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Bernstein, Leonard (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was perhaps the most influential figure in classical music in the last half of the twentieth century. Composer, conductor, author, lecturer and often controversial media personality, the American-born Bernstein had a dramatic impact on the popular audience's acceptance and appreciation of classical music. His own work as a composer, particularly his scores for such Broadway musicals as West Side Story and On the Town, helped forge a new relationship between classical and popular music.

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He took piano lessons as a boy and attended the Garrison and Boston Latin schools. At Harvard University he studied with Walter Piston, Edward Burlingame-Hill and A. Tillman Merritt, among others. Before graduating in 1939, he made an unofficial conducting debut with his own incidental music to The Birds and directed and performed in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. Then, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he studied piano with Isabella Vengerova, conducting with Fritz Reiner and orchestration with Randall Thompson. In 1940 he studied at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's newly created summer institute at Tanglewood with the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitsky. Bernstein later became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant.

Bernstein was appointed to his first permanent conducting post in 1943, as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, he substituted on a few hours notice for the ailing Bruno Walter at a Carnegie Hall concert, which was broadcast nationally on radio, receiving critical acclaim. Soon orchestras worldwide sought him out as a guest conductor. In 1945 he was appointed music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1947. After Serge Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, teaching there for many years. In 1951 he married the Chilean actress and pianist Felicia Montealegre. He was also visiting music professor and head of the Creative Arts Festivals at Brandeis University in the early 1950s. Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.

Bernstein was a leading advocate of American composers, particularly Aaron Copland. The two remained close friends for life. As a young pianist Bernstein performed Copland's Piano Variations so often he considered the composition his trademark. Bernstein programmed and recorded nearly all of the Copland orchestral works, many of them twice. He devoted several televised Young People's Concerts to Copland, and gave the premiere of Copland's Connotations, commissioned for the opening of the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center in 1962.

Inspired by his Jewish heritage, Bernstein completed his first large-scale work, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah (1943). The piece was first performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1944, conducted by the composer, and received the New York Music Critics' Award. Koussevitzky premiered Bernstein's Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bernstein as piano soloist. His Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, composed in 1963, was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Kaddish is dedicated "To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy." Other major compositions by Bernstein include Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble (1949); Serenade for violin, strings and percussion (1954); Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960); Chichester Psalms for chorus, boy soprano and orchestra (1965); Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and first produced there in 1971 (SM2K 63089); Songfest, a song cycle for six singers and orchestra (1977); Divertimento for Orchestra (1980); Halil for solo flute and small orchestra (1981); Touches for solo piano (1981); Missa Brevis for singers and percussion (1988); Thirteen Anniversaries for solo piano (1988); Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games (1989); and Arias and Barcarolles for two singers and piano duet (1988).

Bernstein contributed substantially to the Broadway musical stage. He collaborated with Betty Comden and Adolph Green in On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953). In collaboration with Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman and others, he wrote Candide (1956). Other versions of Candide were written in association with such collaborators as Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim. In 1957 he again collaborated with Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, as well as Arthur Laurents, on the landmark musical West Side Story, also made into the Academy Award-winning film (SMK 63085). In 1976 Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner wrote 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1978 the Israel Philharmonic sponsored a festival commemorating his years of dedication to Israel. The Israel Philharmonic also bestowed on him the lifetime title of laureate conductor in 1988. In 1986 the London Symphony and the Barbican Centre produced a Bernstein Festival. The London Symphony Orchestra in 1987 named him honorary president. In 1989 the city of Bonn presented a Beethoven/Bernstein Festival.

In 1990 Bernstein received the Praemium Imperiate, an international prize created in 1988 by the Japan Arts Association and awarded for lifetime achievement in the arts. Bernstein used the $100,000 prize to launch the Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc.

Bernstein was the father of three children. Jamie, Alexander and Nina and the grandfather of two, Francisca and Evan.


  1. West-Side-Story
Jan 5, 2016
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