Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an American composer, conductor, and pianist. His special gifts in 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. He changed his name to Leonard at the age of sixteen. The family soon moved to Boston, where Leonard studied at Boston Latin School and Harvard University. Although he had taken piano lessons from the age of 10 and engaged in musical activities at college, his intensive musical training began only 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 in the 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 The suddenness of this appointment, coming after two somewhat directionless years, was superseded only by the dramatic events of November 14, 1943. With less than 24 hours' notice and no rehearsal, Bernstein substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall and led the Philharmonic through a difficult program which he had studied hastily at best. 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 multi-faceted career might have filled several average lives. It is surprising that one who had never given a solo recital would be recognized as a pianist; nevertheless, he was so recognized from his appearances as conductor-pianist in performances of Mozart concertos and the Ravel Concerto in G.
As a composer, Bernstein was a controversial figure. His large works, including the symphonies Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), are not acknowledged masterpieces. Yet they are skillfully wrought and show his sensitivity to subtle changes of musical dialect. 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 acclaim. Bernstein's music, with its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, sustains—indeed 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 abroad—with or without the Philharmonic— elicited an excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to Bernstein's dynamism, particularly effective in music of strong expressionistic profile. It is generally agreed that his readings of 20th century American scores showed a fervor and authority rarely approached by those of his colleagues. His performances and recordings also engendered a revival of interest in Mahler's music.
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his peripatetic nature and the diversity of his activities that he should seek 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, he 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 and musty. Politically, too, he drew criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers in 1970, charges of anti-Semitism were leveled against Bernstein himself. He had not organized the event, but the press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. This event, along with his participation in anti-Vietnam War activism led J. Edgar Hoover and the 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, DC. It was, according to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came to achieving a synthesis 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 social concerns. He gave concerts to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and a benefit for AIDS research. On Christmas Day, 1989, Bernstein led an international orchestra in Berlin, which was in the midst of celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall. 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 an August 19th concert. He had first conducted a professional orchestra there in 1940, and this performance, 50 years later, was to be his last. He died in New York, on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema and other complications.
Further Reading on Leonard Bernstein
Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (1994) is a comprehensive biography with extensive comment from his friends and family. A more sensational biography is Joan Peyser, Bernstein: A Biography (1987). David Ewen, Leonard Bernstein (1960; rev. ed. 1967), is a solid biography and more comprehensive than John Briggs, Leonard Bernstein: The Man, His Work, and His World (1961). Evelyn Ames, A Wind from the West (1970), a sometimes-romanticized account of the New York Philharmonic's European tour of 1968, is valuable for its intimate detail.