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Leonard Bernstein - Composer

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I don't want to spend my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same fifty pieces of music. It would bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician.
- Leonard Bernstein, quoted in the New York Times

Leonard Bernstein was a major figure in 20th Century music and brought to its many facets his considerable verve and dramatic exuberance.

As a conductor he led the New York Philharmonic for many years, producing outstanding live performances and recordings. He was also in great demand around the world from many other world-class orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony.

As a presenter and educator he made classical music accessible to large numbers of people of all backgrounds and abilities, often for the first time in their lives. He enormously expanded the global audience for classical music, popularising it without ever compromising artistry.

He was also a brilliant concert pianist and a champion of American composers, particularly Aaron Copland, whose Piano Variations Bernstein often performed as a young pianist.

But it is as a composer that Bernstein is perhaps best known. His compositions encompass a wide variety of forms, styles and genres. In addition to works for musical theatre such as West Side Story, Candide, On The Town and Wonderful Town, there are symphonies, operas, ballets, songs, choral works and much else besides.

The Early Years

His father, Sam Bernstein, came to America from Eastern Europe1 at the age of 16. Sam, a rabbi's son, got a job as a fish cleaner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, working a 72-hour week for a few dollars. From there he graduated to sweeping the floor in his uncle's barber shop in Hartford, Connecticut, and gradually worked his way up to become a reasonably well-to-do businessman.

The only musicians Sam had known in his boyhood had been klezmers - poor itinerants who would play at weddings and barmitzvahs and pass the hat round. Sam didn't want that for his son.

Louis Bernstein was born on 25 August 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. There being another Louis in the family, however, he soon came to be known by everybody as Leonard. His father always hoped that Leonard would pursue a business career.

Leonard showed early musicality, however, and as well as playing the piano he showed great interest in the theatre, and during his teens adapted and produced shows such as The Mikado, and even played the female title role in Carmen.


As his remarkable talents emerged, Leonard Bernstein went on to study at Harvard with Walter Piston, then at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Fritz Reiner and Randall Thompson, then with Serge Koussevitsky at the Berkshire Music Institute at Tanglewood.

At the age of 19 Bernstein went to hear the Boston Symphony conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos and was completely captivated. Mitropoulos, in his turn, was so impressed on hearing Bernstein play a piano sonata at a reception the next day that he invited Bernstein to come to his rehearsals and concerts. During that period Bernstein became hooked on conducting. Mitropoulos later sent Bernstein some money to come and spend the next winter vacation with him in Minneapolis, and Sam Bernstein later recalled that this was a turning-point in his son's life.

Another important influence on Bernstein's multi-faceted musicianship was George Gershwin. Gershwin had achieved fame and success as a brilliant pianist, as an enormously successful and popular Broadway composer, and also as a composer of 'serious' music such as his piano concerto and the opera Porgy and Bess.

Indeed, the thesis that Bernstein produced at Harvard had much to say about the way Gershwin crossed the cultural divide between classical and popular music and brought the jazz idiom and the symphony orchestra together in an entirely natural way. Gershwin's sudden death in 1937 came as a great shock to Bernstein.

The composer Aaron Copland was also a major figure in Bernstein's life. Copland, too, brought the traditional and folk elements of American music to bear upon the Classical and Romantic European styles, and created works that, to many people, seem to sum up what it is to be American.

Copland's taking Bernstein under his wing boded well for Bernstein's future success, and later Bernstein was in turn to become a passionate advocate of Copland's compositions. Bernstein's amazingly vital performances of Copland's works contributed greatly to their appreciation and success.

In the late 1930s the Russian-born Serge Koussevitsky, Music Director of the Boston Symphony, was probably the most highly acclaimed American conductor. In 1940 Koussevitsky launched the enduringly successful Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, a symposium of the finest composers and performers working with the most promising students during the summer season. The highlight was a masterclass in conducting led by Koussevitsky himself. Bernstein was one of only five students chosen to participate. He became Koussevitsky's star pupil, and was groomed to become his eventual successor.

Bernstein as a Conductor

After completing his studies Bernstein was out of work, taking such odd musical jobs as he could find in New York. But Koussevitsky recommended Bernstein for the job of Assistant Conductor at the New York Philharmonic. This was not as grand as it might sound. Apart from conducting the occasional concert, which both press and public routinely ignored, the job of the Assistant Conductor was mainly to understudy the Principal Conductor so that he could take over if needed. This was most unlikely and hadn't happened for many years.

In November, 1943 the great conductor Bruno Walter was to conduct a concert. It would be the highlight of the whole season and Bernstein had brought his parents to New York to attend the concert. But Walter fell ill and the chief conductor of the New York Phil, Artur Rodzinsky, was called upon to substitute. Rodzinsky told them to call Bernstein, at 9am, for a concert to be broadcast live to millions that same afternoon on national radio.

The concert programme was a difficult one, but one that the orchestra had already played several times under Bruno Walter and knew well. Bernstein could fairly easily have coasted along, following this highly experienced orchestra and no doubt producing a satisfactory performance.

But that is not what happened. Bernstein created something entirely fresh and new. Those diehard musicians of the New York Philharmonic stood and cheered. The audience went wild. The tremendous ovation seemed never-ending. The occasion was front page news in the next day's New York Times.

The event proved to be the start of Bernstein's long and illustrious career as a conductor and recording artist. Having become the youngest person ever to conduct a Philharmonic subscription concert, this 25-year-old American was well on the way to dominating a scene which until then had been very much the preserve of old men from Europe. Sam Bernstein later wryly observed, 'How could I have known that my son would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?'



In 1944, Bernstein's 'Jeremiah' symphony premiered, with concerts in Pittsburgh, the Boston Symphony Hall, and the New York Philharmonic. It received great acclaim and was broadcast nationwide on 70 radio stations.

In the same year his first ballet, Fancy Free, was composed in collaboration with the choreographer Jerome Robbins. This was a great success. Bernstein also wrote the music for the Broadway musical On The Town. This was the first American musical composed by an established composer of 'serious' music.

Over the next few years he was making his first conducting appearances in Europe, made his recording debut as a concert pianist (in the Ravel concerto), conducted the US premiere of Benjamin Britten's celebrated ground-breaking opera Peter Grimes, and wrote the score for Jerome Robbins' ballet Facsimile.

He also composed a number of works, including his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, inspired by a poem by WH Auden.

In Munich he became the first American to conduct after the War, and the crowds carried him shoulder-high through the streets. In Milan he was dubbed 'the other Leonardo'. He likewise took the music lovers of Budapest, Vienna and Rome by storm. Back home, The Age of Anxiety was premiered in 1949 by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitsky, with the composer playing the solo piano part.

1950s and 1960s

In 1952 he completed his first opera, Trouble in Tahiti, and the following year saw the premiere of the musical Wonderful Town, which had a successful run on Broadway and won a Tony award for Best Musical. In 1954 his score for the film On The Waterfront made his reputation as a composer of film music. He had also by now composed a number of other works, including Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and began working on Candide; also on East Side Story (later to become West Side Story), in collaboration with Jerome Robbins.

During the period 1955 - 1958 he struck up an enduring friendship with John F Kennedy, premiered both Candide and West Side Story, became the first American conductor to feature on the cover of Time magazine, and succeeded Dmitri Mitropoulos as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

He also conducted the first of his 'Young People's Concerts', one innovation of which was that they were televised. They were later syndicated around the world. This and other appearances established Bernstein as a TV 'personality'.

In 1963 Bernstein completed his third symphony, Kaddish, which, on the news of the assassination, was dedicated to John F Kennedy. Then in 1965 he composed Chichester Psalms. He conducted its premiere in New York, and also attended its UK premiere at Chichester.

1970s and 1980s

In 1971 Bernstein completed Mass ('A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers') for the grand opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and the following year began composing the score for Jerome Robbins' ballet, Dybbuk. He conducted the first performance in 1974.

In 1973 he had delivered a series of six lectures, entitled The Unanswered Question, at the Harvard Square Theater. In these he discussed the 'language' of classical music in the light of linguistic theories put forward by Noam Chomsky. These lectures have been broadcast, and published in book form, and are also available on video.

In 1975 Bernstein completed the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with libretto by Alan Jay Lerner. It was premiered in Philadelphia the following year. 1977 saw the first performance of Songfest, a group of American poems set for singers and orchestra. Touches, for solo piano, was composed in 1980, and the flute concerto Halil premiered in 1981.

In 1983 he completed a new opera called A Quiet Place, which was subsequently performed at La Scala, Milan. At this time he was also busy with various BBC television projects.

In 1985, to mark the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb, he took part in Journey for Peace in Hiroshima, which included performances of Bernstein's Kaddish and Tomiko Kojiba's Hiroshima Requiem.

In 1986 Jubilee Games, a concerto for orchestra commissioned by the Israel Philharmonic, received its first performance. Arias and Barcarolles, an autobiographical song suite, followed in 1988.

A Fitting Tribute

Bernstein died at his home in New York on 14 October 1990.

The corner of Broadway and West 65th Street, Manhattan, just by the Lincoln Center (the home of the New York Philharmonic as well as the New York Metropolitan Opera and other august New York musical institutions), is now officially named Leonard Bernstein Place.

Other Entries in This Project

1Sam Bernstein came from Rovno-Guberniya. In Candide, Leonard Bernstein has a character known as the Old Lady sing the immortal line, 'My father came from Rovno-Guberniya'. He even finds a rhyme for it.

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