hen the Santa Fe Opera offers its first-ever mainstage production of a work by Leonard Bernstein, it will honor a composer who intersected with New Mexico in person some years before the company was founded. He passed through the Land of Enchantment for one week in the summer of 1948, and although he seems to have enjoyed aspects of his visit, he never returned.

He was in New Mexico on the day he celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and he was already turning heads in the music world. He had graduated from Harvard and completed a diploma at the Curtis Institute, where he was a conducting pupil of Fritz Reiner. In 1942, he was appointed assistant to the Boston Symphony’s conductor Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, and the following year Artur Rodzinski named him assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. On Nov. 14, 1943, he made his historic debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, the youngest man ever to conduct the Philharmonic in a subscription concert, filling in for a nationally broadcast performance when Bruno Walter called in sick at the 11th hour. In 1944 alone, he had tallied no fewer than three important premieres as a composer: his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), his ballet Fancy Free, and his Broadway show On the Town. By 1948, he was a staple on the faculty at Tanglewood, a summertime magnet for many of the most promising up-and-comers among American composers and performers; that is where he led the American premiere of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in 1946.

He was already embracing opportunities where his music-making could make a political statement or support a social cause — particularly, at that postwar moment, events involving uprooted Jewish communities. In 1947, he led nine concerts with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel Aviv and sites around the British protectorate that, a year later, would become Israel. The next May, after winning acclaim on the podium of the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich, he conducted two concerts at nearby displaced-persons camps, leading the Jewish Representative Orchestra, made up of musicians who had survived Dachau. Five thousand refugees attended each of the camp performances. “I was received by parades of kids with flowers, and the greatest honors,” he wrote to his secretary, Helen Coates, “I conducted a 20-piece concentration-camp orchestra … and cried my heart out.”

From there, he was whisked off to conducting engagements in Milan, Budapest, Vienna, and Paris, gaining a degree of international fame achieved by no previous American-born conductor. In July, he returned to New York, where he conducted a benefit concert at the Waldorf-Astoria for the Palestine Resistance Defense Fund — not the last time he would find himself in hot water (and facing picketers) when he waded into a complicated political morass, impelled by intentions that could be warmhearted but naïve. His annual six-week stint at Tanglewood came as a relief, but he was somewhat stressed out all the same by obligations that lay on the near horizon, including commissions for his Symphony No. 2 (from the Boston Symphony) and for a jazz-flavored piece for clarinetist Woody Herman (it would be his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs).

hat summer at Tanglewood, his path crossed with that of the British poet Stephen Spender. Frieda Lawrence, the widow of author D.H. Lawrence, had offered Spender the use of her ranch some 15 miles north of Taos. The property had been given to her by local legend Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1924. (By way of thanks, Frieda Lawrence presented Mabel Dodge Luhan with the manuscript of her late husband’s novel Sons and Lovers.) After D.H. died, in 1930, Frieda opened the ranch’s gates to a procession of artistic types seeking seclusion in which to work, including Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams. 

Bernstein asked Spender if he could come along. Spender was apprehensive. “I said no,” he told Bernstein’s biographer Meryle Secrest, “because I couldn’t see it working out. He offered to drive me there anyway if he could stay for a few days.” The proposition at least solved a practical dilemma, since Spender did not know how to drive. As the idea took root, Bernstein’s brother, Burton (13 ½ years his junior), signed on to the road trip. (A longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, Burton Bernstein died this past Aug. 26, a day after what would have been his brother’s 99th birthday.) In his memoir Family Matters (1982), Burton provided the most complete account of the journey. “After the 1948 Tanglewood season — when I was sixteen, a licensed driver and a licensed pilot — Lenny broached the idea of our navigating Greena, his sleek Buick convertible, to some isolated spot out West, where he could work without interruption on his second symphony, based on W.H. Auden’s long poem ‘The Age of Anxiety.’ … Spender was going out there to work on a new literary project, and he told us that there would be plenty of room for Lenny and me. This unlikely trio took to the road in blistering mid-August — Lenny and I sharing the driving, Spender sitting poetically taut in the back seat, like a reincarnation of Shelley, as we plunged westward. None of us was aware at the outset that the four new tires Lenny had bought for Greena were defective.”

The tires blew out sequentially near Oneonta, New York; Nashville, Tennessee; Amarillo, Texas; and finally, as a welcome to New Mexico, in Tucumcari. “Each time, Spender mysteriously found a rill, or at least an irrigation ditch, beside which he mused or read poetry while we quivered, swore, and sweated. … But mostly the motor trip to Taos and our week’s stay at the Lawrence ranch were filled with good, witty conversation. … Lenny used the Taos expedition as the setting for a chapter of his book ‘The Joy of Music.’ The chapter was called ‘Bull Session in the Rockies,’ being an aesthetic dialogue featuring L.B., L.P. (Lyric Poet), and Y.B. (Younger Brother).”

The biographer David Leeming, in Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism, reports that “the weather was impossibly hot” during the trip and that “one night the only room they could find was in a brothel. More pleasant highlights of the trip were Lenny and Bertie’s keeping themselves awake to drive by singing the complete score of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes; Stephen and Lenny pretending to be T.S. Eliot and Serge Koussevitzky; and the trio’s listening to a recording of Bernstein’s recently released recording of Gershwin’s An American in Paris in a Santa Fe music shop. As the record played, Bernstein stood near a photograph of himself, but no one recognized him, even though his brother and Stephen addressed him loudly several times as ‘Lenny.’ ” 

The impromptu renditions of Peter Grimes made an impression on Spender, who told Secrest: “He was mad about Ben Britten. All the way across America he sang the music from Peter Grimes. Of course, Britten hated him. Britten once told me the only person he had ever hit was Bernstein, in a taxi I think. Auden, too, disliked him. I think he thought him vulgar. I always got on extremely well with him, but I was aware that there was something very public about him, so that it was difficult to have a personal relationship.” 

Burton related: “At the Lawrence ranch, high on a Rocky mountain, each of us fell into a daily routine: L.B. composing at a balky piano in the living room, L.P. taking long walks and then setting down his peripatetically inspired poetry, Y.B. making friends with a neighboring Indian tribe and attempting to corral some half-wild ponies.” Frieda’s piano also makes an appearance in the essay “My Days with Frieda Lawrence” by Walter Berns (later a professor of government at Georgetown University), published in 1998 in Commentary Magazine. His take on the instrument was more admiring — but, of course, he did not have to play it:

Frieda enjoyed playing the piano, especially if we sang along with her; her specialty was a folk song that had been a favorite among the German soldiers at Metz, ‘Wenn ich zu meinem Kinde geh’ (‘When I go to my child’). Considering the fact that no tuner had ever braved the rutted road to the ranch, the piano was in surprisingly good condition. Frieda was not the only one who thought so; to cite an even better authority, Leonard Bernstein did, too, and in my presence … For some reason, Frieda owned the complete score of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, seeing it, Bernstein immediately sat down and began to play and sing his way through it. I thought this extraordinary at the time, but Frieda, who had spent the better part of her life among unusually talented people, took it in stride.

hat Bernstein was composing at that piano — whether “balky” or “in surprisingly good condition” — was his Symphony No. 2, for piano and orchestra, subtitled The Age of Anxiety. He had encountered Auden’s 80-page! poem the preceding summer, shortly before it won the Pulitzer Prize, and he found that it resonated strongly with him. The poem deals with questions that occupied Bernstein throughout his life — alienation, friendship, family, faith — and he was doubtless attuned to its gay overtones, grappling as he was at that time with his bisexual inclinations. “I imagine that the conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the extremely personal identification of myself with the poem,” Bernstein wrote.

But the trip was also, to a significant extent, a mind-clearing vacation. Burton wrote: “At six o’clock every evening, we broke off whatever we were doing and bathed in an icy stream. Then, as the sun disappeared behind a russet ridge, Spender would sing, in a tentative, nasal way:

‘Now the day is over,

Night is drawing nigh;

Shadows of the evening

Steal across the sky.’ ”

Apart from punctuating the day, Spender’s repetition of that famous Victorian hymn referred to the project that was keeping Bernstein occupied; Auden had quoted that particular quatrain in the prologue to his poem.

“And with that soaring adieu,” Burton wrote, “the day would be over, save for dinner and some intellectual talk, punctuated by yawns. It was marvellous fun — the conversations, the Indians, the ponies, the pack rats, which stole your toothbrush and left a twig in its place, the erotic paintings by Lawrence on the walls, and even Lawrence’s ashes and memorabilia in a musty outbuilding. But a week was all Lenny could take of the extreme isolation and the deficient piano. He and I left Stephen to the Lawrence ashes and the pack rats, and headed north to Sheridan, Wyoming, where we had been invited by a Tanglewood student to spend some time on his family’s cattle ranch. … Soon it was back to the East for my last year of high school and Lenny’s sixth year of growing fame.” ◀

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