Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: And ever since the letter h always stood for Havel

You enter the time machine and let it take you to the distant as well as recent past. You find yourself in the musical heart of Prague and meet the fabulous conductor Leonard Bernstein. You experience his excellent rise in the years 1946 and 1947 and his magnificent return in June 1990. This all in the presence of the Czech Philharmonic. It is a fascinating story full of healthy nostalgia, musical brilliance, diverse emotions, and details and moments which will (perhaps) never occur again. Enjoy it.

“American music. Conductor Bernstein rehearses Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue,” sounds through the air and on a rare black-and-white recording from May 1946 the musical volcano rages. The then-28-year-old young man “Lenny” Bernstein experiences his European conducting debut. This happens nowhere else than in the Dvořák Hall in front of the Czech Philharmonic. He conducts the whole orchestra with extraordinary commitment and vigor. His swift and sharp, almost aggressive style of conducting is later likened to a boxing match by some.*

Both significant concerts take place at the end of Prague Spring of 1946 – in the year of the Czech Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary and a time when the festival is opened and concluded by the conductor Rafael Kubelík. Bernstein’s first performance on 15th May also sees the American solo pianist Eugene List, who has a star reputation from the Potsdam Conference where his musical brilliance amazed the representatives of the so-called Big Three – Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin. On the following day the attention is drawn to Marie Podvalová, a member of the National Theatre Opera where she was soon giving outstanding performances in dramatic soprano roles.

Browsing through the seventy-three-year-old materials from the Czech Philharmonic archive feels something like an intimate adventure during which one experiences several instances of tough clashes as well as smooth connections between the fascinating history and hasty present. You see old programs from Mladá Fronta (price: 5 CSK) lying in front of you and title pages with the names like Dr. Edvard Beneš or Jan Masaryk. Right next to them, however, there are an iPhone, earphones and a laptop lying on the desk. In the profile picture in the catalogue, Bernstein looks like a charismatic elegant man with protruding ears, an artist marrying the qualities of James Bond and a cabaret showman in himself. He gives the impression of a man looking forward to meeting the future, such as the year 1957 in which the musical phenomenon West Side Story will be born right under his hands, or 1958 when he will be appointed the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

It is because of the latter that Bernstein is referred to as a miraculous conductor at the Prague Spring in 1946 who practically won his immortality during one single night. A night that came in November 1943.

Conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1946

Leonard “Lenny“ Bernstein in 1946

There are only a few hours remaining until the concert should start and Bernstein is called to stand in for Bruno Walter who has fallen sick. With no rehearsal before whatsoever he rushes to the stage and conducts the pieces by Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss with exceptional ease and excellence. Both professional critics and musical public are astounded at the performance of Bernstein, a son of Ukrainian migrants who came to the USA from the Ukrainian town of Rovno. It is clear to everybody that they are watching a meteoric rise of an exceptional and, with time, perfectly versatile person. The following morning after Bernstein’s improvisation of a lifetime, there came an article on the title page of The New York Times that speaks for everything. It was titled: “Leonard Bernstein at the conductor’s stand – debut of a genius.”

The Renaissance genius and unpredictable loose cannon returns to the Prague Spring the very following year, in May 1947. On Saturday he conducts, among others, Dvořák’s piece Husitská. On Sunday he abandons the conductor’s stand to play Piano Concerto by the French composer Maurice Ravel as an excellent solo.

However, then comes a long, involuntary break. In summer 1948 the Communist coup takes place. Rafael Kubelík emigrates from his home country and also Bernstein does not intend to support, from the human as well as professional perspective, the newly established terror which literally kills freedom and creativity. It makes your mind restless; your fantasy is only gaining momentum. You try to imagine what it would have been like if another such (involuntary) socio-cultural abyss had not taken place and geniuses like Bernstein would have come to Prague every year. How the entire society would have flourished, and culture would have lived to the fullest. Unfortunately, it takes long 43 years until both giants return in great style and reconnect their energy with the Czech Philharmonic.

This happens at the end of June 1990. Bernstein asks for a piano to be placed in his room in the hotel Intercontinental again. In the evenings he simply wants to play for himself and compose. His creative spirit does not abandon him even in his seventy-two years of age. The Velvet Prague breathes the atmosphere of ease and freshly gained freedom. Václav Havel also attends the final concert of the Prague Spring in the Smetana Hall, Municipal House on 2nd and 3rd June 1990. During the phenomenal performance, Bernstein conducts his and the president’s favorite Beethoven’s symphony No. 9 and Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy.** All the artists perform pro bono and the proceeds from the concert go to the account of the Clinic of Paediatric Oncology, Prague-Motol. It is one of the moments when music has the opportunity and power to help.

Watch the unique shots from Leonard Bernstein and the Czech Philharmonic’s rehearsals from 1946 and 1990. Please note that Jaromír Černík’s rare shots from June 1990 have not been published anywhere yet.

During various phone calls and meetings I find that the philharmonic players’ memories of the personal experience with one of the greatest conductors and classical music popularizers are still very vivid. The violist Jaroslav Pondělíček brings me the 25th issue of the Svět v obrazech magazine which, in 1990, published his article summarizing his experiences from the rehearsals and concerts with both Rafael Kubelík and Bernstein.*** “It will be better if you just read the article, it is there in black and white,” he comments on the brilliantly written and heartfelt text which is by nature a very personal reflection on the two exceptional musical encounters.

He depicts Bernstein as an extraordinary character with a sense of humor. A very focused man, sometimes almost meditative. “It happened that he suddenly stopped, put his hands on the back of his head and just meditated. At other times he sank his nose into the score and just lay there for a while.”

The percussionist Pavel Polívka, with a smile on his face, recalls how Bernstein never left the stage during the breaks and remained seated at the conductor’s desk so pensive that he never dared to interrupt him, not even for a second. “It seemed to me that he was reflecting on his whole life in his mind. Music must have been a huge passion for him,” says Polívka. He also remembers Bernstein as a conductor who had originally wanted to play the Beethoven’s Ninth very slowly, but eventually adapted to the dynamics of the orchestra. Pondělíček considers this interpretation of Beethoven an experience for his whole life; after the two June concerts he wrote: “After the concert he told the concert master Bohouš Kotmel that he had not heard such a musical orchestra in his life. He seemed surprised. Well, no wonder, if he’d expected the Czech Philharmonic to be as devastated as our national economy.”

When he first came to the rehearsal, the first thing he said, after an initial thunderous reception by the whole orchestra, was ‘Čau’ (Translator’s note: ‘Hi’ in Czech). And because he wanted to please us, he tried to say ‘tři sta třicet tři’ (TN: ‘three hundred and thirty-three’, a Czech tongue twister), for which he earned another wave of ovation. When he wanted us then to play the letter h, he said ‘Hradčany’ quite decently. But someone immediately said ‘Havel’, and he brightened up completely and shouted ‘Havel!’ enthusiastically. And ever since, the letter h always stood for Havel.

— the violist Jaroslav Pondělíček thinks back to Leonard Bernstein and the Czech Philharmonic’s rehearsals from June 1990

Bernstein became one of the great musicians who themselves took part in several historically crucial social events. In 1946 he amazes the post-war Prague. In December 1989 his Ode to Freedom performed with the Berlin Philharmonic players becomes the musical conclusion to the existence of the Berlin Wall. In June 1990 he enthusiastically greets Havel and during the rehearsals he proudly wears a badge with a conspicuous title Nevolím KSČ (TN: “I don’t vote for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia”).

He was absolutely convinced that art can be used to face and oppose injustice and intimidation. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963 it was Bernstein, himself the president’s good friend and admirer, who dedicated him (quite surprisingly and atypically) Mahler’s “Resurrection” during the memorable concert with the New York Philharmonic. Shortly after that, on 25th November 1963, he gave a speech to a crowd of 18,000 listeners at Madison Square Garden, New York. His famous speech, nowadays referred to as An Artist’s Response to Violence, was concluded with the following words: “Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.”

Watch the recording of Leonard Bernstein’s legendary concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. The performance from 25th December 1989 became a notional soundtrack to the liberating fall of the Berlin Wall. The program was Beethoven’s “Ninth”.

He undoubtedly believed in the power of music as an appropriate answer to injustice and a symbol of courage for his whole life. Pavel Polívka thinks back to the energetic and determined impression the seventy-two-year-old Bernstein gave him: “I would never have thought that man was going to pass away within six months. But the same was true for Mr. Kubelík. A genuine passion for music perhaps gets you to make such an effort that you are able to overcome literally everything. Somewhere in the back you can be totally devastated, but as soon as you get on the stage, you forget about all the bad things.”

Despite the fact Leonard Bernstein, as Pondělíček said, was leaving the Dvořák Hall in June 1990 with the words “Gentlemen, I hope this was not the last time,” he died five months later, on 14th October in New York. There remained an indelible trace after this extraordinary personality – a legacy that has inspired ever since. The six concerts with the Czech Philharmonic will always stay part of it. During them, two timeless values were being celebrated – the diverse beauty of music and natural human desire to live in liberty.

Go through the authentic documents from the rich Czech Philharmonic archive which give an outstanding idea of the three Leonard Bernstein’s visits to Prague.


Please consider this article an introductory material to the topic of Leonard Bernstein & the Czech Philharmonic. The author of the article is collecting additional material and is negotiating with the Czech Television for publishing the TV recording of the concert from June 1990. If you yourself own any material related to the topic (photos, articles, own notes and stories) you would like to share, please don’t hesitate to contact me on ondrej.cizek@ceskafilharmonie.cz. Thank you.


* The music journalist Petr Veber writes for Hospodářské noviny that “the 27-year-old ‘Lenny’ Bernstein already drew attention during the rehearsal – he substituted the soloist and played the solo part of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by heart. During the second night he also introduced himself as a composer, playing his Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah, for which he was awarded the New York critics’ annual award in 1944.” 

** Schiller’s poem became the fourth and concluding part of Beethoven’s symphony in 1824. Václav Havel himself considered it to be one of his favourite compositions ever. In an edited version it was even played at his funeral on 23rd December 2011. The author’s text in the program of the Prague Spring 1990 signed with the initials v. h. says, among other things, the following: „If Beethoven was concerned with an individual before, he now takes into account the collective human society. The ‘joy’ of his could be transferred into the present-day terms as worldwide peace, integrating its inhabitants into unity, a cooperating company, the final development stage whose higher intelligence will be the one that will rise up into the universe. Beethoven with his conception was ahead of time by centuries and, also thanks to the perfection and beauty of the artistic expression of his works, will stay a permanent lighthouse on the path of humankind. His vision of the future also glares into the darkness of the present-day disorder and shows the aim the inhabitants of our planet should reach without risking destructive conflicts. This sovereign gesture no longer allowed symphonic production to continue and escalate. The tenth symphony remained in draft and Beethoven never realized it. It was not possible for the inner reasons above all: there was nothing more to say.”

*** The conductor Rafael Kubelík was then preparing with the Czech Philharmonic for the spectacular Concert of Mutual Understanding which took place in the Old Town Square on 9th June 1990 and was attended by tens of thousands of listeners. The piece Má vlast was then performed by a union of the Czech Philharmonic, Brno State Philharmonic and Slovak Philharmonic under Kubelík’s conduct.

  • Juan Rubio, 2. 10. 2019

    Thank you very much, a very interesting article. I hope it will be possible to see the 1990 Prague TV recording.
    P. S. : I think Lenny died October the 14th, not the 4th.

    • Ondřej Čížek, 2. 10. 2019

      Thank you very much for your comment, I corrected the mistake. I believe that I’ll achieve this and we’ll see the concert!

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