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Leonard Bernstein
1918 - 1990


Leonard 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 liturgical works.

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 Philharmonic.


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.











This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008