Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)

Leonard Bernstein was a 20th-century American conductor and composer. He won worldwide acclaim during his long career, particularly for his post as usic director of the New York Philharmonic, his numerous conducting engagements both nationally and abroad, and his music for West Side Story (1957), Candide (1956), and On the Town (1944), among others. He was one of the first American-born conductors not only to become internationally known, but to become a bona fide American celebrity as well. As a lifelong champion of American composers who incorporated jazz and other American forms of music into his works, he helped create the sound of American music in the 20th century.

Bernstein was known for his enthusiastic conducting style and consistently incorporated theatrical elements into his works. His primary aim, he said, was “communication.” He was drawn to nonclassical forms such as musical theater and even pop music, as “alive” and original forms of contemporary American music. Bernstein was also heavily influenced by his Jewish upbringing, and his work exhibits a strong awareness of the political and cultural climate of World War II—and the postwar-era United States. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, much of his work incorporates themes of faith or loss of faith, redemption, and finding meaning in a turbulent world.

From 1957 until 1969, he served as the first American-born director of the New York Philharmonic, beginning his tenure as joint principal conductor, and later becoming music director. Under Bernstein’s guidance, the orchestra presented numerous contemporary pieces and played to packed houses; he conducted more concerts there than any other conductor in the orchestra’s history. Bernstein also added informal “preview concerts,” which functioned somewhat like public rehearsals, in which a conductor might stop in the middle of a piece to explain something to the audience; these gave rise to what is currently known as the “preconcert talk.” In 1958, he launched a survey of American composers, marking a significant shift in the orchestra’s direction. Later, his enthusiasm and confidence prompted even riskier choices, such as modern and avant-garde selections. He was particularly known for his renditions of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler—whom he is credited with restoring to increased popularity during the Philharmonic era—as well as Beethoven, Schumann, Shostakovich, Brahms, and Sibelius. The Bernstein era brought heightened popularity, television appearances, and extended tours, both national and international, thereby increasing the confidence and morale of the orchestra itself. Of greatest impact, however, was his increased attention to musicality within the orchestra—it began, simply, to play better. The Philharmonic returned to prominence as one of the country’s leading orchestras, with seasons consistently selling out, even during Bernstein’s sabbatical year.

As a composer and as a conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein changed the sound of American music, incorporating jazz and other American forms of music into his works.

As a composer and as a conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein changed the sound of American music, incorporating jazz and other American forms of music into his works. (Library of Congress)

His debut with the orchestra came in 1943, when he became its assistant conductor at the age of 25. When a guest conductor took ill and Bernstein substituted on a day’s notice, he became the youngest person ever to conduct a Philharmonic subscription concert. The program, which was broadcast live on CBS radio, was so successful that Bernstein began receiving offers to guest-conduct in the United States and abroad, which he did consistently until the end of his life. When he retired from the orchestra after the 1969 season, he was named its first lifetime laureate conductor and continued to make guest appearances.

He also served as music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra from 1945 to 1947, a position that offered no salary and no performance budget. Despite an inevitable rivalry between City Orchestra and the more polished Philharmonic, Bernstein kept ticket prices affordable and instituted eclectic and creative programs, attracting a younger, hipper audience.

In between his official orchestral posts and afterward, Bernstein traveled the United States and abroad at a frantic pace, holding numerous guest-conducting engagements, composing, and recording. He developed special relationships with, in particular, the Israel Philharmonic (formerly the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He visited postwar Palestine for the first time in 1947, holding rehearsals while bombings and gunfire raged outside. In 1948, the orchestra gave an outdoor concert for the Israeli Army in the Negev Desert during the ArabăIsraeli War. In 1951, he joined the Israel Philharmonic’s first U.S. tour, held to raise money for the state and increase its standing in the United States. He made his debut in Vienna in 1966, conducting the opera Falstaff and receiving 48 curtain calls. He later recorded the opera in Vienna. He went on to conduct all nine of Mahler’s symphonies in Vienna in 1967 ă1976, repeating the process in the late 1970s with Beethoven’s symphonies, and the works of Brahms and Schumann in the 1980s.

In 1953, Bernstein conducted singer Maria Callas in Cherubini’s Medea with the La Scala orchestra in Milan. Under Bernstein’s guidance, she took the Italian opera world by storm. He conducted Callas at La Scala again in 1954, in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, directed by Count Luchino Visconti. He toured South America with the New York Philharmonic in 1958, the Soviet Union in 1959, and Japan in 1962. In the Soviet Union, Bernstein chose selections rarely heard in the region, including Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and scandalized the Russian press by speaking directly to the audience. In Japan, the orchestra was well received, but some considered Bernstein too gaudy, too wild, “too American.” In 1966, he conducted a series of television programs with the London Symphony Orchestra, with the rehearsals aired by the BBC. In June 1973, Bernstein traveled to Rome with his family to conduct a papal concert, receiving an audience with Pope Paul VI. One of his best achievements, he felt, was his Bavarian Radio Orchestra recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, made in Munich in 1981.

His international appearances also included the Prague Spring Festival in Czechoslovakia, the Czech Philharmonic, the French Radio Orchestra, the Belgian Radio Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, and engagements in Milan, Paris, Budapest, and Bavaria.

Bernstein was also drawn to composing throughout his life and achieved great success as a composer, despite the fact that his compositions were not always supported—and were not performed—by his mentors, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky, composer Aaron Copland, or Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. It has also been said that his compositions were not so much original works as they were fusions of already-existing styles. Though he composed several classical works, his best known pieces are musicals—albeit complex ones, frequently deemed “too clever,” straddling the line between light entertainment and weighty artistic work.

His most successful composition is the music for the Broadway musical West Side Story (1957). Written by Arthur Laurents, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it was a collaboration that helped propel the careers of some of the biggest names in musical theater. Following the structure of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story involves two teenagers who fall in love amidst the conflicts between a white gang and a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City; it was inspired by actual contemporary gang wars. The musical ran for more than two years and won a Tony Award for choreography. The 1961 film version won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though it was at first considered dark, daring, and innovative, it is frequently performed today by schoolchildren and its difficult songs and subject matter are tackled with regularity.

Other well-known Broadway contributions include On the Town (1945), another collaboration with Jerome Robbins, about sailors home on leave during World War II. A critical hit, it was the first American musical created by a classical composer (Bernstein), and the first to feature black-and-white dancers interacting on the same stage. The successful film version was released in 1949, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Wonderful Town (1953), which starred Rosalind Russell, centers on a writer and her sister who move to New York from the Midwest. A critical and popular success, it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. His operetta Candide (1956), cowritten with playwright Lillian Hellman and based on a satirical novella by Voltaire, offered a subtle critique of the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) hearings and the Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a subtext that was not always grasped by theatergoers. Original reviews were mixed, but the show was reworked several times and is still successfully performed today. His composition Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., premiered in 1971. The production explored rock music against the backdrop of the Catholic mass, unintentionally speaking to other contemporary religiousthemed rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. In 1976, he collaborated with Alan Lerner on the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a critical flop.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah (1942), which incorporates themes of Hebrew history and Jewish liturgical melodies, won the New York Music Critics’ Award. His Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety (1949), was based on a W. H. Auden poem and dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Symphony No. 3, Kaddish (1963), premiered in Israel and was dedicated to President Kennedy.

He wrote the opera Trouble in Tahiti, about an estranged married couple, in 1952, and its follow-up, A Quiet Place, in 1983. He also collaborated on ballets with Robbins: Fancy Free (1944), which formed the basis for the musical On the Town; Facsimile (1946), a dark and complex piece that explores the neuroses of its main characters; and Dybbuk (1974), based on a Yiddish drama.

Bernstein’s other notable works include Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949); Serenade (1954), which premiered in Venice and is based on Plato’s Symposium; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960); Chichester Psalms (1965), for choral ensemble and orchestra; Songfest (1977), a choral and orchestral piece; Divertimento (1980), an orchestral composition; Touches (1981), a solo piano piece; Halil (1981); Missa Brevis (1988); Thirteen Anniversaries (1988); Arias and Barcarolles (1988); and Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games (1989). He wrote the incidental music for the Broadway productions of Peter Pan (1950), starring Boris Karloff, and The Lark (1955), and the score for the movie On the Water-front (1955), starring Marlon Brando.

Bernstein was one of the top 20 composers who performed during the 2008ă2009 season, according to the League of American Orchestras.

In keeping with his desire to “communicate” through his music, Bernstein was also heavily involved in teaching, making many television appearances and publishing several pieces of writing. Beginning in 1954, he presented a series of television essays for CBS’s “Omnibus” program. The first dealt with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the creative process; subsequent episodes focused on jazz, conducting, musical comedy, and 20th-century music, among other topics. Later, he filmed scripts for a music and lecture series featuring the New York Philharmonic, both in television studios and on tour. He hosted the televised New York Philharmonic’s “Young People’s Concerts,” in which he discussed the meaning of musical styles from Rossini’s William Tell Overture to the Beatles. The programs, which aired from 1958 to 1972, became a national institution. He also appeared several times on the PBS series Great Performances. He won 11 Emmy Awards during the course of his television career. In 1952, he became a visiting music professor at Brandeis University, where he established the Festival of Creative Arts (renamed the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts in 2005) and was named Sylvia and Frederic Mann Chair of Music. In 1970, he hosted a program honoring Beethoven’s 200th birthday. It included parts of Bernstein’s rehearsals for Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, as well as the Vienna Philharmonic’s production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The program aired in Austria and Britain, and later in the United States. From 1972 to 1973, Bernstein served as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard; his lectures were published and televised.

Bernstein had a long-standing relationship with Tanglewood Music Center, home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was one of a core group of musicians who contributed to the prestigious reputation of Tanglewood’s summer festival concerts. His association began with a summer internship in 1940, under the tutelage of Serge Koussevitzky. In 1946, he conducted the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, with several parts performed by Tanglewood students. He became head of the orchestral and conducting departments after Koussevitzky’s death in 1951. He later helped found the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in 1982, and the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, inspired by the music festivals at Tanglewood.

Bernstein’s writings can be found in The Joy of Music (1959), a bestseller; Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (1961); The Infinite Variety of Music (1966); and Findings (1982). Bernstein was elected to the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1981. He was awarded a Tony Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater in 1969, as well as the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980. He won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1985.

Bernstein was also a lifelong supporter of humanitarian causes, speaking out against the HUAC hearings and organizing several concerts and tours in support of world peace. He also co-organized a benefit concert for the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1986 and the first “Music for Life” AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in 1987.

Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918, the first child of Samuel (born Shmuel Yosef) and Jennie (born Charna Resnick) Bernstein, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The name on his birth certificate was “Louis,” but his parents called him Leonard, and at the age of 16 he arranged to have his name legally changed. Both his parents were from Orthodox Jewish families who had emigrated from the Ukraine in the early 20th century.

As a young child, Leonard was drawn to music and listened obsessively to the family’s Victrola. He was also enamored of the radio, a medium that was just beginning to attain popularity, and was drawn to all types of music, classical and popular. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 10. He took on his first piano pupil at the age of 12 and formed a rudimentary jazz band with neighborhood friends. By the age of 16, he had begun to organize full-blown operas for the lakeside summer community in Sharon, Massachusetts, where the Bernsteins owned a summer cottage. He was outgoing, flamboyant, and loved the spotlight.

He enrolled in Harvard University as a music major in 1935, a time when very few families could afford to send their children to college. As one of the few Jews on the homogeneous campus, he found himself excluded from organizations like the Signet Society and productions like the Hasty Pudding Show. He began to study with Heinrich Gebhard, the best known piano teacher in Boston. As a junior, Bernstein made his professional debut, playing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto with the State Symphony Orchestra at Cambridge. In his senior year, he composed the score for a Harvard production of Aristophanes’s The Birds, and headed a student production of Marc Blitzstein’s musical The Cradle Will Rock.

He studied conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he was a star pupil. In 1940, he conducted the Curtis Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Brahms’s Third Symphony. In 1941, he conducted the orchestra in a well-received broadcast performance of Brahms’s A major Serenade. He served as the director of the Philadelphia People’s Chorus and performed a Stravinsky concerto on NBC radio.

Though he had romantic relationships with both men and women, he married Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress, in 1951. They had three children, Jamie Anne Maria, Alexander Serge, and Nina Maria Felicia. Felicia died in 1978 after a long battle with cancer. Bernstein passed away from cancer on October 14, 1990.

—Mariah Gumpert


Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994

“Leonard Bernstein.” www.leonardbernstein.com

Seacrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1994.