Campus & Community

‘Symbiotic’ Web archive launched

3 min read

Bernstein material available for first time

A new Web archive created by faculty, students, and librarians at Harvard brings original research on Leonard Bernstein and his Boston roots to the public for the first time. The material, which went live on the Web on Jan. 23, was collected during undergraduate seminars and over the course of an international Bernstein Festival at Harvard.

The archive, which was supported by the Academic Technology Group, includes items as wide-ranging as the discovery of an alternate Bernstein arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue” to interviews with individuals who performed in the teenaged Bernstein’s backyard theatrical productions. The bulk of material consists of student-conducted video interviews with Bernstein colleagues and family members, including the maestro’s children, brother, and childhood friend and orchestrator for “West Side Story” Sid Ramin. What makes the effort unique is that the seminar’s original work — done collaboratively by undergraduate and graduate students supervised by faculty — has now been stored in a permanent research repository and can be used to inform future scholarship.

Its symbiosis of pedagogy and research is also unique. “As a child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to the Boston area, Bernstein offered students an extraordinary opportunity for hands-on exploration of how music interacts with diverse yet interconnected communities,” says G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies Kay Kaufman Shelemay, one of the leaders of the seminar. Her collaborator in the project, William Powell Mason Professor of Music Carol J. Oja, adds: “For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this course was the degree to which students could experience palpable connections between the present and the past, especially through work that we did at Bernstein’s family synagogue, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, now located in Chestnut Hill.”

The project emerged from the course “Before West Side Story: Leonard Bernstein’s Boston,” taught by Oja and Shelemay in spring 2006. Working in teams, students fused ethnography and archival research to explore the interlinking communities and institutions (Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Boston Latin High School, Harvard Class of ’39, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others) that shaped Bernstein’s formative years. Students unearthed a wealth of materials now available on the Web site, some of which will be published in a special issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music (January 2009).

The seminar was timed to precede “Leonard Bernstein — Boston to Broadway,” a major international festival and conference about Bernstein, which was co-directed by Oja and Judith Clurman, a leader in the field of choral music. The festival took place at Harvard in October 2006. A second round of interviews was completed during the festival (as part of a fall 2006 Harvard seminar on American Musical Theater led by Oja), when students had focused conversations with some of the major luminaries in Bernstein’s career including director and producer Hal Prince, and biographer Humphrey Burton.

These interviews, now archived on the Web site both on video and as transcripts, include information on many facets of Bernstein’s life. His daughter Jamie talks about growing up in the Bernstein home; Ricky Leacock, Bernstein’s Harvard classmate, shares memories about mounting productions of “Peace” and “The Cradle Will Rock”; and director Harold Prince reminisces about Bernstein’s role as a teacher, mentor, and conductor, among many others.