Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, is in the news this fall with a series of events and concerts that mark both his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Meanwhile, a young conductor named Alan Gilbert is poised to follow in Bernstein's footsteps by becoming the Philharmonic's second American-born music director. Quite unexpectedly, Gilbert turns up in events surrounding a speech Bernstein gave in 1986 on the occasion of Harvard's 350th anniversary. Published here for the first time (although never edited by Bernstein for publication), the speech feels eerily current. It serves as a potent reminder that ours is not the only era bedeviled by terror and fear and the reaction (or over-reaction) to it.
Bernstein, a 1939 graduate of Harvard, was invited by the university to address a celebration banquet for students in the fall of 1986. Then-president Derek Bok recalls:
Since agreeing to speak, he had not been in touch with Harvard.... As a result, the organizers of the banquet abandoned hope that he would appear. They had also scheduled too many other speakers with the result that the evening dragged on interminably until something like one in the morning. ... At some point well after the festivities had begun ... Leonard unexpectedly arrived dressed in a cape and announced to me that he had only just arrived the day before from an extended trip abroad and was expecting to speak .... The organizers assured him that he was definitely still on the program and would be the final speaker. By the time we reached his place in the program, however, it was past midnight. Bernstein apparently offered the audience a choice of listening to his remarks or calling it a day. Much to his chagrin, they chose to leave. Then, Bok explains, some students led by Gilbert (whose violinist parents played under Bernstein at the Philharmonic) asked Bernstein to speak at Adams House, a Harvard dorm.
Bernstein agreed, with certain caveats: that Bok be present, along with at least 13 students and two bottles of scotch. Seventy undergraduates turned up for the speech, delivered at 2 A.M., and, as reported in The Harvard Crimson, the event lasted an hour and a hale At the conclusion of his talk, Bernstein announced with a flourish that he would forgive Bok and Harvard for publishing a book with an introduction by Bok advocating restraints on weapons technology instead of an outright freeze. Bok recalls...