Episode 10: A Plea for Peace: Leonard Bernstein, Richard Nixon, and the Music of the 1973 Inauguration

As we gather this week to witness the inauguration of our new president, we find our nation in a state of great political unrest.  While certain recent events of violence at the Capitol are no doubt unprecedented, it is certainly not the first time an inauguration in our country has been met with divide.  

In 1973, the United States was reaching the concluding stages of our involvement in the Vietnam.  And while the war would soon come to an end, the proceeding weeks leading up to the inauguration were met with some of the most intense and deadly bombing campaigns  the war had witnessed.  The anti-war movement was unhinged.  They had marched, they had protest – all to seemingly no avail when it came to changing the foreign policies of Richard Nixon.  

So what to do next….  American conductor, Leonard Bernstein, gathered an impromptu orchestra and choir to perform a “Concert for Peace”, following his belief that by creating beauty, and by sharing it with as many people as possible, artists had the power to tip the earthly balance in favor of brotherhood and peace.

Special thanks to Michael Chikinda, Alicia Kopfstein, Matt Holsen, and Bernie Swain for sharing their insight and memories of the musical events surrounding Nixon and his second inauguration in 1973.

A Plea for Peace: Leonard Bernstein, Richard Nixon, and the Music of the 1973 Inauguration

ARCHIVAL:  Not everybody is here this weekend to celebrate. Thousands of demonstrators are expected. They’ve spent weeks organizing and are here to protest the war.  “This is one anti-war demonstration that Mr. Nixon is not going to avoid.  Past demonstrations he has fled town, nobody sees him now. He’s never explained to the nation why he ordered these saturation bombing rates on Hanoi and Haiphong, but this is one time he’s going to have to be present.  We know he’s not going to be out of town and we want to be there at the same time.”

Alicia Kopfstein (AK):  The number of people who were in DC, it was thousands upon thousands. 18,000 were at the cathedral alone.   To have the cathedral so full like that… full to the gills. There was no room. It was just overwhelming, to try to find a place to park, of course, but to be with so many like-minded people.  Contrasting with so many protests now where there’s violence, it was so peaceful. There was such an attitude of goodwill and camaraderie and companionship. That was just incredible. I’m Dr. Alicia Kopfstein, I teach at American University and I’m a contributor and co-editor of a recent collection of essays called Leonard Bernstein and Washington DC. I was a singer in Leonard Bernstein’s “Concert for Peace” that happened at the Washington National Cathedral in January of 1973. 

ARCHIVAL:  Introduction to the three official inaugural concerts tonight. There’s a fourth unofficial one. Leonard Bernstein is conducting what is called a “Concert for Peace” at the Washington Cathedral.  Admission is free, arrangements have been made to pipe the program outside.  It is thought that 10,000 persons might show up, many of them anti-war protesters.  

AK:  There was hope, there was desire for peace, there was love, but there’s also a resignation, a fear because people had done their utmost to try to protest the war and it didn’t seem to change anything.  Years and years and years of protest still led to the Christmas bombing.  So it was just, we’re getting desperate. Let’s do everything we possibly can.

The Vietnam War went from 1959 to 1975. When Nixon was elected the second time, it was shortly after some more horrors in the Vietnam war. We had Kent State and the Pentagon papers, the My Lai massacres. Films and photographs were available in Time and Look and all the major magazines and newspapers showing women and children and young people just lying dead by the road.  Shocking for people in this country.  There were a lot of anti-war protests and Bernstein participated in those anti-war protests. 

Michael Chikinda (MC): The Nixon administration was very frustrated with the lack of progress in resolving the situation in Vietnam. So they began what was later dubbed the “Christmas Bombings”. There was this very intensive bombing campaign to try to force the Vietnamese government into submission. It was a very unpopular decision.

ARCHIVAL: The sound in the background is a jet that is gone by. I can hear some bombs in the distance. The sky is lighting up. So something’s gone on somewhere.

AK:  It was a two week bombing campaign with over 20,000 tons of bombs dropped on civilian areas of Vietnam. Over 1600 people were killed, civilians mostly.  Over 2000 homes were destroyed. So, this is what people in the United States were hearing about.

ARCHIVAL:  Arriving from New York. Ms. Baez said recent US bombing rates had delayed her departure from Hanoi for a week.  After a warm greeting by family and friends in San Francisco, she outlined some of the bomb damage described by one of her colleagues as far heavier than the London blitz.

LINK:  Joan Baez On Visit To Vietnam (Bay Area Television Archive

MC:  The American composer Vincent Persichetti was approached by Nixon’s second inauguration committee on the recommendation of Eugene Ormandy, the principal conductor at the Philadelphia orchestra with a commission.  They wanted him to compose a new piece of music that would accompany the text from Lincoln’s second inaugural address of 1865. The administration realized how unpopular the Christmas bombing was. Initially they approached Persichetti and asked him to maybe remove certain passages that they felt could somehow be construed as critical of the Nixon administration’s policies with Vietnam.  And then ultimately they decided to remove the piece entirely and go a different direction. My name is Michael Chikinda. I’m head of the Theory Area at the University of Utah school of music.   And I wrote an article for the Journal of Music and Politics entitled “Lincoln, Persichetti, and the Second Inauguration of Richard Nixon:  A Study in Artistic Vision Versus Political Expediency.” 

The inaugural committee were very concerned about anything that could bring further controversy to what was supposed to be a very celebratory event. There were massive protests going on across the country in Washington. And so they wanted to squelch any possibility of something that would be inflammatory that would really stoke the fire.  There were these memos back and forth. And then they finally decided ultimately that even after they removed some key phrases, they still felt the spirit somehow of Nixon’s second inaugural that somehow people might draw a connection between this line of texts in Lincoln’s speech to certain policies of the Nixon administration.  So they said, we’re going to dispense with this altogether and we’re going to look for other texts. They looked at Longfellow’s Hiawatha, the Declaration of Independence. They even looked at bizarrely at some poetry by Ray Bradbury. I think that was one of the most curious things that… just imagined for this….Okay. This is a presidential inauguration, right? You have the speech by one of the most important and beloved presidents from US history.  Oh no, no, we can’t have that!  Instead, let’s look at the poetry of Ray Bradbury called “Madrigals for the Space Age”. When you make a choice to remove something as important as President Lincoln’s speech and expect that that’s not going to have fallout you really, the naivety it’s just…it’s hubris.  But when you make this step, when you decide, okay, this cannot see the light of day, you know, take it out. That inevitably always ends up having the opposite reaction. You know, in the case of the Nixon administration, they thought that by removing the Persichetti piece with the text by Lincoln, the press just had a field day with it.  You know, what?  You’re censoring Lincoln? There’s a wonderful cartoon by a satirist Wayne Stayskal and in the first frame, it shows this figure violently kicking Persichetti in his posterior and the leaves to the score flying Helter Skelter. And this person be anybody from the committee, Ken Reitz, Ed Cowling, whoever saying, Sorry Mr. Persichetti, your composition is being deleted from the inaugural concert because it mentions war.  A little embarrassing to the president se feel. Then in the second pane of the cartoon, another figure walks up to this person who’s just kicked Persichetti. And he says, Oh dear, here’s another that mentions rockets and bombs.  Well, get rid of it, whatever it is. And this person says, “Uh, it’s the National Anthem!  Oh, on second thought we could play it softly!” I love that because that just really captures the field day the press was having with this, right?  And at the same time, the utter absurdity, if the situation, you know, the thing that you can put a lid on these things.

LINK:  Lincoln, Persichetti and the 2nd Inauguration of Richard Nixon: a Study in Artistic Vision Versus Political Expediency

MC:  Richard Nixon was very fond of Eugene Ormandy and very appreciative of the work Ormandy did with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Wanting to have Ormandy in the Philadelphia Orchestra play, this was a personal preference of the president as was the inclusion of course of Tchaikovsky’s  1812 Overture.

ARCHIVAL:  Almost 70 years later, Tchaikovsky wrote this piece. It’s also a favorite of Mr. Nixon, as we told you, he first heard it in Philadelphia, played by this orchestra in 1970…

MC:  That amongst everything else was something that had to be on the program.  Now, why again, with all of the suspicion surrounding Lincoln speech, the defeat of Napoleon in Russia, you know, and some people were referring to Nixon as a dictator, given his policies of Vietnam. Why was there no connection drawn there? Really? Do we want some sort of tacit comparison between Nixon and Napoleon, but again, that was no problem there, you know, because Nixon absolutely loved the 1812 overture.  The other thing is there are cannons!  It’s scored for cannons going off.

MC:  It’s just so funny. I mean, there’s no problem, no pains of conscience with the 1812 Overture, but Lincoln’s second inaugural address, hmm…that won’t do.  It really boggles the mind, the thought process that goes into these sorts of things. 

LINK:  On January 20, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon and Charles W. Colson talked on the telephone from 1:04 am to 1:46 am. The White House Telephone taping system captured this recording, which is known as Conversation 036-018 of the White House Tapes. LISTEN

AK: At the same time, Francis Sayre was the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral and Dean Sayre and Bernstein got together to decided to give a concert for peace in protest. And even though Dean Sayre said this is not an anti inaugural, it was scheduled on the same night at the same time. So what worked to perform? Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, it features ‘a dona nobis pacem’, a desire for peace. This is what he was hoping for. Also I’m sure Bernstein picked the Haydn in part because he knew modernist works took too long to rehearse. And this was put together very quickly with very little rehearsal.

Matt Holsen (MH): I got a call from somebody from Choral Arts from Norman Scribner, he was the director of the Choral Arts Society. And he was like the guy to go to for a choir in DC. There wasn’t time to do auditions for the Concert for Peace because I’m sure Bernstein called them and said, Can you have me a choir ready to rehearse in a week? I was on his list and he said, Do you want to do something with Bernstein again? And I said, sure. And I showed up for rehearsal.

Photo courtesy of the Choral Arts Society.

AK: It got pulled together amazingly quickly with phone calls. I remember Bernstein walking out somewhat resigned to a rehearsal with an amateur choir and he gave the downbeat and conducted a clear beat pattern. And the chorus sounded absolutely fantastic. And Bernstein blossomed and began just conducting the feeling of the music.

MH: We had one or two piano rehearsals, and then we had maybe one or two rehearsals with Bernstein, and then we did the concert. It was pretty intense. My name is Matt Holsen and in ’73, I was a bass in the choir for the Concert for Peace. I was 20 at the time. And it was extremely exciting. I really didn’t even understand a whole lot about what was going on in the war and in politics at that age. I really didn’t, but I was happy to be part of something protesting Nixon’s second inauguration. But mostly it was just, you know, working with Bernstein, which is a real pleasure. I mean, it’s…everything is so easy when you have a good conductor. There’s something about …the only way I could explain it is you just latched onto his hands and you did it. He made it easy.

Bernie Swain (BS): My impression, right from the beginning was that Bernstein had shouldered the burden of making up for any deficiencies in preparation or previous experience of this group. That he was going to personally lead them through the piece by sheer force of will and charisma. He leaned into the piece and into the space of the orchestra and into the chorus, exerting a level of psychic and even moral energy that by the end left him completely drained. His hair was wet and limp. His face was running, his clothes were soaked through. He had basically rung this performance out of the orchestra and the chorus. My name is Bernie Swain. I was working in Washington in 1973 at the age of 23, and I attended the anti-inaugural Concert for Peace at the National Cathedral on the evening before the re-inauguration of Richard Nixon. When the news came out that Bernstein might do a concert, I was very interested. The ticket would be free and available at noon, so they expect that a big line of people. My girlfriend’s classmate offered to go down. The limit was three tickets per person in line, and she offered to get a ticket for herself and tickets for us. And it turned out she got there at noon was basically first in line. And so we got first Pew tickets to the concert. I was in the very first seat, the aisle seat of the first pew. When the VIP’s arrived, most of the people who filed in directly across from us were people that we recognized. There was Senator Charles Mathias. There was Eugene McCarthy, there was Ted Kennedy and his sister, there was a whole range of big names of the Democratic party lined up just opposite us. Made us feel even more privileged because we were basically had the same sight lines they did. We were at the same distance that they were. There was a sense of fellow participation, of common bond because we knew we were all there for the same reason.

MH: I understood it as a counter inaugural. You know, that’s what people called it, you know, we are the counter inaugural concert. And I remember a lot of people talking about how well I’m glad my name’s not on any program because I work for the department of such and such. You know, there were a lot of people were like federal employees. There were a lot of members of the National Symphony who played and who, again, didn’t want their names on there because it was controversial. Although I gather the National Symphony felt snubbed because Nixon had wanted the Philadelphia Symphony to play. And I think everybody in DC knew that the Philadelphia was a much better orchestra.

BS: Of course, people were angry because they had not wanted Nixon reelected. They were doubly angry over the war. They were triply angry because of his choice of the inaugural concert. Not only had he snubbed the National Symphony, which was the traditional agent for the inaugural concert, but he had selected Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which people took to be a fairly warlike choice. It just seemed like another lack of class on Nixon’s part. So I was particularly happy that Bernstein had chosen in a sense to rescue them by bringing them back on his stage. And if anybody in this country was a bigger figure at the podium than somebody like Ormandy, it was clearly somebody like Bernstein, who was the superstar of all American conductors. So there was a way in which the feeling was that this had trumped Ormandy, had trumped Philadelphia, and above all had trumped Nixon. And the audience they were kind of in a vengeful world. They were kind of almost triumphal. That maybe we lost the election, but here’s our chance to be heard. There was a kind of electric air as people gathered into the cathedral because they were so anxious to hear this event as a way of even kind of flipping the finger to Richard Nixon, it seemed like both politically and musically, it was the perfect revenge.

AK:  Bernstein, his fan mail said, I commend you for taking this courageous position. I admire you. It takes much courage for a public figure to take a stand and it is the most creative protest I have heard.  The critic Richard freed actually wrote the marvelous Haydn mass you have chosen to perform is not a prayer for victory, but a supplication for peace is as an inspired, a choice for such an event as the 1812 Overture in the context of the official inaugural concert is obscene. 

BS:  The buzz that was in the cathedral before the speakers started was something the musicians were very aware of because they were on the stage. And I think they knew the import of this event. They knew what it meant to people. They knew that it wasn’t just people attending a concert to listen to music.  It was a statement and it was a political statement. It was a national statement. It was a cultural statement. The fact that it was in the national cathedral, raise the ante on all of that. So I think the chorus of the orchestra was already primed. And so was the audience.  When it ended, the chorus looked beat and the congregation exploded. It was thunderous. There was something like 10,000 people outside watching on television being soaked. And I was not outside to hear their reaction, but I would be surprised if that reaction wasn’t thunderous as well. I mean, I think we were all on our feet for some time.

It was what people could do that night if they wanted to make their statement. And of course, the next day on the mall, you had tens of thousands of people in an anti-war protest at the time of the inauguration. But that night, this was the event to do. And it was clearly much more than simply a musical concert.  It was a historic event. Before the music began, Eugene McCarthy got up and gave a fairly long talk. And the brunt of his talk was we have tried everything to resist this war and he made a long litany of all the activities and events that had gone into it. And he said, we have arrived at long last with the recognition that there was nothing more we can do our say. And so we resort to music. 

AK:  There was a huge moral question of should musicians perform for this person, for this event. And I think it’s interesting to contrast the performers at the Concert for Peace with the performance at the inaugural.  At the Concert for Peace, it was a 50 piece local orchestra.  Mostly National Symphony players, mostly first chair musicians who donated their services. So this shows a willingness to be present, to protest. 125 singers trained by Norman Scribner, donated their services, a solo quartet from New York, all young, donated their services.  In contrast at the Kennedy Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra was performing at Nixon’s inaugural. And it became quite a moral question for a lot of the orchestra members. They even got telegrams from local churches and peace activism groups asking them to not perform.  The musicians had to make a decision because it was in their contract that they had to perform.  And many people protested this. They did not want to perform, but there was no way out of their contract. So some of them got sick. One person did not move at all when Hail to the Chief was played, that was his way of protest. And there were articles then saying that there should be a morals clause in musicians, contrasts, allowing them an out, if they disagree with the morality of the event or the person who’s the event is honoring.  And Nixon called himself a Quaker who are pacifists. And obviously that was not the case with the Nixon.

MC:  You read periodicals of the time. You know, those sort of columns we used to have about the who’s, who, who went to this event, who was there. Of course, they will talked about all the celebrities that were there and how, what a wonderful party.  And they drank champagne and they have this lovely finger food. But when you look at the political commentary, what you would find on the opinion page, it was the exact opposite. It was not the frou frou, you know, how lovely it was and who was wearing this and who was on the arm of this person. It was all discussion about this endless campaign in Vietnam and the removal of this piece of music that was to include the text by Lincoln. So you get this very bizarre contrast between being an elite social occasion and don’t you wish you were there to this is another instance of an administration that’s tone deaf and not listening to the American people. I think there’s some people that were saying, given the situation in Vietnam, is it even appropriate to have, you know, you can have the inauguration ceremony, of course, which is important, but do you need an inaugural celebration?  Do you need all of these concerts? This was the first time they were going to have three separate concerts, the symphonic concert, the American concert, and the youth concert. And a lot of people were saying, you know, look at the money that’s being spent on this. This is money that could instead be diverted towards helping those who were coming back from the war who’ve been maimed, who have sustained injuries.   And is it really appropriate to have this type of celebration considering what’s going on? So again, I think a lot of people saw this as being tone deaf. So that counter concert at the National Cathedral, even though I don’t know that there’s anything that Hadyn ever stated explicitly that it’s antiwar.  It has sort of been taken up as an antiwar piece, something that’s advocating for peace and reconciliation. 

I like to think of a parallel universe where the inaugural committee had allowed Persichetti’s piece to be included and to be performed. I think it would have been an opportunity for the healing process to begin. I think as people heard the words of Lincoln again and heard this gorgeous music by Persichetti and to think about there is a possibility for healing, that this war will come to an end, and we can come together and heal as a nation as they did at the end of the civil war.


Leonard Bernstein and Washington, DC: Works, Politics, and Performances
Edited by Daniel Abraham, Alicia Kopfstein, Andrew H. Weaver
More Info HERE

Van Cliburn, Eugene Ormandy, The Philadelphia Orchestra ‎– Music Featured At The 1973 Inaugural Symphonic Concert

Leonard Bernstein ‎– Leonard Bernstein’s Concert For Peace (Haydn: Mass In Time Of War)

Joan Baez – Where Are You Now, My Son? 

Leonard Slatkin, Nashville Symphony ‎– Abraham Lincoln Portraits