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Leonard Bernstein: Conductor, Pianist, Composer, Educator, Author

Leonard Bernstein was a humanitarian, author, educator, pianist, music conductor, and composer. An impossibly brilliant American who shined in so many diverse sectors, his genius was truly reflected through his influence over them. A cult personality of the 20th century, he was one of the most successful and prodigious musicians in the history of American music.

Leonard Bernstein in 1950s

Early life

Leonard was born on the 25th of August, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. They were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He was named Louis by his grandmother, although his parents preferred “Leonard,” which was legally adopted once he turned eighteen. His friends simply called him Lenny.

In his early youth, Leonard’s only access to music was the household radio and Friday night religious musical services in Roxbury, Massachusetts. When he turned ten, his aunt Clara left her upright piano at the Bernstein residence. Leonard started learning music theory and piano all by himself and was soon pushing for lessons. He learned from multiple piano teachers, including Helen Coates, who later became his secretary. His talent was evident in his youth when he would often perform entire symphonies and operas for Shirley, his younger sister.

George Gershwin also had a strong musical influence on a young Leonard. He was deeply moved by his idol’s demise when he received the news over the radio at a summer camp. He was visibly shaken and later played Gershwin's “Second Prelude” as a tribute for the audience.

Musical Journey

Bernstein’s first public performance for the piano was Johannes Brahms' “Rhapsody in G Minor,” which he played at the New England Conservatory on the 30th of March, 1932. In 1934, his solo debut came in collaboration with the Boston Public School Orchestra, as they performed Edvard Grieg's “Piano Concerto in A Minor.” A year later, he joined Harvard to study music, where Walter Piston and Edward Burlingame Hill were his batchmates.

In 1939, he successfully majored in music with a thesis titled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.” At Harvard, Professor David Prall of the Musical Aesthetics Department had a major intellectual effect on Bernstein. Prall’s multidisciplinary outlook changed the way Leonard viewed music for the rest of his life. Another influential figure from his Harvard days was philosopher-to-be Donald Davidson, who played piano duets with Bernstein. Leonard also crafted and conducted the music for Davidson’s play “The Birds,” which was performed in its original Greek version. Bernstein even used part of this music in his future compositions. He also worked as an accompanist at the “Harvard Glee Club” and also performed as a pianist (unpaid) in silent movies for the Harvard Film Society.

In 1939, Bernstein left Harvard to join the “Curtis Institute of Music” in Philadelphia. He learned conducting under Fritz Reiner and orchestration under Randall Thompson. Isabelle Vengerova gave him piano lessons while Renée Longy Miquelle and Richard Stöhr supervised his score reading and counterpoint lessons, respectively.

Conductor, Composer & Educator

Leonard Bernstein on TV

Bernstein considered Ludwig van Beethoven as the greatest. Even his first TV show was based on Beethoven’s “5th symphony.” However, he faced difficulty conducting Wagner due to the composer’s musical association with the German Reich. He had a precise affinity towards the balance wit displayed by Joseph Haydn, while Gustav Mahler also held a special place in his heart. Music conductors are storytellers, and Leonard was one of the very best. In classical music, timing is the key, and Lenny’s timing was immaculate. 

In 1942, he crafted his first symphony titled “Jeremiah” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1943, he became the assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic alongside Artur Rodziński. His debut came at short notice when Bruno Walter, the guest conductor, suddenly fell ill. It was a challenging performance and included works of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, and Robert Schumann. CBS radio broadcasted it nationally and what followed was an instant success story. Leonard achieved instant fame, propelled by a euphoric press. In the fall of 1943, Bernstein met Jerome Robbins, a young dancer associated with the “Ballet Theatre.” The two men soon collaborated for the ballet “Fancy Free,” the initiation of a historic partnership. In April 1944, the ballet premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House and became an instant success. Soon, a commercial recording followed along with national tours.

Leonard Berstein at recording studio

Bernstein held the post of Music Director at the New York City Symphony between 1945 and 1947. In 1946, he crossed the Atlantic to make his European debut at Prague. The London premiere was held on July 4 at the Royal Opera House, where he conducted “Fancy Free.”  Bernstein’s symphonies can be best described as a crisis of faith but always on the lookout for redemption. His identity as a conductor has somewhat overshadowed his reputation as a composer. However, he remains one of those unique composers whose music can be recognized instantly once you hear three notes.

In 1947, Bernstein became associated with the “Palestine Symphony Orchestra” by conducting in Tel Aviv, which lasted until his demise. In 1949, he made his first television appearance as a music conductor at Carnegie Hall along with the “Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

The concert celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, something Bernstein always offered unwavering support for. In 1950, he made his Broadway debut with the play “Peter Pan.” He also served as a music professor at Brandeis University for 5 years, albeit in a visiting role. During his stint there, in 1952, he founded the “Creative Arts Festival.” 

In the 1950s, Bernstein delivered televised essays for almost a decade. The subjects were rich and vast - from the factors behind the magnificence of the opera, the evolution of musical comedy in the USA to Beethoven’s sketchbooks, he took them all in his stride, mesmerizing the spectators. A born communicator, his “jargon-free” attitude and ability to stimulate diverse musical subjects was a boon for the television. He was also the first conductor to introduce music to the mass TV audience. He effortlessly took the most laborious aspects of classical music and turned them into an adventure, which was evident from his Emmy winning show “Young People's Concerts.” His educational endeavors continued with the publication of several books and the initiation of two major international music festivals.

Other Works 

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

In 1959, he went on a European tour with the New York Philharmonic, also covering the Soviet Union. CBS television covered portions of this. In 1962, he collaborated with renowned pianist Glenn Gould for performing Johannes Brahms’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.” He was always vocal about his admiration for Gould, and the duo maintained a lifelong friendship.

Leonard was also close to the Kennedys. In 1961, he performed at President Kennedy's pre-inaugural gala and soon became close with the White House. In 1963, after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy, he composed his final symphony titled “Kaddish.” Bernstein himself had crafted the narration. In the 1970s, Bernstein composed the score for “Dybbuk,” a ballet, and “Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra,” his song cycle. He also crafted the theatre work titled “MAAS: A Theatre Piece for Singers” and worked on “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” a musical. In 1980, he was awarded the “Kennedy Center Honors” for his contribution to American arts and culture. He also produced, conducted, and composed several TV documentaries around this time. In 1983, he crafted his most famous opera titled “A Quiet Place.” In August 1990, Leonard conducted his last performance in collaboration with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Inspiration

Leonard Bernstein retired in October 1990 and passed away within days after suffering from a heart attack on the 14th of October. His intensity, passion, endless curiosity, and enthusiasm about almost everything set him apart. He never considered music and education as separate entities but rather amalgamated them into an organic, systematic educational system. He was a proactive supporter of interdisciplinary learning, which was a radical concept back then. He considered education as the crucial aspect but also emphasized how the information is being presented.

The conductor Bernstein believed that every piece has its own story, often accompanied by a moral. It is the conductor’s responsibility to locate that narrative and transform it convincingly. Leonard Bernstein himself was the benchmark of such musical engagement and outreach. His musical reputation has elevated over the years, as more of his works are analyzed and allowed to escape the shadow of his massive personality. His daring utilization of musical style and genre, his fluency of multiple musical avenues, his outspoken political views remain a sheer inspiration for every future generation of musicians. His honesty, inventiveness, and unwavering personality is surely missed today.


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