1918 - 1990
Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, and he died on October 14, 1990 in New York City.
He was married to actress Felicia Montealegre for 25 years, and
they had four children.
Bernstein was exposed to music at an early age, and he played
the piano from the age of 10. He attended Boston Latin School
and Harvard University, where he received an A.B. in 1939. He
continued his studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia
from 1939 to 1941. Then he studied conducting with Serge
Koussevitsky and Fritz Reiner, two of the most famous conductors
of the day.
In 1943, Bernstein was appointed assistant conductor of the New
York Philharmonic Orchestra. He became an overnight success on
November 14, 1943, when he unexpectedly substituted for the
conductor Bruno Walter, who had become ill. Bernstein was able
to conduct the concert with confidence and composure. He knew
the music well and his interpretation met with the approval of
the audience. After that, Bernstein became conductor of the New
York City Center Orchestra from 1945 to 1947. He also appeared
as a guest conductor in other American cities as well as in
Europe and in Israel.
In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct at La Scala
in Milan, Italy. From 1958 to 1969, Bernstein was the conductor
and musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra,. He
also appeared as a piano soloist while conducting from the
keyboard. The orchestra made several tours to Europe, the Soviet
Union, Japan, and Latin America. Bernstein achieved worldwide
popularity on these travels, and he was sought after as a guest
conductor with major orchestras in many countries.
As a composer, Bernstein combined classical techniques with jazz
idioms and Jewish liturgical themes, which can be heard in his
Jeremiah Symphony (1942) and his oratorio Kaddish (1963). He
also employed jazz rhythms in Age of Anxiety, written for piano
and orchestra in 1949. The Chichester Psalms (1965) and Mass
(written for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the
Performing Arts in Washington, DC in 1971) are examples of his
Bernstein wrote several Broadway musicals, among them On the
Town (1944), Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957). He also
wrote the musical score for the movie On the Waterfront (1954)
as well as several dance, song, and theater pieces.
In the early 1960s, Bernstein instituted a series of Saturday
afternoon Young People's Concerts on television, at which he
explained the story of the music, had members of the orchestra
demonstrate their instruments, and generally introduced young
people to classical music. Other conductors have used the same
format with somewhat less success than Bernstein enjoyed.
Toward the end of his career, Bernstein was permanent guest
conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic as well as the Israel
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
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
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.
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This web page was last updated on:
08 December, 2008