Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is generally recognized as music's most exuberant hero. Composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, humanitarian, thinker, entertainer and adventurous spirit, he forged his many talents with an irresistible personality to transform the way people everywhere hear and appreciate music. He broke rules, shattered precedents and opened doors, insisting that the art of music could and should play a vital role in the lives of all people.

Bernstein's successes as a composer ranged from the Broadway stage (most notably, West Side Story) to concert halls all over the world, where his orchestral and choral works continue to thrive. As conductor of a vast repertoire, he was a dynamic presence on the podiums of the world's great orchestras for half a century, leaving a legacy that endures and continues to thrive through an uncommonly rich and diverse catalogue of over 500 recordings and filmed performances.

In Bernstein's life and work, American music came to life, found its energy and its conviction, and began to embrace its potential. Not only was he the first American to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra, but he also blazed the trail in Europe for other Americans to follow. He was the first American to conduct the Berlin Philhamonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw, among others. He was also the first American to conduct at La Scala.

From his earliest days, Bernstein was a true believer in the music of his time. The lasting popularity of the music of Mahler, Shostakovich and many other 20th-century masters owes much to his inspired advocacy. Around the world he championed American composers such as Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, and Lukas Foss. The breadth of Bernstein's repertoire, the depth of his convictions, and the charismatic energy with which he articulated them, made him a superstar in the classical world. He is arguably the most famous conductor who ever lived. No American classical musician had ever achieved such universal stature, respect or sheer celebrity.

Leonard Bernstein came of age artistically as television became a part of everyday life, and he immediately saw its potential as a means to share and explore music with the mass audience. Through his imaginative programming ideas and his own engaging presence (most memorably, in the award-winning Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic) he made even the most rigorous elements of classical music an adventure in which everyone could join. A generation of Americans appreciates music because of Bernstein. That he achieved this without ever seeming to patronize or lecture his audience only reaffirmed how personal and how deeply felt his convictions were. In 1967, Bernstein wrote, "Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace."

In the new millennium, more than a decade after Bernstein's death in 1990, his life's work as an educator continues with the GRAMMY Foundation's Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning, which has evolved into the centerpiece of the Foundation's educational programming. The Leonard Bernstein Center has developed a model for elementary, middle and secondary school teachers based on his life long belief that the arts and the artistic process reinforce teaching and learning in all subjects. The model, called Artful Learning, is already being implemented in schools in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

For all that is wonderful and unique about Leonard Bernstein's life and career, they tell a story that resonates with the American experience. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, he was the son of middle-class Jewish immigrants. His musical abilities became apparent when he was a child. As with many gifted American children, Bernstein had to prevail over his hard-working father's concern that music did not offer him a secure, stable future. Yet he continued to take piano lessons and began composing while attending the Garrison and Boston Latin Schools. At Harvard College, his musical studies became more serious. Shortly before graduating in 1939, Bernstein made an informal conducting debut with his own incidental music for Aristophanes' The Birds, and he also directed and performed in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. Accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he studied piano with Isabella Vengerova, conducting with Fritz Reiner, and orchestration with Randall Thompson. In the summer of 1940, he began what would become a lifelong association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's newly created summer festival at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. There he met the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitzky and became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant.

When Bernstein was only 25, he held his first conducting post as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was in this capacity that, on November 14, 1943, he made his historic conducting debut. With only a few hours notice, he substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter at a Carnegie Hall concert. Overnight he became famous. The performance was broadcast nationwide on CBS radio and the next day made the front-page of the New York Times. This acclaim quickly led to invitations to conduct orchestras all over the world.

At the same time, Bernstein the composer was beginning to make his mark. He completed his Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah in 1943 and conducted its world premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra the following year. The symphony won him the New York Music Critics Award. In 1944, Bernstein collaborated with his friend, the dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins, on a new ballet entitled Fancy Free. The acclaim that greeted Fancy Free convinced Robbins and Bernstein that the ballet contained the seeds of a full-fledged Broadway musical. With their friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, they quickly created On the Town (1944) it became their first Broadway hit.

Bernstein's limitless energy and virtuosity were legend in New York in the 1940s, when he seemed to be everywhere at once. At the same time, he began building a conventional conducting career, with the advice and counsel of such mentors as Koussevitzky, Artur Rodzinski and Dimitri Mitropoulos virtually reinventing the role of the serious American composer, freely moving between Broadway and the concert hall. With Comden and Green and their friend Judy Holliday, he performed in nightclubs as part of The Revuers. The night before his impromptu New York Philharmonic debut, mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, at her Town Hall debut recital, gave the first performance in New York of Bernstein's "I Hate Music."

In 1945, Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1947. That same year, he conducted in Tel Aviv (then in Palestine) for the first time, beginning a lifelong association with Israel and its people. After the war, Bernstein made his conducting career truly international in scope, and in 1953 became the first American to conduct an opera at Milan's Teatro alla Scala, in acclaimed performances of Cherubini's Medea and Bellini's La sonnambula, both with Maria Callas in the title role. With the death of Koussevitzky in 1951, Bernstein's presence at Tanglewood grew, while he also served as a visiting professor at Brandeis University in Boston. That year he married the Chilean actress and pianist Felicia Montealegre.

Though he made recordings throughout the 1940s, Bernstein's recording career began in earnest in 1956, when he began a long exclusive association as a recording artist with Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical) and, beginning in the 1970s, he built an extensive catalogue of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Bernstein's fame grew quickly in America with his acclaimed and much-discussed concert-and-lecture appearances beginning in 1954 on the CBS television program Omnibus. In 1958 through the CBS network he presented the Young People's Concerts that he devised with the New York Philharmonic. These programs extended over fourteen seasons. His television work made him the most famous classical musician in America, and he soon became America's cultural emissary. In this role, he toured with the New York Philharmonic to Moscow in 1959. This Moscow performance was telecast on the CBS network. His television presence continued, including many appearances on the PBS series Great Performances. In 1989, Bernstein and others commemorated the 1939 invasion of Poland in a worldwide telecast from Warsaw. In the course of his career, he won eleven Emmy Awards.

Bernstein became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. From then until 1969 he led more concerts with the orchestra than any previous conductor. He holds the permanent title of Laureate Conductor. More than half of Bernstein's 500-plus recordings are with the New York Philharmonic. He had a vast repertoire encompassing all periods and styles. However, Bernstein may be best remembered for his performances and recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Haydn, Schumann, and Sibelius. Particularly notable were his performances of the Mahler symphonies with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s, sparking a renewed interest in the works of Mahler.

Bernstein the composer followed the success of his Jeremiah Symphony with the Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety, which premiered in 1949 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Koussevitzky conducting and Bernstein as piano soloist. Bernstein himself conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of his Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, composed in 1963 and 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 Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971), commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. 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 also wrote the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti in 1952, and its sequel, the three-act opera A Quiet Place, in 1983. In addition to Fancy Free, he collaborated with choreographer Jerome Robbins on two other major ballets, Facsimile (1946) for American Ballet Theater and Dybbuk (1975) for the New York City Ballet. He received an Academy Award nomination for his score for the award-winning movie On the Waterfront (1954), and he also composed incidental music for two Broadway plays, Peter Pan (1950) and The Lark (1955).

Bernstein's contribution to the Broadway musical stage, though limited to only five complete shows, was profoundly important. He again teamed with his On The Town collaborators Comden and Green in 1953 to write the score, in the space of only a few weeks, for Wonderful Town, which became a long-running Broadway hit. In collaboration with Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman and others he wrote Candide (1956). Though Candide enjoyed only a brief initial run on Broadway, its score has been held in such high regard that other versions of the show have been successfully realized by such writers as Hugh Wheeler, John Wells, John Caird and Stephen Sondheim. In 1957 Bernstein finally realized a collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, the landmark musical West Side Story, which had a transforming influence on the Broadway musical and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1961. Bernstein's final Broadway effort, the 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written with Alan Jay Lerner, ran briefly on Broadway. Like Candide, its score is widely admired, and excerpts are presented in A White House Cantata and the Orchestral Suite from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Festivals of Bernstein's music were produced throughout his life. In 1978 the Israel Philharmonic sponsored a festival honoring his years of dedication to Israel. In 1988 The Israel Philharmonic also bestowed on him the permanent title of Laureate Conductor. In 1986 the London Symphony Orchestra 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. Since his death he has been frequently honored by festivals celebrating his accomplishments.

In 1985 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Mr. Bernstein with the Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY Award.

Many of Bernstein's writings were published in The Joy of Music (1959), Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts (1961), The Infinite Variety of Music (1966), and Findings (1982). Each has been widely translated. Bernstein also delivered six lectures at Harvard University in 1972-1973 as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. These lectures were subsequently published and televised as The Unanswered Question, and have been translated into five languages.

Bernstein always rejoiced in opportunities to teach young musicians. His master classes at Tanglewood were famous. He worked to establish the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in 1982. He helped create a world-class training orchestra at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival. He founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Modeled after Tanglewood, this international festival, including an educational component, was the first of its kind in Asia, and continues to thrive this day.

He established scholarship funds at Brandeis, Harvard, the Indiana University School of Music, and Tanglewood. In memory of his wife he created scholarships for acting students at Columbia University, The Juilliard School and New York University.

Bernstein received many honors. In 1981, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him its Gold Medal. The National Fellowship Award in 1985 applauded his lifelong support of humanitarian causes. He received the MacDowell Colony's Gold Medal; medals from the Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft; the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest honor for the arts; a special Tony Award (1969) for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater; and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities. He was presented ceremonial keys to many cities including Beersheva (Israel), the village of Bernstein (Austria), Oslo and Vienna. National honors came from Austria, Denmark, Finland, France (Chevalier, Officer and Commandeur of the Legion d'Honneur), Germany (the Great Merit Cross), Israel, Italy, Japan (Praemium Imperiale) and Mexico. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980.

World peace was a particular concern of Bernstein. Speaking at Johns Hopkins University in 1980 and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1983, he described his vision of global harmony. His Journey for Peace tour to Athens and Hiroshima with the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1985, commemorated the 40th anniversary of the atom bomb. In December 1989, Bernstein conducted the historic "Berlin Celebration Concerts" on both sides of the Berlin Wall, as it was being dismantled. The concerts were unprecedented gestures of cooperation, the orchestra included musicians representing the former East Germany, West Germany and the four powers that had partitioned Berlin after World War II.

Bernstein supported Amnesty International from its inception. To benefit the effort in 1987, he established the Felicia Montealegre Fund in memory of his wife who died in 1978.

Leonard Bernstein was the father of three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina.

Leonard Bernstein's heroic role in contemporary musical life retains its luster and its meaning, even as the appreciation of his music grows and deepens. The work of the Leonard Bernstein Center reaffirms his commitment to education and enlightenment for the young; his compositions, recordings, filmed performances and lectures continue to illuminate the canon of classical music; and the example of his thrilling, turbulent and generous life seems nothing less than the American dream come true. The "total embrace" of Leonard Bernstein is firm, warm and enduring.


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | May 25, 2024
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | May 26, 2006
John Knowles Paine Hall at Harvard University | November 8, 2002
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | October 9, 1999

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