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Embodying Bernstein: An Open Letter to Jake Gyllenhaal and Bradley Cooper from Daniel Callahan, Presenting “Bernstein Conducting Himself” This Tuesday, May 15

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The following is a guest post from Dr. Daniel Callahan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Boston College, who will be presenting the Spring 2018 American Musicological Society/Library of Congress lecture on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 (tomorrow). The event is free and open to the public.


Dear Bradley Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal,

If the recent news about Jake producing and starring as Leonard Bernstein  in a biopic directed by Cary Fukunaga is true, and if it is true, as Jake told Variety, that he wants to honor and capture how Bernstein was “full of genius and contradiction,” and if the even more recent news is true that Bradley Cooper will also be starring in and directing a biopic about Bernstein that is to be produced by, among others, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, may I invite both of you Oscar hopefuls to attend my lecture, “Bernstein Conducting Himself,” open to the public at the Library of Congress this Tuesday, May 15? I imagine your schedules are quite packed and understand that this is a last-minute invite. So while I have your attention right now, may I humbly offer you some advice about embodying Bernstein?

Leonard and Shirley Bernstein in the green room of Carnegie Hall, after the Israel Philharmonic Concert, March 1951. Leonard Bernstein Collection 210/3, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It must seem exciting to perform as a conductor, especially Bernstein—leaping, sweating, facing the music (that is, not only standing in front of an orchestra but also reflecting the music on your face). Bernstein was accused of “overrated” “exhibitionistic” “histrionics,” great for promotional photographs and children—and Oscar bait if ever there was! But if you really want to become Bernstein (and finally nab that Oscar, or at least the respect of knowledgeable music lovers), you need to convey that he did not practice conducting as wild, improvisatory effusions for the sake of audiences and cameras. Rather, Bernstein’s conducting was a choreography that captured his empathy with the music. In rehearsal and performances, Bernstein approached the podium like one of the many dancers with whom he had long worked and socialized. Bernstein’s specific movements and expressive affect for scores often remained consistent across decades. (This is all the more notable when you consider that some conductors’ movements look radically different when they perform the same score over a three-concert weekend.) The examples I’ll share in my lecture include previously unseen footage of Bernstein’s final conducting appearance in 1990, when, though physically exhausted and less than two months away from his death, he conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony relying on a choreography long stored in his muscle memory.

Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Preparing to play a role as iconic as Bernstein is no doubt daunting, especially because Bernstein himself played so many roles, both professionally (conductor, composer, pianist, educator, celebrity) and personally (husband, father, friend, mentor, and lover to many men, as letters unsealed at the Library of Congress in 2011 illuminate far beyond the information hitherto available in Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography). Drawing on unpublished materials in the Library of Congress’s Leonard Bernstein Collection, oral histories, and films, my lecture explores the physicality of Leonard Bernstein’s onstage conducting, including the role of sexuality from Bernstein’s and his critics’ perspectives. Bernstein wrote that conducting “is the closest thing I know to love itself.” A college sophomore in 1937, Bernstein met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and fell in love with both the man and his athletic, leap-filled podium style. Around this time, Bernstein also began to plan a musical on James M. Cain’s hardboiled novel Serenade, about a tenor whose life is destroyed by a powerful gay conductor. Initially worried that his own homosexuality would destroy his career prospects, Bernstein, as he grew in fame and years, became increasingly immune to criticism of his “flamboyant” onstage conducting and offstage conduct. It is the increasing shamelessness with which Bernstein embraced music, people, and himself that I hope to highlight in my lecture, and that I think fellow Bernstein fans will hope to see Jake and Bradley embody on screen. As the musical community celebrates Bernstein’s 100th anniversary in 2018, and as the biopics start shooting, we might fully appreciate his conducting as both instructively shameless and carefully choreographed.

Thank you for reading this far. Again, I know that you and your people—Hi, Gopnik! Hey, Marty!—are very busy. I get that you probably can’t make it down to DC on such short notice. If you want to watch the lecture from the comfort of your own home as you study and prepare for your roles, it will soon be available on the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel. And if you or any other Bernstein fans or folks interested in conducting want to get in touch (whether or not you’re thinking about playing Bernstein or any other conductor on screen), I can be reached at [email protected].

Happy Bernstein Centennial!



  1. Bernstein’s “dancing” was much in evidence in his performances as a conductor. I only saw him in rehearsal once, and there was no “dancing”. His movements were very restrained, traditional, the sort of thing I experienced playing in orchestras under several diferent conductors. Because of seeing that rehearsal, I’ve always wondered if his “dancing” while conducting in public wasn’t just a show he put on.

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