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Biography Leonard Bernstein, 1918-1990

Leonard Bernstein's engagement with, and contributions to, the musical culture of his time was as remarkable for its breadth of perspective as for its depth of commitment. His contributions as a composer, conductor, teacher and writer – all performed with seemingly limitless energy, enthusiasm and insight – earned for Bernstein the notoriety of being, during his lifetime, the most public figure in the American classical music world, as well as international recognition as its unofficial cultural ambassador.

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, to Ukrainian Jewish émigré parents Samuel Bernstein and Jennie Resnick. Bernstein's musical career, he later claimed, was decided the day when, at age ten, his Aunt Clara gave the family an upright piano, with which he developed an immediate fascination. Young Leonard immediately began piano studies; his prodigious talent was such that he became highly proficient on the instrument within a few years, achieving fluency in both classical styles and the uniquely American idioms of jazz, blues, and popular music. It is perhaps no surprise that Bernstein's mature compositional efforts were to reflect a synthesis of the musical styles with which he had direct performing experience in his youth. A born entrepreneur, Bernstein even began to give piano lessons to younger children in order to finance his own lessons! While still in high school, Bernstein assumed the responsibility for mounting performances of a satirical musical comedy work based on Bizet's Carmen, as well as of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore, demonstrating his natural affinity for both musical and theatrical direction.

Bernstein continued his studies at Harvard University, which nurtured his relentless intellectual curiosity as much as his musical talents. In 1937, a chance meeting with Greek conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), a man of great intensity whose dedication to his art was a consuming passion, instilled in Bernstein a desire to pursue a career in conducting. Mitropoulos himself encouraged Bernstein's ambitions; the two men remained friends until Mitropoulos's death. Another chance meeting later that year, this time with American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) resulted in the establishment of another lifelong friendship, despite the contrast in Copland's reserved, down-to-earth personality with Bernstein's natural ebullience. Nevertheless, in the years to follow, their friendship successfully operated on both personal and professional levels, with Copland often providing practical advice and encouragement to Bernstein, and Bernstein championing performances of Copland's works.

The end of his senior year at Harvard (1939) was marked by Bernstein's conducting début in a performance of Aristophanes's play The Birds, for which Bernstein also composed the incidental music – one of his first mature essays in musical composition. A month later he also mounted a performance of Marc Blitzstein's (1905-1964) socially-informed musical theater work, The Cradle Will Rock, which itself was to prove influential to Bernstein's later compositional style. In the fall of that same year, Bernstein began his studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. While it was not without some trepidation that Bernstein moved to Philadelphia – far removed from the emotional, intellectual and financial support of family and friends in Cambridge – biographer Humphrey Burton writes that Bernstein was nonetheless "sustained by his own inner conviction that conducting was his calling, his destiny."

In the summer of 1940, after completing his first year at Curtis, Bernstein attended the newly organized school at the Berkshire Music Center, known as "Tanglewood," in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he studied conducting with the influential Russian-born Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The intensity of his studies with Koussevitzky and the excitement of honing his conducting skills with the Center's student orchestra were enormously inspirational experiences for Bernstein, and formative to his subsequent career. That summer at Tanglewood also marked the beginning of his association with many of the finest musicians of the day, and especially with Koussevitzky, for whom Bernstein became a protégé, his "Lenushka."

Moving to New York in September 1942 to pursue the destiny that he foresaw for himself, Bernstein found meaningful professional opportunities in short supply; in the meantime, he had to accept a succession of ungratifying jobs in order to pay the bills. Yet despite its difficulties, this period was a productive one for Bernstein, who had focused his energies on musical composition. Although he had little formal training in composition, Bernstein nevertheless revealed an innate mastery of musical expression, soon producing both the large scale Symphony no. 1, 'Jeremiah,' and the ironically-titled song cycle I Hate Music. On his twenty-fifth birthday (August 25, 1943), however, Bernstein's patience was rewarded by his appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic by the orchestra's then principal conductor, Artur Rodziński (1892-1958).

Events were soon to play out in an unexpectedly dramatic manner, as if destiny itself were under the sway of Bernstein's larger-than-life personality. On November 14, 1943 Bernstein was called upon, with less than a day's notice, to conduct the Philharmonic in place of the scheduled guest conductor, Bruno Walter, who had fallen ill. The scheduled program that day, a challenging one for any conductor, was compounded by the fact that Bernstein had never rehearsed or even conducted most the works to be performed; a portion of the concert was also to be broadcast nationally by radio. Despite these obstacles, Bernstein turned adversity into an unqualified triumph. The instant fame that resulted from this success established Bernstein's career on an international level – the first instance of an American-born conductor to be accorded this honor.

Now that Bernstein had attracted international attention, the eyes of the world were upon him to prove that his success was not a unique event; this he soon accomplished beyond all expectations. His legendary conducting début was quickly followed by other triumphs as both conductor and composer: the following two years witnessed the premiè re performances of his 'Jeremiah' Symphony (1944), the ballet Fancy Free (1944), and the musical On the Town (1945; a film version of which was produced by MGM Studios in 1949), all receiving exuberant accolades by both audiences and critics. The range of Bernstein's talents as a composer of both concert and musical theater works, and the uniqueness of his musical insights, had already been firmly established.

These successes set the pace for Bernstein's subsequent career, as he tirelessly explored every means of presenting great music to the world's audiences. In his musical works, Bernstein consistently recast traditional compositional models in a distinctively American musical language, freely using elements inspired by American popular styles and jazz; his theater works exhibited the social consciousness inherent in the works of Blitzstein and Brecht. His comic operetta Candide (1956, based on a work by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire), and the musical West Side Story (1957, a collaboration with, among others, composer Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins), are particularly notable examples of his compositional achievements.

Bernstein's conducting engagements now began to include the world's most prestigious orchestras and venues, including an appointment in 1958 as principal music director of the New York Philharmonic, a post which he held until 1969. Despite receiving criticism for his flamboyance on the podium, Bernstein nevertheless became renowned for the excitement and sincerity of musical interpretation that he brought to live concerts. Many of his concerts were also designed around musical, historical or social themes, illustrated by the music to be performed – thereby posing challenges both musical and intellectual to his audiences. He often encouraged pre-concert discussion for audiences about the works to be performed (one of the first conductors to do so); his open rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic for the benefit of students were often followed by informal question-and-answer sessions. His commitment to educating audiences also found an ideal medium in an innovative format that Bernstein helped to establish: the Young People's Concerts, which consisted of fifty-three hour-long television programs, broadcast on the CBS network for fifteen consecutive years (between 1958 and 1972), where Bernstein lectured on various musical topics, with musical excerpts performed by the New York Philharmonic itself. This series achieved enormous popularity worldwide with adults as much as with young people, and provided an introduction to our shared musical culture for an entire generation. The conviction and exuberance that Bernstein brought to musical performances may be experienced even today through the hundreds of sound recordings that he made during his career, which continue to be enduring, relevant and illuminating musical statements.

Bernstein died in New York on October 14, 1990.

Further reading

  • Bernstein, Leonard. Findings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
  • Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
  • Peyser, Joan. Bernstein : A Biography. New York: Billboard Books, 1998.
  • Secrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein : A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.