Leonard Bernstein

Léonie Sonning music Prize 1965

The American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 50,000 Danish kroner with a concert on 17 May 1965 at the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen. The concert was attended by King Frederik IX and Princess Benedikte. The second half of the concert was broadcast live on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 radio channel. The performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No 3 was televised on 29 May 1965.

The programme

Carl Nielsen Helios overture, Violin concerto

Carl Nielsen: Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Espansiva (last movement repeated as an encore)

Soloist: Tibor Varga
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Conductor: Johan Hye-Knudsen

Soloists: Ruth Guldbæk and Niels Møller, song
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein


The prize was presented by the director of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Knudåge Riisager, who included the following comments in his speech:

‘Dear Mr Bernstein. When the board of the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation decided to give you the prize, and you kindly agreed to come to Copenhagen to receive it, we had the opportunity to honour a great musician who has long enjoyed world renown as a composer, conductor and pianist. When your gramophone recording of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No 5 became known here in Denmark a few years ago, the question arose in Danish circles of how we, in right and proper ways, could express our recognition of the significant contribution you had therefore to the understanding of our composer outside the country’s own borders. On the 100th anniversary of Carl Nielsen’s birth, and as the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation is at same time established, we considered it a natural opportunity to invite you to conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra in a performance of one of his symphonic works while at the same time expressing our gratitude by conferring the prize on you. I therefore ask you to receive this award in the spirit in which it is intended: as Danish music life’s most reverent tribute to you as an artist and musician and as a thank-you for the efforts you have made for Carl Nielsen’s music.’

Bernstein in Denmark

Leonard Bernstein arrived in Copenhagen a week before the prize concert. During the rehearsal days, he managed to go do Odense to attend Odense Theatre’s production of his musical West Side Story. ‘I always tend to see big performances [of the piece] with lots of dancers and a giant stage. This time I could get close to the actors, and it really impressed me,’ said Bernstein, who according to the newspaper, thanked the actors with tears running down his cheeks.

The day before the prize concert, Bernstein and the Royal Danish Orchestra made a recording of Nielsen’s Symphony No 3 for the CBS label. That same evening, Bernstein was invited by the Danish government to a dinner party at Christiansborg. Among the guests were Carl Nielsen’s daughters as well as Mrs Léonie Sonning and the composers Knudåge Riisager, Finn Høffding, Vagn Holmboe and Poul Rovsing Olsen.

In his speech to Bernstein, the Minister of Culture Hans Sølvhøj said, among other things, ‘I think you have felt it as your task to distinguish between good and bad music and not between high and low. Such an attitude, especially when it is associated with your imagination and talent, is the best way to achieve popular support for a nation’s cultural life, which the Danish government would like to see promoted. But you are also an expression of the American openness that Europe can learn from – by which we mean the perfect, the open-minded, the versatile and the imaginative America at its best.’


The daily press wrote, among other things:

In the year of Carl Nielsen’s centenary we must remember his as a life made indestructible through art. Could that be communicated more compellingly, more completely convincingly than by letting Nielsen’s genius unite with that of Leonard Bernstein? Memory fails to do justice to the experience. It was overwhelming and incomprehensible, almost as if the Sinfonia Espansiva had been waiting half a century for this evening.

(Robert Naur, Politiken, 18 May 1965)

Like a bomb, charged with musical energy and yet with complete control of every note, he carried the movement along, danced through its motifs, forced onwards its will to live, embraced the broad, lyrical beauty with a ritardando that completed the triumph of the theme and held its last note in a rising fortissimo. After the first movement, Carl Nielsen, if he had heard it, would lean back even more pale in his chair, blown away by the greatness of his own music.

(Kai Flor, Berlingske Tidende, 18 May 1965)

A hurricane-like applause arose when the orchestra, with Bernstein as conductor, played Nielsen’s Symphony No 3, the Sinfonia Espansiva. Countless ovations were led by the King and Princess Benedikte and included flowers, whistles, foot stamping and calls of bravo that all thanked the conductor for the breathtaking experience he and the Royal Danish Orchestra had prepared for the audience.

(Vejle Amts Folkeblad, 18 May 1965)


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