composer, pianist, conductor, author, music lecturer
August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990
Leonard Bernstein was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was the first American-born conductor and composer to receive international fame, the long-standing music director of the New York Philharmonic, and the author of the music for West Side Story, among many others. Bernstein was also the first conductor to actively promote classical music on television.
Leonard Bernstein – the American-bred prodigy
Leonard Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Massachusetts, the son of Russian-Jewish parents Jennie and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, who had immigrated to the US from Rovno (then – Russian Empire, now – Ukraine) before the Russian Revolution.
Samuel Bernstein initially dismissed his son's interest in music as a boy's caprice, but, despite this, Leonard would often visit orchestra concerts and showed considerable piano playing ability, which finally made his father give up his opposition and start treating his son's passion seriously.
Bernstein entered Harvard University, where he studied music under Edward Burlingame Hill; his final year thesis in 1939 was entitled "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music". Later he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During his time at Curtis, he studied conducting under Fritz Reiner, receiving from his professor the only "A" grade Reiner had reportedly given to anyone during his tenure!
Bernstein moved to New York, where he would work as a music publisher, transcribing music or producing arrangements under the pseudonym of Lenny Amber ("bernstein" meaning "amber" in Yiddish/German). There, Bernstein led an exuberant social life that included, allegedly, relationships with both women and men – a fact that would later serve as a basis for heated debates on his sexuality.
In 1943 having been accepted to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his sudden conducting debut, after the long-standing conductor Bruno Walter came down with the flu. His performance (despite the fact that there had been no rehearsals) was so good that the very next day The New York published a story on the concert on their front page!
Bernstein became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and soon many other US orchestras started to invite him as a guest conductor. In addition, during the following decades, he would be invited and appear on stage with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
And in 1945 Bernstein became the Music Director of the newly founded New York City Symphony Orchestra, whose music was aimed at a younger audience, employing more modern programs and cheaper tickets.
After World War II, Bernstein started a successful international career, touring Europe and Israel, where he conducted an open air concert for troops at Beersheba, in the middle of the desert, during the first Arab-Israeli war. And in 1967, he conducted a concert on Mt. Scopus to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem. He also took the New York Philharmonic on a tour of the Soviet Union, performing Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in the presence of the composer!
Bernstein became a well-known public figure in the United States thanks to the series of fifty-three Young People's Concerts for CBS, the most influential series of music programs ever produced on television, even winning a Grammy Award.
During his career, the composer was heavily involved in various left wing causes, and was even blacklisted by the US State Department in the early 1950s, though he never received a subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee! And later he privately supported the Black Panther Party members, struck with a variety of charges. After the assassination of JFK, he wrote the Kaddish Symphony, which he dedicated to the murdered president...
The personal life of Leonard Bernstein always was a favorite subject of tabloids of the time. In 1951 he married the American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre; rumors persisted that he married partly to help him secure a major conducting appointment - the talks about his sexuality would not go well with the very conservative orchestra boards of that time. Some of his friends even claimed that "he was a gay man who got married", or that he had extramarital affairs with young men, which his wife knew about. Nevertheless, the marriage was a happy one - the couple had three children: Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.
After decades of successfully conducting and writing music, Bernstein announced his retirement on October 9, 1990 due to poor health (a heavy smoker, he had been battling emphysema since the 50s), and died of a heart attack just five days later, at the age of 72.
Peyser, Joan (1987). Bernstein, a biography. New York: Beech Tree Books.
"Leonard Bernstein – Biography". Sony Classical. Retrieved January 15, 2007.