These six lectures, delivered by Jamie’s father, the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, AB ’39, serve as the focus of Whelan’s Harvard Extension School course, Music and the Mind, about the neuroscience and evolutionary origins of human musicality. 

Woman with blonde hair
Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein, a Harvard student at the time, was in the audience at the Harvard Square Theatre that October when her father delivered his Norton lectures. Today, she has a long list of professional accomplishments, including codirecting a documentary about the role that youth orchestras play in the lives of children from struggling urban communities. She has also been a champion of her father’s work for more than thirty years.

Wong is a former assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and former music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Honolulu Symphony, and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. He founded a nonprofit, the Global Music Healing Institute, which later served as an inspiration for Whelan’s course.

This discussion took place prior to the premiere of the Oscar-nominated film Maestro, which depicts the complicated love story between Leonard Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre.

Whelan: Welcome, Jamie! We talked in my course about an article in Harvard Medicine magazine in 2008 by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Kogan, who wrote succinct emotional profiles of a variety of great composers, including your dad. Dr. Kogan quoted Aristotle, who said something to the effect that all great artists and philosophers have to suffer from melancholy. Jamie, do you think people have to suffer for their art?

Bernstein: My father was sensitive to all the horrors and suffering going on in the world that he lived in. That very much infused the works that he wrote. He was always asking really big questions: Why do we all have to suffer? What is the point of war, and why are we still using this obsolete method of resolving our differences?

Whelan: I’ve been struck by the extremes of emotion that he must have experienced, for instance, conducting the music for Robert Kennedy’s funeral on the one hand — just the enormous grief in that — and then the ecstasy of conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the heart of Berlin to celebrate the end of the Cold War.

Bernstein: Right, that was his whole deal. He felt that music was this gift you could give to a world that was full of suffering and grief and despair and uncertainty, and that music can be so comforting and healing, especially at moments when everyone is feeling at their worst. That’s why, when he got to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth to celebrate the Berlin Wall finally coming down, it was a moment for him to express the joy you feel when things finally go right. It was at the end of his life, in December of 1989. That was a marvelous apotheosis for him.

Wong: At the Berlin Wall, your dad substituted the word freiheit for the word freude. How did that come about?

Bernstein: It was his idea. As you probably know, Ode to Joy uses the word for joy in German, freude, in the lyrics by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. For this particular concert my father decided, under the circumstances, to replace the word freude with the word freiheit, which means freedom. He gave a press conference in which he said he was pretty sure that Beethoven wouldn’t mind. Beethoven had such a similar sensibility to my dad’s. Both of them advocated using music to express the best in mankind and to encourage the idea of brotherhood, which is certainly what Beethoven’s Ninth is about.

Whelan: Jamie, in your book Famous Father Girl, you said that your dad had a complex relationship with his own father, and you added, “It was confusingly interwoven with his equally complicated feelings about God.” What was his spirituality? What was his conception of heaven?

Bernstein: My father’s parents came separately to the United States from Ukraine. They met in Massachusetts, and when they got married and started their family, they maintained a very traditional Eastern European Jewish household. So that was the environment that my father grew up in. When he became an adult on his own, he found different ways to express his spirituality.

He was a deeply spiritual person, as was my mother, Felicia Montealegre. She was raised in Chile as a Catholic. The very fact that my father married someone who was raised Catholic was already showing everyone that he was carving his own path to expressing his spirituality. He wasn’t going to do it just the way his parents did it.

His relationship with his father was kind of bumpy. That was the template for my father to spend a lifetime arguing with his spiritual creator as well as his biological one. You can track it all the way through my father's works — this constant argument with his creator, a kind of fist-shaking at the heavens: “If you're up there taking care of us, why is everything such a mess down here? And why are we all so horrible to each other?” You can hear it absolutely in the music.

Wong: May I ask about your dad’s bachelor’s thesis — which sits in the Widener Library — about the absorption of African American spirituals and jazz into American music. Did he ever talk about that?

Bernstein: Well, he talked about it his whole life, because his whole deal was to knock down the walls between different kinds of music and build bridges between genres. You can hear that going on in all his music: his symphonic works are jazzy and his Broadway shows are symphonic. He used folk music and he used the blues. He used everything. We used to call him the lint collector because every little fiber of music that he ever heard would just get lodged in his brain and then they would weave themselves into the fabric that was his own music.

Whelan: If he could have carried on, where would he have gone with his own music? And how are you feeling about Bradley Cooper’s movie at this point?

Bernstein: In the year before he died, he was already starting to think about an opera about the Holocaust. It was going to be in several languages. I'm really sorry he didn't live long enough to write that.

With regard to Maestro, it’s madly exciting and very disorienting for my brother and sister and me  — we keep seeing little bits of footage or photographs that Bradley Cooper sends us of him as our dad at different ages. My mind is already blown.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Allison Eck is the executive communications manager in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.

Images: Library of Congress, Music Division (composition); Steve J. Sherman (Bernstein)