Leonard Bernstein[1] (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, and pianist. He was the first conductor born in the United States of America to receive world-wide acclaim, and is known for both his conducting of the New York Philharmonic, including the acclaimed Young People's Concerts series, and his multiple compositions, including West Side Story, Candide and On The Town. He is known to baby boomers primarily as the first classical music conductor to make many television appearances, all between 1954 and 1989.



Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 to a Jewish family from Rovno, Ukraine. His grandmother insisted his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, as they liked the name better. He had his name changed to Leonard officially when he was fifteen. His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman, and initially opposed young Leonard's interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein frequently took him to orchestra concerts. At a very young age, Bernstein heard a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison and Boston Latin School. When his father heard about the piano lessons he refused to pay for them, so Bernstein taught young students himself and used that income to pay for his own piano lessons.


After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1934 Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with Walter Piston and was briefly associated with the Harvard Glee Club. After completing his studies at Harvard he enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he received the only "A" grade Fritz Reiner ever awarded in his class on conducting. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein also studied piano with Isabella Vengerova and Heinrich Gebhard.

Family life

File:Bernstein, Leonard (1918-1990) - 1944 - foto van Vechten2.jpg

Leonard Bernstein - 1944

Bernstein married Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn on September 9, 1951. Leonard and Felicia had three children: Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.

As Bernstein grew older, and as the Gay Liberation movement gained increasing momentum, he became more emboldened about expressing his bisexuality. In 1976, he left Felicia to live with his lover of five years since 1971, Tom Cothran. Bernstein returned to his wife the following year. Within months of their reconciliation, however, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died a year later, in 1978.

Some claim to see a change in Bernstein's conducting after Felicia's death as more somber and heavy, more "wrung-out," with grossly elongated gestures, although others cite this as another example of the manner in which many artists exaggerate their original conducting style as they get older. Many critics consider Bernstein's later conducting performances to be the finest of his career, while others deride them as excursions into overly melodramatic and cloying sentimentality.


Bernstein was very highly regarded as a conductor, composer, and educator, and probably best known to the public as longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras, and for writing the music for West Side Story. He may well be more famous among the general public than any other conductor before or since, including Stokowski, Toscanini, or even John Williams. All told, he wrote three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, and numerous other pieces.

File:Leonard Bernstein NYWTS 1945.jpg

Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945)

In 1940, he began his study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer institute, Tanglewood, under the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein later became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant.[2] He would later dedicate his Symphony No. 2 to Koussevitzky.[3]

On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his conducting debut on last minute notification, and without any rehearsal, after Bruno Walter came down with the flu. He was an immediate success and became instantly famous due to the fact that the concert was nationally broadcast. The soloist on that historic day was Joseph Schuster, solo cellist of the New York Philharmonic, who played Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. Since Bernstein had never conducted the work before, Bruno Walter coached him on it prior to the concert. It is possible to hear this remarkable event thanks to a transcription recording made from the CBS radio broadcast that has since been issued on CD.

After World War II Bernstein's career on the international stage began to flourish. In 1949 he conducted the world première of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen. After Serge Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein took the position of head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, holding this tenure for many years.

In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of Symphony No. 2 by Charles Ives. The composer, old and frail, was unable to attend the concert, but listened to the broadcast on the radio with his wife, Harmony. They both marveled at the enthusiastic reception of his music, which had actually been written between 1897 and 1901, but until then had never been performed. Bernstein did much to promote the music of this American composer throughout his career. Ives died in 1954.

Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 and began his tenure in that position in 1958, a post he held until 1969. He became a well-known figure in the US through his series of fifty-three televised Young People's Concerts for CBS, which grew out of his Omnibus programs that CBS aired in the early 1950s. His first Young People's Concert was televised only a few weeks after his tenure as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic began. He became as famous for his educational work in those concerts as for his conducting. Some of his music lectures were released on records, with several of these albums winning Grammy awards. To this day, the Young People's Concerts series remains the longest running group of classical music programs ever shown on commercial television. They ran from 1958 to 1972. More than thirty years later, twenty-five of them were rebroadcast on the now-defunct cable channel Trio, and released on DVD.

In 1947, Bernstein conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, beginning a lifelong association with Israel. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv; he subsequently made many recordings there. In 1967 he conducted a concert on Mt. Scopus to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem.

File:Leonard Bernstein NYWTS 1955.jpg

Bernstein at the piano, making annotations to a musical score

In 1959 he took the New York Philharmonic on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, portions of which were filmed by CBS. A major highlight of the tour was Bernstein's performance of Shostakovich's fifth symphony, in the presence of the composer, who came on stage at the end to congratulate Bernstein and the musicians. In October, when Bernstein and the orchestra returned to New York, they recorded the symphony for Columbia. He made two recordings of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, one with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s, and another one in 1988 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the only recording he ever made with them.

In 1960 Bernstein began the first complete cycle of recordings in stereo of all nine completed symphonies by Gustav Mahler, with the blessings of the composer's widow, Alma. The success of these recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances, greatly revived interest in Mahler, who had briefly been music director of the New York Philharmonic late in his life.

Also in 1960, Bernstein conducted an LP of his own score for the 1944 musical On The Town, in stereo, the first such recording of the score ever made, for Columbia Masterworks Records. Unlike his later recordings of his own musicals, this was originally issued as a single LP rather than a 2-record set. It was later issued on CD. The recording featured several members of the original Broadway cast, including Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

In 1966 he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera conducting Verdi's Falstaff (production by Luchino Visconti, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff). In 1970 he returned to the State Opera for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's Fidelio. In 1986 the State Opera had Bernstein conducting his A Quiet Place. Bernstein's final farewell to the State Opera happened accidentally in 1989: Following a performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanchina he unexpectedly entered the stage and embraced conductor Claudio Abbado in front of a stunned, but cheering audience.

Beginning in 1970, Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he re-recorded many of the pieces that he had previously taped with the New York Philharmonic, including sets of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and Schumann.

Also in 1970, Bernstein wrote and narrated a ninety-minute program filmed on location in and around Vienna, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic and such artists as Placido Domingo (in his first television appearance, as one of the soloists in Beethoven's Ninth). The program, first telecast in 1970 on Austrian and British television, and then on CBS on Christmas Eve 1971, was intended as a celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 200th birthday. The show made extensive use of the rehearsals and finished performance of the Otto Schenk production of "Fidelio". Originally entitled Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, the show, which won an Emmy, was telecast only once on U.S. commercial television, and remained in CBS's vaults, until it resurfaced on A&E shortly after Bernstein's death - under the new title Bernstein on Beethoven: A Celebration in Vienna. It was immediately issued on VHS under that title, and in 2005 was issued on DVD.

Bernstein was invited in 1973 to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, Harvard University, to deliver a series of 6 lectures on music. Borrowing the title from a Charles Ives' work, he called the series "The Unanswered Question"; it is a set of interdisciplinary lectures in which he borrows terminology from contemporary linguistics to analyze and compare musical construction to language. Three years later, in 1976, the entire series of videotaped lectures was telecast on PBS. The lectures survive both in book and DVD form today.

In 1978, the Otto Schenk "Fidelio", with Bernstein still conducting, but featuring a different cast, was filmed by Unitel. Like the "Bernstein on Beethoven" program, it also was shown on A&E after his death and subsequently issued on VHS. Although the video has since long been out-of-print, it was released for the first time on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon in late 2006.

In 1979 Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first and only time, in two charity concerts. The performance, of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, was broadcast on radio, and posthumously released on CD.

He received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1980.

On PBS in the 1980s, he was the conductor and commentator for a special series on Beethoven's music, which featured the Vienna Philharmonic playing all nine Beethoven symphonies, several of his overtures, and the Missa Solemnis. Actor Maximilian Schell was also featured on the program, reading from Beethoven's letters.

In 1985, he conducted a complete recording of his score for West Side Story for the first and only time. The recording, much criticized for featuring what critics felt were miscast opera singers such as Kiri te Kanawa, Jose Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos in the leading roles, was nevertheless a national bestseller.

In 1989, Bernstein again conducted and recorded another complete album of one of his musicals. This time it was Candide, and due to the fact that the show was always intended to be an operetta, the recording was much more warmly received. It starred Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Adolph Green, and Christa Ludwig in the leading roles. The Candide recording, unlike the West Side Story one, featured all of the music that Bernstein had ever written for the show, including the discarded numbers.

A TV documentary of the West Side Story recording sessions was made, and the Candide recording was made live, in concert. This concert was eventually telecast posthumously.

On Christmas Day, 25 December 1989, Bernstein conducted the Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin's Schauspielhaus (Playhouse) as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was broadcast live in more than twenty countries to an estimated audience of 100 million people. For the occasion, Bernstein reworded Friedrich Schiller's text of the Ode to Joy, substituting the word Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy).[4] Bernstein, in the introduction to the program, said that they had "taken the liberty" of doing this because of a "most likely phony" story, apparently believed in some quarters, that Schiller wrote an "Ode to Freedom" that is now presumed lost. Bernstein's comment was, 'I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing."

Bernstein was highly-regarded as a conductor among many musicians, including the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra evidenced by his honorary membership, the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was President, and his regular appearances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as guest conductor. He was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copland, Johannes Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich, George Gershwin (especially the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris), and of course with the performances of his own works. Unfortunately, Bernstein never conducted a performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, nor did he ever conduct Porgy and Bess. However, he did discuss Porgy in his article, Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?, originally published in the New York Times and later reprinted in his 1959 book The Joy of Music.

He had a gift for rehearsing an entire Mahler symphony by acting out every phrase for the orchestra to convey the precise meaning, and of emitting a vocal manifestation of the effect required, with a subtly professional ear that missed nothing.

Bernstein influenced many conductors who are performing now, such as Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Carl St. Clair. Ozawa made his first network television debut as guest conductor on one of the Young People's Concerts.

Bernstein conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.[5] The concert was later issued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.

He died just five days after retiring. A longtime heavy smoker, he had battled emphysema from his mid-20s; he suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.


Bernstein recorded extensively from the 1950s through the 1980s. Aside from a few early recordings for RCA Victor, Bernstein recorded primarily for Columbia Masterworks Records, especially when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic. Many of these performances have been digitally remastered and reissued by Sony as part of the "Bernstein Century" series. His later recordings (1976 onwards) were mostly made for Deutsche Grammophon, though he would occasionally return to the Columbia Masterworks label. Notable exceptions include recordings of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (1976) for EMI and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1981) for Philips Records, a label joint with Deutsche Grammophon as PolyGram at that time.

Awards and recognitions

  • Ditson Conductor's Award, 1958
  • George Peabody Medal - Johns Hopkins University
Main article: List of Grammy and Tony Awards for Leonard Bernstein
  • Grammy Award for Best Album for Children
  • Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with orchestra)
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Album
  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Tony Award for Best Musical
  • Special Tony Award

Principal works

Musical Theatre

  • Fancy Free (ballet), 1944
  • On the Town (Musical), 1944
  • Facsimile (ballet), 1946
  • Peter Pan (songs, incidental music), 1950
  • Trouble in Tahiti (opera in one act), 1952
  • Wonderful Town (musical), 1953
  • On the Waterfront (film score), 1954
  • The Lark (incidental music), 1955
  • Candide (operetta), 1956 (new libretto in 1973, operetta revised in 1989)
  • West Side Story (musical), 1957
  • The Firstborn (incidental music), 1958
  • Mass (theatre piece for singers, players and dancers), 1971
  • Dybbuk (ballet), 1974
  • 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 1976
  • A Quiet Place (opera in two acts), 1983
  • The Race to Urga (musical), 1987


  • Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, 1942
  • Fancy Free and Three Dance Variations from "Fancy Free,", concert premiere 1946
  • Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town," concert premiere 1947
  • Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, (after W. H. Auden) for Piano and Orchestra, 1949 (revised in 1965)
  • Serenade (after Plato's "Symposium") for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, 1954
  • Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble, 1949
  • Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront", 1955
  • Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story", 1961
  • Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, for Orchestra, Mixed Chorus, Boys' Choir, Speaker and Soprano Solo, 1963 (revised in 1977)
  • Dybbuk, Suites No. 1 and 2 for Orchestra, concert premieres 1975
  • Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra, 1977
  • Three Meditations from "Mass" for Violoncello and Orchestra, 1977
  • Slava!: A Political Overture for Orchestra, 1977
  • Divertimento for Orchestra, 1980
  • Halil, nocturne for Solo Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Percussion, Harp and Strings, 1981
  • Concerto for Orchestra, 1989 (Originally Jubilee Games from 1986, revised in 1989)


  • Hashkiveinu for Solo Tenor, Mixed Chorus and Organ, 1945
  • Missa Brevis for Mixed Chorus and Countertenor Solo, with Percussion, 1988
  • Chichester Psalms for Countertenor, Mixed Chorus, Organ, Harp and Percussion, 1965

Chamber music

  • Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, 1939
  • Brass Music, 1959
  • Dance Suite, 1988

Vocal music

  • I Hate Music: A cycle of Five Kids Songs for Soprano and Piano, 1943
  • La Bonne Cuisine: Four Recipes for Voice and Piano, 1948
  • Arias and Barcarolles for Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone and Piano four-hands, 1988
  • A Song Album, 1988

Other music

  • Various piano pieces
  • Other occasional works, written as gifts and other forms of memorial and tribute
  • "The Skin of Our Teeth": An aborted work from which Bernstein took material to use in his "Chichester Psalms"


By Bernstein

  • Findings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. New York: Anchor Books, 1993. ISBN 0-385-42437-X.
  • The Infinite Variety of Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966. New York: Anchor Books, 1993. ISBN 0-385-42438-8.
  • The Joy of Music. 1959. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: Amadeus Press, 2004. ISBN 1-57467-104-9.
  • The Unanswered Question. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976. ISBN 0-674-92000-7. (Also available as video - see below)
  • Young People's Concerts. 1962. (actual scripts from the TV concerts) Amadeus Press, 2006. ISBN 1574671022. (Also available as video - see below)

About or dealing with Bernstein

  • Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. Doubleday, 1994. Hardcover: ISBN 0-385-42345-4, Softcover: ISBN 0-385-42352-7. (Excellent and comprehensive biography of Bernstein)
  • Gottlieb, Jack, editor. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Revised edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1992. ISBN 0-385-42435-3.

Video / Television

  • The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur Video. VHS ISBN 1561275700. DVD ISBN 0769715702. (film of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard in 1973.)
  • Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur Video. DVD ISBN 0769715036.

In Popular Culture

  • The Seinfeld Character "Maestro" often refers to ideas that he learned from Leonard Bernstein.
  • The film "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" depicts the character Sam Bicke, who idolizes the person and music of Leonard Bernstein, and mails Bernstein tapes explaining his disappointment in America and his justification for his planned destruction of the White House : "Mr Bernstein: I have the utmost respect for you. Your music is both pure and honest and that is why I have chosen you to present the truth about me to the world." --G M Strickland 13:22, 23 February 2007 (UTC)
  • In the song "End of the World (As We Know It)" by R.E.M., "Leonard Bernstein" is shouted when everyone stops during the last verse.
  • Tom Wolfe's essay Radical Chic, published in the book "Radical Chic" and "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers", deals with a meeting Bernstein held in his apartment to raise money for the Black Panthers, and the subsequent public response.


  • To composer Ned Rorem:Template:Cquote2


  1. Karlin, Fred (1994). Listening to Movies (recording), New York City: Schirmer, 264.  Bernstein's pronunciation of his own name as he introduces his Peter and the Wolf
  2. About Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein Official Site. Retrieved on 2007-01-15.
  3. Leonard Bernstein - Biography. Sony Classical. Retrieved on 2007-01-15.
  4. Naxos (2006). Ode To Freedom - Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (NTSC). Classical Music Catalogue. Retrieved on 2006-11-26.
  5. Garrison Keillor (25 August 2003). The Writer's Almanac. American Public Media. Retrieved on 2007-01-17.

Chapin, Schuyler Leonard Bernstein As I Knew Him, published 1992 Rozen, Brian D. "Leonard Bernstein's Educational Legacy", published 1991

External links

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