Leonard Bernstein


American Composer


Composer, conductor, and educator: Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most well-known American musician of the 20th century, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. He did not hear an orchestral concert until he was 16 years old. After 1935, he studied at Harvard University with composer and theorist Walter Piston, and later studied with conductor Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute of Music and with conductor Serge Koussevitsky at Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
Bernstein's dramatic "break" came in November 1943, when Bruno Walter fell ill, and Bernstein was called upon to substitute for him at the last moment to conduct the New York Philharmonic- Symphony Orchestra. After that concert, his conducting and compositional career flourished. Bernstein composed ballets such as Fancy Free (1944); musicals and operas such as On the Town (1944), Trouble in Tahiti (1952), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957); and a Mass (1971). In 1955, he made the first of more than 100 discussion/demonstration appearances on the television show "Omnibus." Bernstein was also a concert pianist, conducting and performing major works. He served as musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 1959 to 1969, and also worked with the Israel and Vienna Philharmonic. Among his several hundred recordings are a cycle of the Mahler symphonies, as well as important performances of music by Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. In 1973, he was chosen to deliver the annual Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, a series of six lectures which he collectively titled "The Unanswered Question." His conducting style was occasionally brash, and his approach to repertoire and composition was often eclectic, embracing popular idioms as well as more classical styles. In addition to his artistic and educational efforts, Bernstein was a political activist, espousing left-wing views. In the 1960s, Bernstein opposed the Vietnam War and publicly supported the Black Panthers. In so many ways, Bernstein was larger than life, both brilliant and earthbound, a symbol of the enthusiastic, inspired American spirit, the best of what the United States had to offer the world of culture. His death in 1990 caused widespread mourning among his fans and the many musicians he had mentored, who remembered "Lenny" fondly.