Composer, conductor, pianist
Leonard Bernstein is an immensely talented American conductor, composer, pianist, and educator who has made significant contributions to the realms of both classical and popular music through numerous concerts, compositions, recordings, television appearances, and classes. He is one of the best-known American composers and the first American-born conductor to regularly conduct European orchestras.
Born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein is the eldest of three children born to Samuel and Jennie Resnick Bernstein, Russian-Jewish immigrants. Though he was named Louis by his parents, at age sixteen Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard to distinguish himself from other Louis Bernsteins in the family. Bernstein attended Boston’s highly competitive Latin School and, despite his father’s wish that he work for the family cosmetic business, studied piano, beginning at the rather late age of ten, with Helen Coates and later Heinrich Gebhard. In 1935 Bernstein enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied music with Edward Ballantine, Edward Brulingame Hill, A. Tillman Merritt, and Walter Piston, as well as philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and philology. After earning a B.A. in 1939, Bernstein studied with a number of renowned musicians at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia: Isabella Bengerova, Renee Longy, Randall Thompson, and Fritz Reiner. During the summers of 1940 and 1941 Bernstein studied conducting with the celebrated conductor Sergei Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky recognized Bernstein’s talent and in 1942 appointed him his assistant.
At this time Bernstein worked for a music publisher, arranging popular songs, transcribing band pieces, and notating jazz improvizations, which were published under the pseudonym Lenny Amber. He ocassionally conducted Boston ensembles and became the assistant conductor under Arthur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, when Bruno Walter, who was scheduled to conduct the orchestra’s nationally broadcast concert, suddenly became ill, Bernstein substituted for him with such success that his career was launched.
From 1944 to 1950 Bernstein served as guest conductor to seven major orchestras and replaced Leopold Stokowski as music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a position Bernstein held from 1945 to 1948. During his tenure with the orchestra, Bernstein conducted primarily twentieth-century works by European and American composers and proved to be an effective proponent of American music, which was largely ignored until his intervention. Bernstein’s compositions of this period include his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” which premiered in 1944 under his own
Name originally Louis Bernstein; name legally changed to Leonard at age 16; born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass.; son of Samuel Joseph (owner of a barber supply company) and Jennie (a factory worker; maiden name, Resnick) Bernstein; married Felicia Montealegre Cohn (a pianist and actress), September 9, 1951 (died, June 1978); children: Jamie Anne Maria, Alexander Serge, Nina Marie Felicia.
Assistant conductor of the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York (name later changed to the New York Philharmonic), 1943—, music co-director, 1957, director, 1958-61; director of the New York City Symphony, 1945-48; head of the orchestra and conducting departments at the Berkshire Music Center, 1951-55; has worked with countless other musicians and musicial organizations.
Awards: Winner of nine Grammy Awards, 1961-77, and of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1985; winner of 11 Emmy Awards; recipient of George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in television; chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, 1968; awarded the Motion Picture Academy’s Gold Medal for Music, 1985; recipient of Edwin MacDowell Medal, 1987; named musician of the year by Musical America, 1988.
Addresses: Office —c/o Amberson Enterprises, 24 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
direction and the ballet Fancy Free, which later became the basis for the critically acclaimed Broadway musical “On the Town.” Bernstein was also active as a pianist, and in 1949 performed the solo part in his own Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.”
In 1951 Bernstein married his longtime friend, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn. That same year Koussevitzy died, and Bernstein replaced him as director of the orchestra and conducting departments at the Berkshire Music Center. He was also appointed professor of music at Brandeis University, a position he held until 1955. While at Brandeis and in the late 1950s Bernstein continued to compose works for the stage, including the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town,” the comic operetta Candide, and the monumentally sucessful Broadway musical “West Side Story.” He also composed the film score for On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Bernstein achieved international stature as a conductor. He was the first American to conduct at the famous opera venue Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, Italy, when in 1953 he directed the celebrated soprano Maria Callas in Cherubini’s Medea. After a year as co-director under Dimitri Mitropoulos, in 1958 Bernstein acceded to the directorship of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein adapted a thematic approach to organizing concert programs and premiered works by American composers. With the orchestra, he produced many recordings and toured widely, including the Near East, Japan, Alaska, and Canada. The orchestra attracted record crowds. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” premiered in 1963, and the following year Bernstein took a sabbatical leave to experiment with composing using twelve-tone serial techniques. He did not find this popular technique to his liking and the product of this period, the Chichester Pslams, is a re-affirmation of his belief in tonality. At this time Bernstein also considered writing another musical, but was unable to settle on an appropriate project. To devote more time to composing, in 1969 Bernstein resigned as the permanent conductor, though he was given the permanent title “laureate conductor” and thus allowed to conduct ocassionally.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein often guest-conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he has made recordings and television appearances. His Mass, a work commissioned by the John F. Kennedy family for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was premiered in 1971, and his ballet based on a classic Jewish legend, The Dybbuk, was first performed in 1974 with choreography by Jerome Robbins, who had choreographed West Side Story. After many months of work on a musical about life in the White House, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” which was lambasted by critics, Bernstein gave up composing musicals. In 1977 tragedy struck when his wife Felicia died from cancer.
In 1980 Bernstein began the challenging project of concert performances, and television and record recordings of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. After a busy concert season in 1982, Bernstein focused his attention on the opera A Quiet Place (Talliti ll), which premiered in 1983. After visiting Europe again in late 1983 for concerts and recordings, Bernstein opened a concert tour with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted in a series of guest appearances. He then went to Milan, where a revised version of A Quiet Place became the first American opera to be performed at Teatro alla Scala. Bernstein continued to revise this work for some time afterward, and for the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic he composed Jubilee Games.
Approaching music intellectually, but with passion, Bernstein believes that as a conductor, he must intimately understand the intent of the composer and the culture in which he or she lived in order to “recompose” the work on stage. Sometimes his interpretations have been considered self-indulgent, and commentators have long criticized what they consider to be overly exuberant conducting gestures, but by and large he is acclaimed wherever he appears. Bernstein has become especially well known for his interpretations of the works of Mahler and Wagner, which include recordings of the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. Since he first took to the podium, Bernstein has made over four hundred recordings, for which he has received many Grammy nominations and awards.
Bernstein has also been the recipient of numerous awards for his work as a composer and educator. In the 1970s and 1980s music festivals were held in his honor, and the arrival of his seventieth birthday was feted with numerous performances of his works. Bernstein calls himself both a compulsive composer and educator. In 1954 he produced a series of television lectures about music that were published a year later as The Joy of Music. Subsequent television shows were regularly shown on network television, among them fifty-two talks for young listeners (published as Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts for Reading and Listening) and a series of Harvard lectures (published as The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard). Bernstein has published a number of other informative books and regularly conducts workshops at Tangelwood for promising conducting students.
Though Bernstein refuses to be associated with any single orchestra in his later years, he has spent more time conducting than composing—yet composing is never far from his mind. His 1988 composition, Arias and Barcarolles, is only one of several songs cycles he plans to compose, which he has hinted may evolve into an opera. At a press conference a week before his seventieth birthday, Bernstein expressed his thankfulness for the opportunities he has enjoyed throughout his career and his desire for more years during which to use the talents with which he has been so abundantly blessed.
Pslam 149 (for voice and piano), 1935.
Music for the Dance, No. 1, No. 2, 1938.
Scenes from the City of Sin (eight minitures for piano, four hands), 1939.
The Peace (music for the play by Aristophanes), 1940.
Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” 1942.
Seven Anniversaries (piano solo), 1943.
Fancy Free (ballet), 1944.
On the Town (musical comedy), 1944.
Hashkivenu (for cantor [tenor], four-part choir and organ), 1945.
Afterthought (for voice and piano), 1945.
Facsimile (ballet), 1946.
Choreographic Essay for Orchestra, 1946.
La Bonne Cuisine (four “recipes” for voice and piano), 1947.
Ssimchu na (Hebrew folk song for four-part choir and piano or orchestra), 1947.
Re’ena (Hebrew folksong for choir and orchestra), 1947.
Rondo for Lifey (for trumpet and piano), 1948.
Elegy for Mippy I (for horn and piano), 1948.
Elegy for Mippy II (trombone solo), 1948.
Waltz for Mippy III (for tuba and piano), 1948.
Fanfare for Bima (for trumpet, horn, trombone, and tuba), 1948.
Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Axniety” (symphony for piano and orchestra), 1949.
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble), 1949.
Peter Pan (stage music, lyrics by Bernstein), 1950.
Yigdal (Hebrew liturgical melody for choir and piano), 1950.
Trouble in Tahiti (opera in one act), 1950.
Five Anniversaries (piano solo), 1951.
Silhouette: Galilee (for voice and piano), 1951.
Wonderful Town (musical comedy), 1953.
Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium; for violin solo, string orchestra, harp and percussion), 1954.
On the Waterfront (music for the film), 1954.
On the Waterfront (symphonic suite from the music for the film), 1955.
Candide (comic operetta), 1956.
West Side Story (musical), 1957.
The First Born (two pieces for voice and percussion for the drama by Christopher Fry), 1958.
West Side Story (symphonic dances for orchestra), 1960.
Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish” (symphony for orchestra, mixed choir, boys’ choir, speaker and soprano solo), 1963.
Chichester Psalms (for choir, boy’s solo, and orchestra), 1965.
Shivaree (for double brass ensemble and percussion), 1969.
Mass: Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, 1971.
Dybbuk (ballet music and two orchestral suites), 1974.
By Bernstein (a revue with songs written for earlier shows but not used in them), 1975.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: A Musical about the Problems of Housekeeping, 1976.
Songfest (a cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra), 1977.
Slava! (overture for orchestra or symphonic band), 1977.
Divertimento (for orchestra), 1980.
A Musical Toast (for orchestra), 1980.
Touches (piano solo), 1981.
Halil (Nocturno for solo flute, string orchestra and percussion), 1981.
A Quiet Place (opera in four scenes), 1983.
A Quiet Place (a new version with Trouble in Tahiti as part of Act II), 1984.
Jubilee Games (two movements for orchestra), 1986.
Prayer (for baritone and small orchestra), 1986.
My Twelve-Tone Melody, 1988.
Arias and Barcarolles (piano four hands and singers), 1988.
Chichester Psalms, Columbia.
The Dybbuk (full ballet), Columbia.
Fancy Free, Columbia.
On the Town, Columbia.
On the Waterfront (film score), Decca.
A Quiet Place, DG.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Columbia.
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, Columbia.
Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” DG.
Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” DG.
Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” Columbia.
Trouble in Tahiti, Columbia.
West Side Story (complete), DG.
Wonderful Town, Columbia.
Gottlieb, Jack, Leonard Bernstein: A Complete Catalogue of His Works, Amberson Enterprises, 1978.
Gradenwitz, Peter, Leonard Bernstein: The Infinite Variety of a Musician, Oswald Wolff Books, 1987.
Gruen, John, and Ken Hyman (photographer), The Private World of Leonard Bernstein, Viking Press, 1968.
Peyser, Joan, Bernstein: A Biography, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Berkshire Eagle, August 18, 1988; August 21, 1988.
Boston Globe, August 18, 1988.
Hackensack Record, September 13, 1987.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 4, 1986; January 22, 1987.
Miami Herald, June 26, 1988.
Newark Star-Ledger, January 22, 1989.
Pittsburgh Press, September 12, 1984.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Career as opera cond. began at Tanglewood, 1946, in Amer. première of Peter Grimes. Cond. his own Trouble in Tahiti at Brandeis, 1952, and Cherubini's Medea (with Callas) at La Scala 1953 (the first Amer. to conduct there), returning to cond. La sonnambula for Callas. Salzburg Fest. début 1959 (NYPO). Début NY Met 1964 (Falstaff), Vienna 1966. In 1957–8 appointed joint prin. cond. (with Mitropoulos) of NYPO, becoming sole cond. 1958–69, the first Amer.-born holder of the post. Guest cond. many of world's leading orchs., notably Vienna PO, Israel PO, and LSO. In 1969 was made ‘laureate conductor for life’ of NYPO. Bernstein's outstanding quality as a musician was his catholic taste. Hence his comps. are markedly eclectic, bearing influences of Gershwin, Jewish ritual mus., Mahler, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, and Copland. (In 1941 he worked for a popular mus. publisher, making arrs. and jazz transcrs.) His first sym., Jeremiah (1941–4), won 1944 NY Music Critics’ Award and in that year his ballet Fancy Free, with choreog. by Jerome Robbins, was perf. in NY. Later the same year his musical On the Town began a Broadway run of 463 perfs. He made a comic operetta from Voltaire's novel Candide (1954–6) and adapted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to a New York gang warfare setting as the highly successful West Side Story (1957). As a conductor, he was a notable interpreter of Mahler, Copland, Brahms, Shostakovich, and his own music. Brilliant pianist, often directing Mozart concertos from the keyboard. Influential as teacher and television lecturer. Books include The Joy of Music (1959), The Infinite Variety of Music (1966), The Unanswered Question (1976), and Findings (1982). Works incl.:OPERAS & MUSICALS: On the Town (1944); Trouble in Tahiti (1951); Wonderful Town (1952); Candide (1954–6, rev., not by composer, 1957, 1959, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1982; by Mauceri with composer, 1987 and 1989); West Side Story (1957); 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976); A Quiet Place (incorp. Trouble in Tahiti) (1983, rev. 1984).THEATRE PIECE: Mass, for singers, players, and dancers (1971, chamber version 1972).BALLETS: Fancy Free (1943–4); Facsimile (1946); Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949); The Age of Anxiety (1949); Serenade (after Plato's Symposium), for 7 dancers (1954); Dybbuk (1974).INCIDENTAL MUSIC: Peter Pan (Barrie), 4 songs and 2 choruses (1950); The Lark (Anouilh) (1955); The Firstborn (Fry) (1958).FILM: On the Waterfront (1954).ORCH.: syms.: No.1 (Jeremiah), mez., orch. (1942), No.2 (The Age of Anxiety) (after Auden), pf., orch. (1949), No.3 (Kaddish), orch., mixed ch., boys’ ch., spkr., sop. (1963, rev. 1977); suite, Fancy Free (1944); 3 Dance Episodes from On the Town (1945); Facsimile (1946); Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, cl., jazz ens. (1949); Serenade, vn., str., hp., perc. (1954); Symphonic Suite, On the Waterfront (1955); ov., Candide (1956); Symphonic Dances, West Side Story (1960); Fanfares (1961); 2 Meditations from Mass (1971), Meditation 3 from Mass (1972), 3 Meditations from Mass, arr. for vc., orch. (1977); Dybbuk, Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (1974); Slava! (1977); CBS Music (1977); Divertimento (1980); A Musical Toast (1980); Halil, fl., str., perc. (1981); Jubilee Games (1982); Concerto for Orchestra (incorp. Jubilee Games) (1988).CHORUS & ORCH.: Kaddish (sym. No.3), mixed ch., boys’ ch., spkr., sop., orch. (1963, rev. 1977); Chichester Psalms, mixed ch., boy soloist, orch. (1965); ‘If you can't eat you got to’, ten., male ch., ens. (1973, rev. 1977).VOICE(S) & INSTR(S).: Hashkivenu, ten., ch., org. (1945); Simchu Na, ch., pf. (1947); Suite from Candide, soloists, ch., orch. (1956); Glitter and be Gay, from Candide, v., orch. (1956); Take Care of this House, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, v., orch. (1976); Songfest, sop., 2 mez., ten., bar., bass., orch. (1976).VOICE & PIANO: I Hate Music, sop. (1943); La bonne cuisine, sop. (1947); 2 Love Songs (on poems of Rilke), sop. (1949); Silhouette, sop. (1951); So Pretty, v. (1968); My New Friends, v. (1979); Piccola Serenata (‘for Karl Böhm on his 85th birthday’), v. (1979).CHAMBER MUSIC: pf. trio (1937); cl. sonata (1941–2), also transcr. for va. and pf. by R. Hillyer; Brass Music (1948); Shivaree, double brass ens., perc. (1969); 3 Meditations from Mass, vc., pf. (1971).PIANO: sonata (1938); 7 Anniversaries (1943); 4 Anniversaries (1948); 5 Anniversaries (1954); Moby Diptych (1981).
Leonard Bernstein was an American composer (writer of music), conductor, and pianist. His special gift of bridging the gap between the concert hall and the world of Broadway made him one of the most glamorous musical figures of his day.
Leonard Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. A shy and sickly child, Louis Bernstein fell in love with music after a relative gave his family an old, weathered upright piano. He began taking piano lessons and changed his name to Leonard at the age of sixteen.
The family soon moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Leonard studied at Boston Latin School. He excelled in academics and graduated in 1935. From there Bernstein went on to Harvard University, where he studied business. Although he had taken piano lessons from the age of ten and engaged in musical activities at college, his musical training began in 1939 at the Curtis Institute. The following summer, at the Berkshire Music Festival, he met Serge Koussevitsky, who was to be his chief mentor (teacher) during his early years.
A sudden star
On Koussevitsky's recommendation two years later, Artur Rodzinski made Bernstein his assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. The suddenness of this appointment, coming after two somewhat directionless years, was replaced only by the dramatic events of November 14, 1943. With less than 24 hours' notice and no rehearsal, Bernstein substituted for the sick Bruno Walter (1876–1962) at Carnegie Hall and led the Philharmonic through a difficult program that he had barely studied. By the concert's end the audience knew it had witnessed the debut of a born conductor. The New York Times ran a front-page story the following morning, and Bernstein's career as a public figure had begun. During the next few years he was guest conductor of every major orchestra in the United States until, in 1958, he became music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Bernstein's career might have filled several average lives. It is surprising that one who had never given a solo recital (performance) would be recognized as a pianist. Nevertheless, he was recognized as such from his appearances as conductor-pianist in performances of Mozart concertos and the Ravel Concerto in G.
Bernstein as composer
As a composer Bernstein was a controversial (open to dispute) figure. His large works, including the symphonies Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), are not considered masterpieces. Yet they are skillfully shaped and show his sensitivity to small changes of musical variety. He received more praise for his Broadway musicals. The vivid On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1952) were followed by Candide (1956), which, though not a box-office success, is considered by many to be Bernstein's most original score. West Side Story (1957) received international praise. Bernstein's music, with its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, determines the feeling of the show and contributes to its special place in the history of American musical theater.
His role as an educator, in seminars at Brandeis University (1952–1957) and in teaching duties at Tanglewood, should not be overlooked. He found an even larger audience through television, where his animation and distinguished simplicity had an immediate appeal. Two books of essays, Joy of Music (1959) and Infinite Variety of Music (1966), were direct products of television presentations.
Influence as a conductor
Bernstein had his greatest impact as a conductor. His appearances overseas—with or without the Philharmonic—brought about an excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to Bernstein's energy and emotion. It is generally agreed that his readings of twentieth-century American scores showed a dedication and authority rarely approached by other conductors of his time. His performances and recordings also ushered in a revival of interest in the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860–1911).
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned (stepped down) as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his nature and the diversity of his activities that he sought new channels of expression. After leaving the Philharmonic Bernstein traveled extensively, serving as guest conductor for many of the major symphonies of the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. He became something of a fixture in those cities in the last few decades of his life.
More controversially, Bernstein also became caught up in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. He angered many when he claimed all music, other than pop, seemed old-fashioned. Politically, too, he drew criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers (an extreme African American political group) in 1970, charges of anti-Semitism (against the Jewish people) were leveled against Bernstein himself. Press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. Bernstein also brought criticism with his stance against the Vietnam War (1955–75; a war in which American forces aided South Vietnam in their struggle against North Vietnam). His activism ultimately led J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1975) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to monitor his activities and associations.
In 1971 Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was, according to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came to achieving a synthesis [blending together] between Broadway and the concert hall." The huge cast performed songs in styles ranging from rock to blues to gospel. Mass debuted on Broadway later that year.
Later Bernstein compositions include the dance drama, Dybbuk (1974); 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), a musical about the White House that was a financial and critical disaster; the song cycle Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra (1977); and the opera A Quiet Place (1983, revised 1984).
In the 1980s Bernstein continued his hectic schedule of international appearances and supporting social concerns. He gave concerts to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (which brought an end to America's struggle with Japan during World War II [1939–45]) and a benefit for the research of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; an incurable disease that attacks the body's immune system). On Christmas Day, 1989, Bernstein led an international orchestra in Berlin, which was in the midst of celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall (a wall that stood for more than three decades and separated East Berlin from West). In a typically grand gesture, Bernstein changed the words of "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom."
Despite health problems Bernstein continued to tour the world in 1990 before returning to Tanglewood for a concert on August 19. He had first conducted a professional orchestra there in 1940, and this performance, fifty years later, was to be his last. He died in New York City, on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema (a breathing condition) and other complications.
For More Information
Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Peyser, Joan. Bernstein: A Biography. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Secrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein: A Life. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1994.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an American composer, conductor, and pianist. His special gifts in bridging the gap between the concert hall and the world of Broadway made him one of the most glamorous musical figures of his day.
Leonard Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. He changed his name to Leonard at the age of sixteen. The family soon moved to Boston, where Leonard studied at Boston Latin School and Harvard University. Although he had taken piano lessons from the age of 10 and engaged in musical activities at college, his intensive musical training began only in 1939 at the Curtis Institute. The following summer, at the Berkshire Music Festival, he met Serge Koussevitsky, who was to be his chief mentor in the early years.
On Koussevitsky's recommendation two years later, Artur Rodzinski made Bernstein his assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. The suddenness of this appointment, coming after two somewhat directionless years, was superseded only by the dramatic events of November 14, 1943. With less than 24 hours' notice and no rehearsal, Bernstein substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall and led the Philharmonic through a difficult program which he had studied hastily at best. By the concert's end the audience knew it had witnessed the debut of a born conductor. The New York Times ran a front-page story the following morning, and Bernstein's career as a public figure had begun. During the next few years he was guest conductor of every major orchestra in the United States until, in 1958, he became music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Bernstein's multi-faceted career might have filled several average lives. It is surprising that one who had never given a solo recital would be recognized as a pianist; nevertheless, he was so recognized from his appearances as conductor-pianist in performances of Mozart concertos and the Ravel Concerto in G.
As a composer, Bernstein was a controversial figure. His large works, including the symphonies Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), are not acknowledged masterpieces. Yet they are skillfully wrought and show his sensitivity to subtle changes of musical dialect. He received more praise for his Broadway musicals. The vivid On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1952) were followed by Candide (1956), which, though not a box-office success, is considered by many to be Bernstein's most original score. West Side Story (1957) received international acclaim. Bernstein's music, with its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, sustains—indeed determines—the feeling of the show and contributes to its special place in the history of American musical theater.
His role as an educator, in seminars at Brandeis University (1952-1957) and in teaching duties at Tanglewood, should not be overlooked. He found an even larger audience through television, where his animation and distinguished simplicity had an immediate appeal. Two books of essays, Joy of Music (1959) and Infinite Variety of Music (1966), were direct products of television presentations.
Bernstein had his greatest impact as a conductor. His appearances abroad—with or without the Philharmonic— elicited an excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to Bernstein's dynamism, particularly effective in music of strong expressionistic profile. It is generally agreed that his readings of 20th century American scores showed a fervor and authority rarely approached by those of his colleagues. His performances and recordings also engendered a revival of interest in Mahler's music.
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his peripatetic nature and the diversity of his activities that he should seek new channels of expression. After leaving the Philharmonic, Bernstein traveled extensively, serving as guest conductor for many of the major symphonies of the world including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. He became something of a fixture in those cities in the last few decades of his life.
More controversially, he also became caught up in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. He angered many when he claimed all music, other than pop, seemed old-fashioned and musty. Politically, too, he drew criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers in 1970, charges of anti-Semitism were leveled against Bernstein himself. He had not organized the event, but the press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. This event, along with his participation in anti-Vietnam War activism led J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to monitor his activities and associations.
In 1971 Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It was, according to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came to achieving a synthesis between Broadway and the concert hall." The huge cast performed songs in styles ranging from rock to blues to gospel. Mass debuted on Broadway later that year.
Later Bernstein compositions include the dance drama, Dybbuk (1974); 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), a musical about the White House that was a financial and critical disaster; the song cycle Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra (1977); and the opera A Quiet Place (1983, revised 1984).
In the 1980s Bernstein continued his hectic schedule of international appearances and social concerns. He gave concerts to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and a benefit for AIDS research. On Christmas Day, 1989, Bernstein led an international orchestra in Berlin, which was in the midst of celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In a typically grand gesture, Bernstein changed the words of "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom."
Despite health problems, Bernstein continued to tour the world in 1990 before returning to Tanglewood for an August 19th concert. He had first conducted a professional orchestra there in 1940, and this performance, 50 years later, was to be his last. He died in New York, on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema and other complications.
Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (1994) is a comprehensive biography with extensive comment from his friends and family. A more sensational biography is Joan Peyser, Bernstein: A Biography (1987). David Ewen, Leonard Bernstein (1960; rev. ed. 1967), is a solid biography and more comprehensive than John Briggs, Leonard Bernstein: The Man, His Work, and His World (1961). Evelyn Ames, A Wind from the West (1970), a sometimes-romanticized account of the New York Philharmonic's European tour of 1968, is valuable for its intimate detail. □
BERNSTEIN, LEONARD (1918–1990), U.S. composer and conductor. Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass., and studied at Harvard (1935–39), the Curtis Institute (1939–41), and the Berkshire Music Center (summers of 1940 and 1941), where he took composition with Walter Piston among others, orchestration with Randall Thompson, and conducting with Fritz *Reiner and Serge *Koussevitzky. In 1943 he was appointed Artur Rodzinski's assistant at the New York Philharmonic; he attracted national attention by acquitting himself brilliantly when called upon to conduct a difficult program at short notice. In 1953 he conducted Cherubini's Medea at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan with Maria Callas – the first time an American conductor had appeared there. From 1958 to 1969 he was the music director and conductor of the n.y. Philharmonic, the first American-born musician to occupy this post. He also succeeded Igor Stravinsky as president of the English Bach Festival. In 1989, on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with an orchestra drawn from German musicians from both East and West. In his latter years he had a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernstein was closely associated with Israel from 1947, when he conducted for the first time in the country. After the establishment of the State of Israel he was instrumental in creating the Koussevitzky music collection at the jnul in Jerusalem. In 1967 after the Six-Day War, he conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on Mount Scopus celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem in a program including symbolic work such as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. In 1978 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra decided to devote its World Festival entirely to the works of Bernstein to honor the 30th anniversary of his first appearance in Israel. The Israel Philharmonic also bestowed on him the lifetime title of Laureate Conductor in 1988. Over the years he made periodic guest appearances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, both in Israel and on its tours abroad.
Bernstein was an innovator in using television to educate the audience. He produced programs for adults and children where he lectured about composers (such as Beethoven and *Mahler, whom he identified as the central figure of 20th-century music) and their music in a fascinating way. His lecture series started with the Omnibus program in 1954, followed by the Young People's Concerts with the n.y. Philharmonic in 1958, which extended over 14 seasons (53 concerts). These programs, which were broadcast live and for which Bernstein would often feverishly prepare his script all through the previous night with the help of family and friends, became a centerpiece of his work, part of what he described as his educational mission. He also used the programs to introduce young performers to the musical world, among them the 16-year-old Andre Watts.
Bernstein, one of the dominant musical personalities of his time, soon became a celebrity. His private life came under scrutiny and he was known for his liberal political sympathies, supporting the Black Panthers in the 1960s. As a composer-conductor, Bernstein came closer than anyone since Mahler to achieving equal eminence in both spheres. His reputation as a composer began in 1943 with the ballet Fancy Free. His musical language never abandoned tonality, although in his later works he used serial devices (in "The Pennycandy Store beyond the El"). Among his works are the Jeremiah Symphony, with a vocal solo to the Hebrew text of Lamentations (1944); The Age of Anxiety, after a poem by W.H. Auden, utilizing jazz rhythms; Kaddish (in Hebrew), oratorio for narrator, chorus, and orchestra, which he conducted for the first time in Tel Aviv in 1963; Chichester Psalms (also in Hebrew), for chorus and orchestra (1965); the ballet Dybbuk (1974); three symphonies (1942, 1949, 1963); and the music for the film On the Waterfront (1954). Bernstein contributed substantially to the Broadway musical stage. He had his greatest popular triumph with West Side Story (1957), an adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story using youthful gang rivalry in New York City as the backdrop, which owed much of its success on both stage and screen to his dynamic music. Other shows for which he wrote the music were On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). His Missa Solemnis (1971), about the celebration of the Mass, aroused wide comment. He also published books on music, The Joy of Music (1959), The Infinite Variety of Music (1971), and Findings / Fifty Years of Meditations on Music (1982). Among his many honors were the Kennedy Center Honor for a lifetime of contributions to American culture, the Academy of the Arts Gold Medal for music, the Sonning Prize, the Siemens Prize, the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, and 11 Emmy Awards. Festivals of Bernstein's music have been produced throughout the world, such as a Bernstein Festival in 1986 produced by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Beethoven/Bernstein Festival in 1989 produced by the city of Bonn.
D. Ewen, Leonard Bernstein (Eng., 1960, 1967), includes bibliography; J. Briggs, Leonard Bernstein, the Man, his Work and his World (1961); A.L. Holde, Leonard Bernstein (Ger., 1961); J. Gruen (text) and K. Heyman (phot.), The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968). add. bibliography: Grove online; mgg2; M. Cone, Leonard Bernstein (1970); J.W. Weber, Leonard Bernstein (1975), discography; J. Gottlieb, Leonard Bernstein: a Complete Catalogue of his Works (1978); I. Nerius, L. Bernstein: Ausdruck eines grossen Musikers (1978); P. Robinson, Bernstein (1982); P. Gradenwitz, Leonard Bernstein (1984; Eng. trans., 1987); J. Peyser, Bernstein, a Biography (1987); S. Chapin, L. Bernstein: Notes From a Friend (1992); M. Secrest, L. Bernstein: A Life (1994/95).
[Nicolas Slonimsky /
Israela Stein (2nd ed.)]