Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

Leonard Bernstein was probably the most famous and successful American Classical musician in the world at the time of his death. Although he was best-known as the long-time conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was also a renowned composer and today is still one of the most frequently performed American composers, second only to Copland.

Bernstein was born in Massachusetts into a family of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. He displayed an early love of music and studied the piano along with his sister. He studied composition at Harvard with Walter Piston and after graduation, continued his studies at the Curtis Institute, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, who became an important mentor to him, along with Dmitri Mitropoulos and Aaron Copland. After leaving Curtis, he lived in New York, where he was became a close associate of the musical-comedy duo Adolph Green and Betty Comden, with whom he collaborated on two of his early musicals: On the Town and Wonderful Town. He then began study at Tanglewood, the summer music institute of the Boston Symphony, where he became a protégé of conductor Serge Koussevitsky. With endorsements from Copland, Koussevitsky, and Reiner, Bernstein became the conducting assistant to Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic. He shot to fame when he stepped in at the last-minute to conductor the orchestra in a nationally broadcast concert.

As a conductor, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic as its music director from 1957-1969 and returned almost yearly as conductor laureate afterwards. He gave several concerts for the Omnibus television program and later gave a highly acclaimed series of Young People’s Concerts, becoming one of the first conductors to utilize the medium for performance and educational activities. After leaving the Philharmonic, Bernstein was a regular guest conductor with most of the world’s major orchestras, especially the Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Boston Symphony. Although he generally preferred the Classical and Romantic era symphonic composers, he did much to promote the music of varied composers, such as Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, and Britten, as well as American composers including Gershwin, Ives, Copland, Harris, and Schuman. He was the first conductor to record a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies (which he did twice, as well as cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Sibelius). He conducted notable concerts in Israel at its founding, at the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the fall of the Berlin Wall. He made hundreds of recordings for CBS Masterworks/Sony Classical and later for Deutsche Grammaphon, as well as dozens of videos. Through the Tanglewood Institute, he also trained a whole generation of famous conductors, including Seiji Ozawa, Herbert Blomstedt, Marin Alsop, Paavo Järvi, Eiji Oue, and Michael Tilson Thomas, who has followed in Bernstein’s path with the acclaimed concert/education series Keeping Score on PBS.

Bernstein’s output as a composer was more limited, due to his conducting schedule. He took a sabbatical from the New York post in the mid-60’s and refused to take another permanent conducting post after it so that he could have more freedom to compose. Bernstein’s compositional style was very eclectic, drawing on his Jewish background, jazz, and musical theater, as well as the broader symphonic tradition. It is marked with rhythmic vitality (often in odd or shifting meters) and colorful orchestration.

Bernstein’s greatest fame as a composer came from works he wrote for the stage, musical theater, and film. His first ballet, Fancy Free, was later adapted into the musical On The Town, which was later filmed starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. He also wrote a score for the film On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. His opera, Candide, was not very successful at its premiere, but after several revisions, has taken its place in the repertory, especially the Overture, which is his most frequently performed concert work. His biggest success came with the musical West Side Story, with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. The stage and screen versions of this updated Romeo & Juliet story were smash hits and featured some of his best-known songs, including “Maria,” “Somewhere,” and “America”.  Bernstein also wrote the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the U.S. Bicentennial and a musical version of Peter Pan, which was not performed in its entirety until after his death.

In addition to his stage works, Bernstein was a noted orchestral and choral composer. His works frequently reference sacred themes, particularly elements from Judaism. These include the Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”, Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety”, (based on the poem by Auden), and the Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish”, (written in memory of President Kennedy), as well as the choral pieces Chichester Psalms and a Missa Brevis. One of his most controversial works was the Mass (A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers) that he wrote for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts. It contains elements of Jewish melody, jazz, rock, (with a few lyrics by Paul Simon), and music theatre, with extensive staging and choreography. Although the Catholic Church viewed it quite critically at its premiere, it was later performed at the Vatican. His last years saw the completion of works including the Songfest, Divertimento, and Concerto for Orchestra, “Jubilee Games”.

Bernstein produced several solo works throughout his career. One of his first published pieces was the Clarinet Sonata of 1939, the year that he graduated from Harvard. It, along with his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, (written for Benny Goodman), have become standards of the clarinet repertoire. He Also displayed a love of brass instruments with a series of small vignettes for solo brass and piano featuring each member of the brass section, such as the Rondo for Lifey (for trumpet) and the Elegy for Mippy (for horn). He also wrote a Serenade for violin & orchestra (based on Plato), as well as concertante works for flute and cello. He also composed a few art songs, such as the song cycle I Hate Music! and several solo pieces for the piano, such as the 4 sets of Anniversaries, some of which he recorded himself.

Bernstein’s contribution to American musical life was enormous. He received 16 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, as well as Kennedy Center honoree in 1980. In addition to his numerous recordings and television appearances, he was also a noted lecturer and published several books on music appreciation. After a life of heavy smoking and battling emphysema, Bernstein died from pneumonia in 1990, just a few weeks after conducting his final concert at Tanglewood.

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