This is a moment of inquiry for the whole world: a moment when civilization looks at itself appraisingly, seeking a key to the future. In this spirit we shall examine the creative arts during our four-day Festival—examine them by performance, by asking questions, by the answers we receive. We cannot pretend to wisdom; but through performance we can provoke thought and free discussion; through discussing we can learn; and through learning we can rediscover our culture and ourselves. – Leonard Bernstein
The Festival of the Arts made its first mark on the Brandeis University campus in June 1952, in conjunction with the university’s first graduation. With over 3,000 attendees, the newly built Ullman Amphitheater was filled to capacity as musicians, artists, dancers, and actors presented their debut performances. President Sachar opened the ceremonies with an address to the university, describing the events that would take place as a reflection of the quality of university achievements. According to Sachar, the Festival of the Arts was meant to be “stimulating and provocative as well as aesthetic and exciting.” The four-day event not only excited those involved with the university, but became well-known nationwide.
Led by Leonard Bernstein, a prominent composer and professor of music, the festival included works in jazz, poetry, opera, theater, and film. The festival kicked off on June 12, 1952, with an opening event entitled “An inquiry into the present status of the creative arts.” This conversation concerning the nature of the arts was moderated by Leonard Bernstein himself. Bernstein, for whom the festival was later named, also directed the world premiere of his opera Trouble in Tahiti on the first night of the festival. This domestic tragi-comedy was performed in seven scenes, depicting a couple living in suburbia trying to overcome the challenges of unhappiness. The show was later performed on air for N.B.C. Television Opera Theatre.
The first Festival of the Arts also included the premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s translated adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, which later opened off Broadway in March 1954. The opera was praised for both its accuracy in transforming the original German opera and its fantastic composition. Other performances included Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul by Pierre Schaeffer, with the choreography of Merce Cunningham, and Les Noces, a choral ballet by Igor Stravinsky. Jazz concerts presented various trends in bop and Dixieland jazz, including a performance by Miles Davis. Poets Karl Shapiro, Ludwig Lewisohn, Peter Viereck, and William Carlos Williams also engaged audiences by reading their personal pieces. Throughout the festival, stimulating moderated discussions took place to explore all areas of the art displayed.
The first Festival of the Arts at Brandeis was not only praised at the university, but also had critics and journalists commenting across the country. According to the New York Times Magazine, the best part of the festival was that “the arts were represented as they must always be—in their living state.” The article ended by stating, “There was, in sum, a sense of the ferment of ideas, and that is what Brandeis University hopes its annual festival of the creative arts will come to express to the world.” In another article, John W. M. Riley writes,
Such an event as this Brandeis festival of the Creative Arts, presented in the fourth year of the university’s existence, strikingly shows the vitality, awareness and creative energy which pervade the atmosphere at Brandeis.
Many thanks to Brandeis University student Debra Friedman for writing this summary.