Leonard Bernstein’s children have donated the carefully preserved contents of his main composing studio to Indiana University, which has promised to recreate the space.
The items run from the deeply meaningful to the banal. They include Bernstein’s stand-up composing table; a conducting stool that may have been used by Brahms, given as a gift by the Vienna Philharmonic; an electric pencil sharpener; a telephone; an ashtray and disposable lighters; 39 Grammy-nomination plaques; and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The first time I ever went wandering around the main branch of the Boston Public Library, I turned a corner and found Walter Piston’s studio, similarly transplanted from his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, after his death. Another Massachusetts example: in 2001, Julia Child’s kitchen was moved, lock, stock, and barrel, from her house in Cambridge to the Smithsonian Institution.
Does this sort of thing happen in Europe? Not the preservation of an artist’s studio—you can still visit Mahler’s composing shed, for instance—but dismantling it and reassembling it somewhere completely different? I find it a very American thing to do, both in terms of American vices—prioritization of convenience, fetishization of stuff—and virtues: mobility, reinvention, history that accrues to people and not places. I started thinking about Bernstein’s musicals and operas, all of which concern very specific places, from his early hit On the Town to his late flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It struck me that trucking his studio across the country would be a return to form for Bernstein, for whom the protean transience of New York was a better muse than the weighty history of the White House.