Leonard Bernstein

1918 1990

Leonard Bernstein

Composer • Conductor • Piano


Leonard Bernstein was an American pianist, composer, conductor, and educator and one of the strongest proponents and ambassadors for classical music of the 20th century. He is widely lauded for his ability to bring an immense amount of passion and charisma into all his work, from conducting the classics of symphonic repertoire to composing some of the most cherished scores to movies and musicals ever written. His ostentatious and energetic style not only inspired generations of musicians, it also helped renew the interest of the American public in classical music.   Bernstein was born into a family of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Despite his apparent talent on the piano at a young age, his career-oriented father actively dissuaded him from his musical endeavors, forcing the teenage Bernstein to raise money himself for his music lessons. Eventually his musical prowess became undeniable and his father relented, buying him a baby grand piano for his Bar Mitzvah. This set the stage for Bernstein to go on to study piano at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard University.  

It was during his time at Harvard that Bernstein met and discovered many of the people that would become mentors and role models. The first was the Greek conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, whom Bernstein first witnessed conducting the Boston Symphony in 1937. Bernstein was fascinated with Mitropoulos’s expressive and vigorous conducting style, and credits that concert as the definitive moment in which he decided to dedicate his life to music. The second influence was the Russian composer and contrabassist Serge Koussevitzky, whom Bernstein himself called the strongest influence on his life. They met over the summer of 1940 in Tanglewood and Koussevitzky immediately recognized the talent in 22-year-old Bernstein, taking him under his wing and almost single-handedly fostering his interest in composition while also inspiring his conducting.

The final people that made a huge stylistic impact on the young Bernstein were two of his fellow Americans:George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Bernstein was fascinated with both of their ability to meld genres, creating works that were equal parts classical, jazz, and pop while retaining a quality that was distinctly American. Gershwin and Bernstein both also shared a love for the piano and helped revive the concept of the performing composer. In many ways Bernstein was the direct successor to Gershwin’s legacy, although the two never met. He did however meet Aaron Copland, who was responsible for not only tutoring him but also introducing him to the upper echelon of American composers.  

Bernstein achieved many career breakthroughs as a composer through his relationships with mentors such as Koussevitzky and Copland. However, his big break as a conductor happened almost by accident. On Koussevitzky’s recommendation he was appointed as the assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic, a position that is largely meaningless unless the sitting or guest conductor falls ill. Which is exactly the situation that led to Bernstein striding onto the stage to conduct the New York Philharmonic with only a few hours of notice and no rehearsals with the orchestra. Expecting to be disappointed, both the orchestra and the audience were captivated and amazed with the skill and passion of Bernstein’s conducting. The event landed on the front page of theNew York Times, and marked the beginning of Bernstein’s ascent as one of the most renowned conductors in the world.

(Below: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Yehudi Menuhin backstage at the United Nations Human Rights Day celebration at Carnegie Hall, 10 December 1949. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.)

Bernstein served as the musical director for the New York Philharmonic for many years and is credited for bringing a new breath of life to the institution. With them he performed and recorded a huge catalogue of over 500 works including legendary versions of classics such asStravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 as well as putting the spotlight on works by American composers such as Gershwin’sRhapsody in Blue and Copland’s El Salon Mexico. Many of the versions recorded for Columbia Records during this period are considered definitive.   Bernstein wrote three symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber pieces, a Clarinet Sonata, a mass, show tunes, solo works, and even one film score, for On the Waterfront (although many more film scores were adapted from his music.) Although he wrote for a wide variety of contexts, Bernstein’s enduring compositional legacy remains with his work for Broadway, and he has said himself that he finds an element of theater in all of his works. He is most famous for his award winning score for the musical and filmWest Side Story, the soundtrack of which is still the fifth-highest selling album of all time.

Bernstein’s accomplishments are so far-reaching that it is a marvel he was able to devote so much time to his other love: teaching. He is described as a natural teacher, and was never hesitant to pay the same amount of attention to aspiring pupils as he was fortunate enough to receive from Mitropoulos and Koussevitzky. Bernstein maintained a lifelong relationship with the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, where he once attended and would return year after year to educate generations of young musicians. He exposed millions of people to classical music through hisYoung Peoples Concerts, which aired on TV for 15 years and were translated into a dozen languages. Topics of the show ranged from detailed analysis of Beethoven to discussions on jazz and musical comedy.

On Christmas Day of 1989 Bernstein led a massive symphony consisting of members of the orchestras and choruses from Berlin, Dresden, New York, London, Paris, and Leningrad in a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Their powerful rendition ofBeethoven’s Symphony No. 9 served as a poignant symbol not only of Bernstein’s mastery but also of the unifying power of music. Unfortunately it was one of his final performances. Less than a year later he died of emphysema, leaving behind a legacy as impressive and extensive as any composer or conductor of the 20th century.

Header Image: Courtesy CBS  Small Image: Paul de Heuck, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.