Born: August 25, 1918
Died: October 14, 1990
New York, New York
American composer, conductor, and pianist
Leonard Bernstein was an American composer (writer of music), conductor, and pianist. His special gift of 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. A shy and sickly child, Louis Bernstein fell in love with music after a relative gave his family an old, weathered upright piano. He began taking piano lessons and changed his name to Leonard at the age of sixteen.
The family soon moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Leonard studied at Boston Latin School. He excelled in academics and graduated in 1935. From there Bernstein went on to Harvard University, where he studied business. Although he had taken piano lessons from the age of ten and engaged in musical activities at college, his musical training began 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 (teacher) during his 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 replaced only by the dramatic events of November 14, 1943. With less than 24 hours' notice and no rehearsal, Bernstein substituted for the sick Bruno Walter (1876–1962) at Carnegie Hall and led the Philharmonic through a difficult program that he had barely studied. 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 career might have filled several average lives. It is surprising that one who had never given a solo recital (performance) would be recognized as a pianist. Nevertheless, he was recognized as such from his appearances as conductor-pianist in performances of Mozart concertos and the Ravel Concerto in G.
As a composer Bernstein was a controversial (open to dispute) figure. His large works, including the symphonies Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), are not considered masterpieces. Yet they are skillfully shaped and show his sensitivity to small changes of musical variety. 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 praise. Bernstein's music, with its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, 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 overseas—with or without the Philharmonic—brought about an excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to Bernstein's energy and emotion. It is generally agreed that his readings of twentieth-century American scores showed a dedication and authority rarely approached by other conductors of his time. His performances and recordings also ushered in a revival of interest in the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860–1911).
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned (stepped down) as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his nature and the diversity of his activities that he sought 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, Bernstein 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. Politically, too, he drew criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers (an extreme African American political group) in 1970, charges of anti-Semitism (against the Jewish people) were leveled against Bernstein himself. Press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. Bernstein also brought criticism with his stance against the Vietnam War (1955–75; a war in which American forces aided South Vietnam in their struggle against North Vietnam). His activism ultimately led J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1975) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (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, D.C. It was, according to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came to achieving a synthesis [blending together] 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 supporting social concerns. He gave concerts to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (which brought an end to America's struggle with Japan during World War II [1939–45]) and a benefit for the research of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; an incurable disease that attacks the body's immune system). On Christmas Day, 1989, Bernstein led an international orchestra in Berlin, which was in the midst of celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall (a wall that stood for more than three decades and separated East Berlin from West). 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 a concert on August 19. He had first conducted a professional orchestra there in 1940, and this performance, fifty years later, was to be his last. He died in New York City, on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema (a breathing condition) and other complications.
Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Peyser, Joan. Bernstein: A Biography. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Secrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein: A Life. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1994.