Leonard Bernstein (pronounced /ˈbɜrn.staɪn/, us dict: bûrn′·stīn; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. He was probably best known to the public as the longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras, and for writing the music for West Side Story, Candide, Wonderful Town, and On the Town. Bernstein was the first classical music conductor to make numerous television appearances between 1954 and 1989. He had a formidable piano technique and as a composer also wrote symphonies and other concert music. According to The New York Times, he was "one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American history."
Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie (née Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hair dressing supplies wholesaler. He was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein. His family spent their summers at their vacation home in Sharon, MA. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, because they liked the name more. He had his name changed to Leonard officially when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother's death. His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman and owner of a bookstore in downtown Lawrence; it is still standing today on the corners of Amesbury and Essex Streets. Sam 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 listened to a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison School and Boston Latin School.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935, Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with Walter Piston, the author of many harmony and counterpoint textbooks, and was briefly associated with the Harvard Glee Club. One of his friends at Harvard was philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom he played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production that Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein reused some of this music in the ballet Fancy Free.
After completing his studies at Harvard, he enrolled at 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 Isabelle Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr, and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle.
During his young adult years in New York City, Bernstein enjoyed an exuberant social life that included relationships with both men and women. After a long internal struggle and a turbulent on-and-off engagement, he married Chilean actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on September 9, 1951, reportedly in order to increase his chances of obtaining the chief conducting position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic and Bernstein's mentor, advised him that marrying would help counter the gossip about him and appease the conservative BSO board.
Leonard and Felicia had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina. During his married life, Bernstein tried to be as discreet as possible with his extramarital liaisons. But as he grew older, and as the Gay Liberation movement made great strides, Bernstein became more emboldened, eventually leaving Felicia to live with his lover, Tom Cothran. Some time after, Bernstein learned that his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Bernstein moved back in with his wife and cared for her until she died on June 16, 1978.
It has been suggested that Bernstein was actually bisexual—an assertion supported by comments that Bernstein himself made about not preferring any particular cuisine, musical genre, or form of sex—and it has been alleged that he was conflicted between his devotion to his family and his gay desires, but Arthur Laurents (Bernstein's collaborator in West Side Story) said that Bernstein was simply "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay." Shirley Rhoades Perle, another friend of Bernstein's, said that she thought "he required men sexually and women emotionally."
In 1940, Bernstein 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. He would later dedicate his Symphony No. 2 to Koussevitzky.
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. The next day, The New York Times editorial remarked, "It's a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves." He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast. The soloist for that concert was Joseph Schuster, solo cellist of the New York Philharmonic, who played Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. Because Bernstein had never conducted the work before, Bruno Walter coached him on it prior to the concert. It is possible to hear this concert 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 1946, he conducted opera for the first time, with the American première of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which had been a Koussevitzky commission. In 1949, he conducted the world première of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen, and when Koussevitzky died two years later, Bernstein became head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, holding this position for many years.
In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world première of the Symphony No. 2 of 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. Both of them marveled at the enthusiastic reception of his music, which had actually been written between 1897 and 1901, but had never been performed. Throughout his career, Bernstein did much to promote the music of this American composer. Ives died in 1954. Bernstein was also a visiting music professor in the early 1950s and was the founder/head of the Creative Arts Festivals at Brandeis University from 1952 onward. The festival was named after him in 2005, becoming the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts.
Bernstein was named the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, replacing Dimitri Mitropoulos, and began his tenure in that position in 1958, a post he held until 1969, although he continued to conduct and make recordings with that orchestra for the rest of his life. He became a well-known figure in the United States 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 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. The Bernstein Young People's Concerts were the first, and still are the most successful, series of music appreciation programs ever done on television, and were highly acclaimed by critics. Some of Bernstein's music lectures were released on records, with several of these albums winning Grammy awards.
The Young People's Concerts series remains the longest-running single group of classical music programs shown on commercial television. They ran from 1958 to 1973, and none of the programs were repeated on television during the series' original run (there would usually be four programs per year). More than thirty years later, twenty-five of them were rebroadcast on the now-defunct cable channel Trio and were released on DVD by Kultur Video.
In 1947, Bernstein conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, beginning a life-long 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. During the 1970s, Bernstein recorded most of his own symphonic music with the Israel Philharmonic.
The beginning of Bernstein's collaboration with the choreographer Jerome Robbins and the writer Arthur Laurents dates from 1949; later they were joined by Stephen Sondheim. After years of intermittent work West Side Story received its Broadway premiere in 1957; a musical that was to prove Bernstein's most enduring work.
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 highlight of the tour was Bernstein's performance of Dmitri 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 (along with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1, also recorded live in concerts at Orchestra Hall in Chicago at that time).
In 1960, Bernstein began the first complete cycle of recordings in stereo of all nine completed symphonies by Gustav Mahler, with the blessing of the composer's widow, Alma. The success of these recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances, revived interest in Mahler, who had briefly been music director of the New York Philharmonic late in his life. That same year, 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 one storied incident, in April 1962, Bernstein appeared on stage before a performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. The soloist was the legendary pianist Glenn Gould. During rehearsals, Gould had argued for tempi much broader than normal, which did not reflect Bernstein's concept of the music. Bernstein gave a brief address to the audience stating,
Don't be frightened; Mr. Gould is here (audience laughter). He will appear in a moment. I'm not—um—as you know in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday-night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception, and this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (mild laughter from the audience). I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough that I feel you should hear it, too.
But the age old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss (audience laughter)—the soloist or the conductor?" (Audience laughter grows louder). The answer is, of course, sometimes the one and sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats (audience laughs) to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould (audience laughs loudly). But, but this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal—get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct it?
Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work; because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a thinking performer, and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element" (mild audience laughter) —that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment—and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week (audience laughter) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto, and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.
This speech was subsequently interpreted by Harold C. Schonberg, music critic for The New York Times, as abdication of personal responsibility and an attack on Gould, whose performance Schonberg went on to criticize heavily. Bernstein always denied that this had been his intent and has stated that he made these remarks with Gould's blessing. Throughout his life, he professed admiration and personal friendship for Gould.
While New York Philharmonic director, Bernstein was responsible for introducing the symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen to American audiences, leading to a revival of interest in this composer whose reputation had previously been mostly regional. Bernstein recorded three of Nielsen's symphonies (Nos. 2, 4, and 5) with the Philharmonic, and he recorded the composer's 3rd Symphony with a Danish orchestra after a critically acclaimed public performance in Denmark.
In 1966, he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera conducting Luchino Visconti's production of Verdi's Falstaff, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff. In 1970, he returned to the State Opera for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's Fidelio. Sixteen years later, at the State Opera, Bernstein conducted his sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place. Bernstein's final farewell to the State Opera happened accidentally in 1989: following a performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, he unexpectedly entered the stage and embraced conductor Claudio Abbado in front of a cheering audience.
Beginning in 1970, Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, re-recording many pieces previously undertaken with the New York Philharmonic, including the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. Some of the Mahler symphony recordings from Bernstein's second cycle for Deutsche Grammophone were also made with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Later that year, Bernstein wrote and narrated a ninety-minute program filmed on location in and around Vienna, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic with such artists as Plácido Domingo, who in his first television appearance performed as the tenor soloist in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. 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 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 it 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 it was issued on DVD.
The world premiere of Bernstein's MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers occurred on September 8, 1971. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. it was partly intended as an anti-war statement. Hastily written in places, the work represented a fusion not only of different religious traditions (its texts juxtapose the Latin liturgy with Hebrew prayer and plenty of contemporary English lyrics) but also of different musical styles. Originally a target of criticism from the Catholic Church on the one hand and contemporary music critics who objected to its Broadway/populist elements on the other, the MASS has however since been embraced by the church. It was performed at Vatican City in 2000.
In 1972, he recorded a performance of Bizet's Carmen, with Marilyn Horne in the title role and James McCracken as Don Jose, after leading several stage performances of the opera. The recording was one of the first in stereo to use the original spoken dialogue between the sung portions of the opera, rather than the musical recitatives that were composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet's death.
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 six 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 series of videotaped lectures was telecast on PBS. The lectures survive in both book and DVD form. Noam Chomsky wrote in 2007 on the Znet forums about the linguistic aspects of the lecture: "I spent some time with Bernstein during the preparation and performance of the lectures. My feeling was that he was onto something, but I couldn't really judge how significant it was."
In 1978, the Otto Schenk Fidelio, with Bernstein still conducting, but featuring a different cast, was filmed by Unitel. Like the program Bernstein on Beethoven, it was shown on A&E after his death and subsequently issued on VHS. Although the video has long been out of print, it was released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon in late 2006.
In May 1978, the Israel Philharmonic played two U.S. concerts under his direction to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Orchestra under that name. On consecutive nights, the Orchestra performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall in NYC.
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 was posthumously released on CD.
Bernstein 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, one of the string quartets arranged for the full string section of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Missa Solemnis. Actor Maximilian Schell was also featured on the program, reading from Beethoven's letters. This series has since been released on DVD.
In 1982, he and Ernest Fleischmann founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, where he served as Artistic Director through 1984.
Leonard Bernstein was a regular guest conductor of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. In the 1980s, he recorded, among other pieces, Mahler's First, Second, Fourth, and Ninth Symphonies with them.
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, José Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos in the leading roles, was nevertheless a national bestseller.
In 1989, Bernstein again conducted and recorded another complete performance of one of his musicals, again featuring opera singers rather than Broadway stars. This time it was Candide, and because the show was always intended to be an operetta, the recording made from it was much more warmly received. The performance was released posthumously on CD (in 1991). It starred Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Adolph Green, and Christa Ludwig in the leading roles. The Candide recording, unlike the West Side Story one, included previously discarded numbers from the show.
A TV documentary of the West Side Story recording sessions was made in 1985, and the Candide recording was made live, in concert. This concert was eventually telecast posthumously.
On Christmas Day, December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's 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). 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 conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. The concert was later issued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.
He died of pneumonia and a pleural tumor just five days after retiring. A longtime heavy smoker, he had battled emphysema from his mid-50s. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, yelling "Goodbye, Lenny." Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
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 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he appeared regularly as guest conductor. He was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler; with his own compositions; and with American composers Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, William Schuman, and George Gershwin. His recordings of Rhapsody in Blue (full-orchestra version) and An American in Paris with the Philharmonic, released in 1959, are considered definitive by many, although for reasons unknown Bernstein always cut the Rhapsody slightly. Unfortunately, he 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 by emitting a vocal manifestation of the effect required.
Bernstein had a notably exuberant conducting style. He strayed far from classic conducting techniques, using his whole body to coax the best out of his orchestra, and had evident fun doing so.
Bernstein influenced many conductors who are performing now, such as Marin Alsop, Alexander Frey, John Mauceri, Seiji Ozawa, Carl St.Clair, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Ozawa made his first network television debut as the guest conductor on one of the Young People's Concerts.
Bernstein recorded extensively from the 1950s until just a few months before his death. Aside from a few early recordings in the mid-1940s 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 "Royal Edition" and "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 Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earth and Mozart's 15th piano concerto and "Linz" symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca Records (1966); Berlioz's 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.
In August 2008, Sony BMG Masterworks released a 10-disc set of Bernstein's recordings of his own works as a composer, The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein, which heralds the Bernstein Festival and the Bernstein Mass Project. Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic's three-month program of events, entitled Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, pays tribute to each aspect of Bernstein's legacy with 50 concerts and education events. 2008 also marked the 65th anniversary of Bernstein's historic Carnegie Hall debut.