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Leonard Bernstein’s Tense, Torn Love Affair With Vienna

‘I am enjoying Vienna enormously,’ the composer wrote to his parents in 1966, ‘as much as a Jew can’

Liam Hoare
October 22, 2018

Leonard Bernstein loved Vanillekipferl. A staple in every Austrian household at Christmas time, he was first presented with these delicate crescents of vanilla-scented, nut-spackled dough encased in powdered sugar by an admirer, Renate Wunderer, who never missed a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic when Bernstein was in town. Bernstein became so enamored of Vanillekipferl that not only did he write a poem about the sweets—in German, no less—he insisted they be at his disposal, whether in the Austrian capital or traveling the world with the jewel in Austria’s musical crown.

A symbolic box of Vanillekipferl sits upon the grand piano-shaped table at the center of the Jewish Museum Vienna’s delightful new exhibition, “Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna.” Placed amid joyous photographs of Bernstein at work, the story of the crumbly, sugary pastries makes Bernstein’s relationship with the city sound sickly sweet. Far from it, the exhibit, in fact, shows that though it was a romance, in the end, the love affair between Bernstein and Vienna was a slow burner, fraught with tension and defined by a certain ambivalence, born of the experience of being a Jew in Austria after the Second World War.

Bernstein was very reluctant to come to Vienna in the first place. Conductor, composer, teacher, he was already music director of the New York City Symphony when, in 1947, the city first came calling with an offer to conduct the philharmonic. Conflict arose immediately. “They wanted Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, which is silly,” Bernstein wrote in May 1947 to his secretary, Helen Coates. “And then my reports were that the orchestra was still 60 percent Nazi.” His heart then was in Palestine, having begun a relationship with the Israel Philharmonic that would last a lifetime.

In the end, it took massive financial inducement to get Bernstein to Vienna. “That much money nobody pays a conductor,” he said in amazement of his contract to conduct Verdi’s opera Falstaff at the Vienna State Opera in 1966. “I don’t know if I shall ever really love Vienna,” he wrote to his wife, Felicia, that year. And he was right to be suspicious of former Nazis. In 1967, Bernstein got word from famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal that Helmut Wobisch, managing director of the Vienna Philharmonic, had been a member of the Nazi security services. (Bernstein playfully called Wobisch “my dearest Nazi.”)

On the one hand, Bernstein clearly fell head over heels for the city itself: its orchestra, its cultural atmosphere, its certain Gemütlichkeit—including the Vanillekipferl. As the record sleeves show, his collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic was a fruitful one. “We were off and flying,” he said of that initial production of Falstaff. “By the third bar there was no catching us and we knew this was a lifetime relationship.” He became enmeshed in Austrian political life, close to the Socialist Party, while his relationship with the Viennese was “the greatest love affair I’ve ever had with a public,” he told Coates. “Odd, isn’t it?”

Odd, because at the same time Bernstein understood all too well Austria’s dark past. “I am enjoying Vienna enormously,” he wrote to his parents in 1966—“as much as a Jew can.” Photographs show the conductor in rehearsal garbed in an oppressive traditional Austrian jacket, which he took to wearing “as a therapy against German Nationalism.” The sound of crowds shouting in German, he wrote, “makes my blood run cold.” In a sense, too, he grasped his role in Vienna’s rehabilitation. Again writing to his parents he acknowledged of his adoration, “What they call the ‘Bernstein wave’ that has swept Vienna has produced some strange results; all of a sudden it’s fashionable to be Jewish.”

Bernstein conducted his last concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in March 1990; he died in October of that year. “Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna” is set up in two rooms on either side of an atrium that at first glance appear to have nothing to do with each other: Bernstein in Vienna; and then Bernstein as an American, a Renaissance man, a Jew. But in fact, this split encapsulates the tension at the heart of his relationship with the Austrian capital. For all his love of Mahler and Beethoven, of the philharmonic and Vanillekipferl, Bernstein was thoroughly modern and engaged with the contemporary; for all his love of Vienna, Bernstein remained to the marrow an American Jew.

“Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna” runs at the Jewish Museum Vienna until April 28, 2019

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.