Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. Born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, MA, he was the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie (née Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hair-dressing supplies wholesaler originating from Rovno, now Ukraine. The family spent their summers at their vacation home in Sharon, MA. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, which they preferred. He officially changed his name to Leonard when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother’s death. To his friends and many others he was simply known as “Lenny.”
Sam Bernstein was a businessman and owner of a bookstore in downtown Lawrence. Sam initially opposed young Leonard’s interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein took him to orchestra concerts in his teenage years and eventually supported his music education. At a very young age, Bernstein listened to a piano performance and was immediately captivated. He subsequently began learning the piano seriously when the family acquired his cousin Lillian Goldman’s unwanted piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison Grammar School and Boston Latin School. He would often play entire operas or Beethoven symphonies with his younger sister Shirley at the piano. He had a variety of piano teachers in his youth including Helen Coates who later became his secretary.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935, Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with, amongst others, Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. During his time at Harvard he was briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club. Bernstein also mounted a student production of The Cradle Will Rock, directing its action from the piano as the composer Marc Blitzstein had done at the premiere. Blitzstein, who heard about the production, subsequently became a friend and influence (both musically and politically) on Bernstein. Bernstein also met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the time. Although he never taught Bernstein, Mitropoulos’s charisma and power as a musician was a major influence on Bernstein’s eventual decision to take up conducting. The other important influence that Bernstein first met during his Harvard years was composer Aaron Copland, whom he met at a concert and then at a party afterwards on Copland’s birthday in 1938. At the party Bernstein played Copland’s Piano Variations, a thorny work Bernstein loved without knowing anything about its composer until that evening. Although he was not formally Copland’s student as such, Bernstein would regularly seek advice from Copland in the following years about his own compositions and would often cite him as “his only real composition teacher”.
After completing his studies at Harvard in 1939, graduating with a B.A. cum laude) he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, piano with Isabelle Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr, and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle. After he left Curtis, Bernstein lived in New York, sharing a flat with his friend Adolph Green and often accompanying Green, Betty Comden and Judy Holliday in a comedy troupe called The Reviewers who performed in Greenwich Village. He took jobs with a music publisher, transcribing music or producing arrangements under the pseudonym Lenny Amber, the meaning of his name in English. In 1940, he began his study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute, Tanglewood, in the conducting class of the orchestra’s conductor, Serge Koussevitzky. Another student in the class was Lukas Foss who also became a lifelong friend.
On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his major conducting debut at sudden notice—and without any rehearsal—after Bruno Walter came down with the flu. The next day, The New York Times carried the story on their front page and their editorial remarked, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves.” He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and afterwards started to appear as a guest conductor with many U. S. orchestras. From 1945 to 1947 Bernstein was the Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, which had been founded the previous year by the conductor Leopold Stokowski.
In addition to becoming known as a conductor, Bernstein also emerged as a composer in the same period. In January 1944 he conducted the premiere of his Jeremiah Symphony in Pittsburgh. His score to the ballet Fancy Free choreographed by Jerome Robbins opened in New York in April 1944 and this was later developed into the musical On the Town with lyrics by Comden and Green that opened on Broadway in December 1944. After World War II, Bernstein’s career on the international stage began to flourish. When Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein became head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, holding this position for many years. Also that year, he married the Chilean actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on September 10. They had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.
Bernstein was a visiting music professor from 1951 to 1956 at Brandeis University, and he founded the Creative Arts Festival there in 1952. He conducted various productions at the first festival including the premiere of his opera Trouble in Tahiti. In 1953 he produced his score to the musical Wonderful Town at very short notice, working again with his old friends Comden and Green, who wrote the lyrics. In 1954 Bernstein made the first of his television lectures for the CBS arts program Omnibus. In late 1956, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in concerts that were to have been conducted by Guido Cantelli, who had died in an air crash in Paris. This was the first time Bernstein had conducted the orchestra in subscription concerts since 1951. Partly due to these appearances, Bernstein was named the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, replacing Dimitri Mitropoulos. Bernstein held the music directorship until 1969 (with a sabbatical in 1965) although he continued to conduct and make recordings with the orchestra for the rest of his life and was appointed “laureate conductor”.
Prior to taking over the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein composed the music for two shows. The first was for the operetta Candide, which was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman based on Voltaire’s novel. The second was Bernstein’s collaboration with the choreographer Jerome Robbins, the writer Arthur Laurents, and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim to produce the musical West Side Story. In 1962 the New York Philharmonic moved from Carnegie Hall to Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in the new Lincoln Center. With his commitment to the New York Philharmonic and his many other activities, Bernstein had little time for composition during the 1960s. The two major works he produced at this time were his Kaddish Symphony dedicated to the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy and the Chichester Psalms which he produced during a sabbatical year he took from the Philharmonic in 1965 to concentrate on composition. To try to have more time for composition was probably a major factor in his decision to step down as Music Director of the Philharmonic in 1969, and to never accept such a position anywhere again.
Bernstein’s major compositions during the 1970s were probably his MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers; his score for the ballet Dybbuk; his orchestral vocal work Songfest; and his U. S. bicentenary musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue written with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner which was his first real theatrical flop, and last original Broadway show. Bernstein was appointed in 1973 to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, Harvard University, and delivered a series of six televised lectures on music with musical examples played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A major period of upheaval in Bernstein’s personal life began in 1977 when his wife Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer; she died on June 16, 1978.
Bernstein received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1980. For the rest of the 1980s he continued to conduct, teach, compose and produce the occasional TV documentary. His most significant compositions of the decade were probably his opera A Quiet Place which he wrote with Stephen Wadsworth and which premiered in Houston in 1983; his Divertimento for Orchestra; his Halil for flute and orchestra; his Concerto for Orchestra “Jubilee Games”; and his song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. In 1982, he and Ernest Fleischmann founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute as a summer training academy along the lines of Tanglewood.
In his later years, Bernstein’s life and work was celebrated around the world, as it has been since his death. The Israel Philharmonic celebrated his involvement with them at Festivals in Israel and Austria in 1977. On December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus (Playhouse) as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the summer of 1990, Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Bernstein was already at this time suffering from the lung disease that would lead to his death. He made his final performance as a conductor at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. He suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. He announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and died of a heart attack five days later. He was 72 years old.
Leonard Bernstein was an eclectic composer whose music fused elements of jazz, Jewish music, theatre music and the work of older composers like Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, George Gershwin, and Marc Blitzstein. Some of his works, especially his score for West Side Story, helped bridge the gap between classical and popular music. His music was rooted in tonality but in some works like his Kaddish Symphony and the opera A Quiet Place he mixed in 12-tone elements. His most popular pieces were the Overture to Candide, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion and the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. His shows West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town and Candide are regularly performed, and his symphonies and concert works are programmed from time to time by orchestras around the world. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. Many of his works are regularly performed around the world, although none has matched the tremendous popular and commercial success of West Side Story.
My collection includes the following works by Bernstein:
The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (1949).
Candide (1956): Overture,
Fancy Free Ballet (1943), including Three Dance Variations (Galop, Waltz, Danzon).
On the Town (1944): Three Dance Episodes.
On the Waterfront (1954): Symphonic Suite.
Westside Story (1957): Symphonic Dances (1961), Medley, and other Selections.