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Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on 25th August, 1918. He attended Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music (1939-41) before studying under Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky.
After working as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic he became conductor of New York City Center (1945-47). He also wrote the music for Fancy Free (1943) and On the Town (1944).
After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to investigate people with left-wing views in the entertainment industry. In June, 1950, three former FBI agents and a right-wing television producer, Vincent Harnett, published Red Channels, a pamphlet listing the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organizations before the Second World War but had not so far been blacklisted. The names had been compiled from FBI files and a detailed analysis of the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the American Communist Party.
A free copy of Red Channels was sent to those involved in employing people in the entertainment industry. All those people named in the pamphlet were blacklisted until they appeared in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and convinced its members they had completely renounced their radical past.
Bernstein was one of those named but he continued to be commissioned to write the music for films including On the Waterfront (1954), West Side Story (1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Terms of Endearment(1983).
Leonard Bernstein died in New York on 14th October, 1990.
Leonard Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. A shy and sickly child, Louis Bernstein fell in love with music after a relative gave his family an old, weathered upright piano. He began taking piano lessons and changed his name to Leonard at the age of sixteen.
The family soon moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Leonard studied at Boston Latin School. He excelled in academics and graduated in 1935. From there Bernstein went on to Harvard University, where he studied business. Although he had taken piano lessons from the age of ten and engaged in musical activities at college, his musical training began in 1939 at the Curtis Institute. The following summer, at the Berkshire Music Festival, he met Serge Koussevitsky, who was to be his chief mentor (teacher) during his early years.
Leonard Bernstein Dies Conductor, Composer : Music: Renaissance man of his art was 72. The longtime leader of the N.Y. Philharmonic carved a niche in history with ‘West Side Story.’
Leonard Bernstein, the Renaissance man of music who excelled as pianist, composer, conductor and teacher and was, as well, the flamboyant ringmaster of his own nonstop circus, died Sunday in his Manhattan apartment. He was 72.
Bernstein, known and beloved by the world as “Lenny,” died at 6:15 p.m. in the presence of his son, Alexander, and physician, Kevin M. Cahill, who said the cause of death was complications of progressive lung failure. On Cahill’s advice, the conductor had announced Tuesday that he would retire. Cahill said progressive emphysema complicated by a pleural tumor and a series of lung infections had left Bernstein too weak to continue working.
In recent months, Bernstein canceled performances with increasing frequency. His last conducting appearance was at Tanglewood, Mass., on Aug. 19.
Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major symphony orchestra, often joining his New York Philharmonic in playing his own pieces, while conducting from the piano.
He etched other niches in history by composing the indelible “West Side Story” and teaching a generation about classical music via the innovative television series “Omnibus.”
Exhibiting remarkable talent and expertise in four areas that most artists wish they possessed in merely one, Bernstein still might have remained an obscure musician without the unique theatrical flair that dominated his personal as well as professional life. With it, he became a personality , well known even to people who never bought a ticket to a musical performance or watched a serious television show.
The dervish persona, including his upstart gymnastics on the podium, never lessened throughout his long life in the spotlight.
He made classical music understandable and palatable to the masses. And he lifted popular music to a higher plane, infusing performers and listeners with his manic joy in creating tonal sound.
“Some conductors mellow with age,” commented Times music critic Martin Bernheimer when Bernstein conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at UCLA in 1986. "(But) Bernstein, at 68, remains a frenetic combination of orbiting rocket, aerobics master, super-juggler, matinee idol, booming cannon, hysterical mime, heart-rending tragedian, bouncing ball, sky writer, riveting machine, mawkish sentimentalist and danseur ignoble.”
Describing the conductor in the same concert, Bernheimer referred to him as “the shrugging, jumping, sighing, soaring, gushing, crouching, rocking, rolling, bounding, bobbing, leaping, jiggling, stabbing, hunching, bumping, grinding and grunting maestro in excelsis.”
Critics also were quick to agree that had his envied and often-criticized showmanship masked lazy, sloppy or inept musicianship, Bernstein could never have remained an internationally sought-after conductor for five decades. He knew what he was doing, and the musicians he accompanied, wrote for, conducted, or lectured to and taught admired him as one of their own.
Louis Bernstein (so-named because his maternal grandmother insisted) was born Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass., to two Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, was an entrepreneur of women’s hair care products and a Talmudic scholar. His mother, Jennie Resnick Bernstein, who survives him, said her son always had an ear for music. “When he was 4 or 5, he would play an imaginary piano on his windowsill.”
The parents preferred the name “Leonard” and called the boy that. When his kindergarten teacher asked “Louis Bernstein” to stand up, he remained seated and looked around the room to see who shared his last name. Bernstein changed his name legally at age 16, when he got his first driver’s license.
His mega musical talent emerged belatedly and almost by accident.
When Bernstein was 10, a divorcing aunt stored her old upright piano with his parents, and the boy who used to play at the windowsill became fascinated with it. He asked for lessons, and soon was playing better than his teacher, a neighbor’s daughter who charged $1 a lesson.
By age 12, he was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and had determined, despite his father’s objections, that music--at that point playing the piano--would be his career.
Bernstein’s stunning instinctive talents for sight-reading, remembering complicated scores, and improvisation became evident as he played, and altered, classical, jazz and popular music. He produced his own shows and versions of “The Mikado” and “Carmen,” and performed as piano soloist with his school orchestra and the State Symphony Orchestra.
He reveled in music while excelling in athletics and the classical subjects taught at the 300-year-old Boston Latin School.
At Harvard University, Bernstein studied piano and composition, but developed a serious interest in composing only after meeting American composer Aaron Copland.
A fan and practitioner of his music, Bernstein met Copland in a typical it-could-only-happen-to-Lenny incident. Invited to a dance recital in New York, Bernstein sat in the balcony next to a man he did not recognize. Invited afterward to a post-recital birthday party for Copland, Bernstein commandeered the piano and played Copland’s “Piano Variations.” His performance captivated the man he had met in the balcony, who of course was Copland.
They became lifelong friends. Copland introduced Bernstein to several composers and got him his first job--transcribing music for the publisher Boosey and Hawkes. Ironically, Copland subsequently urged the torn Bernstein to make conducting, rather than composing or even piano playing, his career.
Conducting emerged as a possibility to Bernstein that same year--1937, his sophomore year at Harvard--when he met the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos during the maestro’s visit to campus. Mitropoulos was so impressed with Bernstein’s playing that he invited him to attend rehearsals with the Boston Symphony. The maestro also talked with Bernstein privately in his dressing room after concerts, promising to keep in touch.
“The influence of Mitropoulos on my life, on my conducting life is enormous and usually greatly underrated or not known at all,” Bernstein wrote years later, after his mentors had all died, “because ordinarily the two great conductors with whom I studied are the ones who receive the credit for whatever conducting prowess I have, namely Serge Koussevitzky and Fritz Reiner. . . . But long before I met either of them, I had met Dimitri Mitropoulos . . . and watching him conduct those two weeks of rehearsals and concerts with the Boston Symphony laid some kind of conductorial passion and groundwork in my psyche which I wasn’t even aware of until many years later.”
Graduated from Harvard and out of work after a summer in New York, Bernstein asked Mitropoulos what he should do.
“You must be a conductor,” Mitropoulos replied, urging him to study at Juilliard or with Reiner at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. It was fall and conducting classes at Juilliard were full, so Bernstein went to Philadelphia for two years.
During the summers he studied under Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, at the new school Koussevitzky was starting at the orchestra’s summer home, Tanglewood.
“He became like a surrogate father to me,” Bernstein later said of Koussevitzky, his third major conducting mentor. “He had no children of his own and I had a father whom I loved very much but who was not for this musical thing at all. . . . And so I found another father: first Mitropoulos, then Reiner, and now Koussevitzky. But the Koussevitzky relationship was very special, very warm.”
Bernstein later became Koussevitzky’s assistant and returned to Tanglewood annually to conduct and teach. He so revered the maestro that he was married in Koussevitzky’s shoes and white suit and always conducted wearing his cuff links.
It was Koussevitzky--and fate--who arranged Bernstein’s meteoric ascension to world-class conductor at the unheard-of age of 25.
On his 25th birthday, Aug. 25, 1943, Bernstein was told by the Koussevitzkys that he should visit Artur Rodzinsky, newly appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, at his Stockbridge, Conn., farm.
“I am going to need an assistant conductor,” Rodzinsky told him. “I have gone through all the conductors I know of in my mind and I finally asked God whom I shall take and God said, ‘Take Bernstein,’ ” he said, granting the position as a favor not to God but to Koussevitzky.
Remarkable as his appointment was considering that he was an American and so young, Bernstein was given little chance of actually taking the podium. In the orchestra’s history, no assistant conductor had ever been called on.
But for “Lucky Lenny” history made an exception.
On Nov. 14, less than three months after Bernstein got the job, guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill and Rodzinsky was snowed in at his farm.
Jennie Tourel had sung Bernstein’s “I Hate Music” at her Town Hall debut the previous night, in itself an event big enough to bring his parents to town, and he had played for her and the post-recital party.
With no rehearsal, a hangover and three hours sleep, Bernstein was to conduct a complex program broadcast nationwide on CBS radio.
The New York Times chronicled the epic event on Page One and stated in an editorial: “Mr. Bernstein had to have something approaching genius to make full use of his opportunity. . . . It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread over the airwaves.”
Bernstein was not to get his own orchestra until he took over the New York Philharmonic in 1957-58. He had no time for one. He was too much in demand around the world as the wunderkind guest conductor.
Successful as a pianist, composer and conductor, Bernstein, according to Joan Peyser in a controversial biography, consulted psychiatrists because of his internal conflict over the three pursuits.
“It is impossible for me to make an exclusive choice among the various activities,” Bernstein wrote in 1946. “What seems right for me at any given moment is what I must do. . . . The ends are music itself . . . and the means are my private problem.”
The piano became an occasional solo onstage or a celebrated party pastime. Bernstein concentrated seriously on composing while developing and commercializing his conducting career.
His first major composition, a symphony titled “Jeremiah,” was introduced in 1942, and his first ballet, “Fancy Free,” and related first musical, “On the Town,” both debuted in 1944.
He sought to be a classical composer, winning plaudits for symphonies (“Jeremiah” was followed by “The Age of Anxiety” in 1949 and “Kaddish” in 1963), sonatas, and the operas “Trouble in Tahiti” in 1953 and “A Quiet Place” in 1983.
In writing music, Bernstein achieved greater success on Broadway, and even in Hollywood, than in Lincoln Center. He followed “On the Town” with the musicals “Wonderful Town” in 1953, the score for the film “On the Waterfront” in 1954, and the critically acclaimed but less popular “Candide” in 1956. His best and best-remembered work, “West Side Story,” debuted in 1957.
“If I can write one real, moving American opera that any American can understand (and one that is, notwithstanding, a serious musical work), I shall be a happy man,” Bernstein said in 1948.
When many suggested a decade later that he had achieved his dream with “West Side Story,” he disagreed, saying: “There are moments when I think so, but as a sum total it fails to be an opera. Because at the denouement, at the dramatic unraveling, the music stops.
“But I don’t love it any less,” he added, reveling in the adulation his adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet conflict had produced. “It doesn’t make it a stepchild or a foundling.”
In teaching, his fourth area of expertise, Bernstein taught regularly at Tanglewood and won his place in academic annals with his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on tonality at Harvard in 1973.
It was on television in the 1950s and 1960s, with his “Young People’s Concerts” of the Philharmonic and “Omnibus,” that Bernstein taught the nation.
“An assessment of Bernstein must include his talent and contribution as a teacher and popularizer of music, a role that has set him apart most from other performers,” conductor, historian and Bard College President Leon Botstein wrote in Harper’s in 1983.
Instinctively adept at television, Bernstein became a prototype for Carl Sagan, Alistair Cooke and others now familiar on instructive programs on the Public Broadcasting System.
Bernstein’s programs, Botstein said, “displayed his gift for analyzing and enthusing about classical music without sacrificing the integrity of the score, its complexity, or its simple genius. No one before or since Bernstein has been so effective--artistically and commercially--in proselytizing and bringing alive serious music to a mass audience.”
The television classics won Bernstein a coveted Peabody award.
Bernstein was able to apply his innate ability for commercializing his art that had made him wealthy to the struggling New York Philharmonic. He introduced free concerts in the park and put the orchestra on television, widening its audience and tripling paid concert attendance.
He left the orchestra in 1969, after a record 11-year tenure at the helm, to have more time for composing and guest conducting.
If two rings of the Bernstein circus rested in popular and classical music, the third was anchored in his uproarious personal life. Known for his emotional embraces of both sexes, Bernstein loved crowds and kept friends and family with him throughout the night at his Manhattan apartment or Connecticut country home.
A heavy smoker and drinker who partied or worked until dawn and slept until noon, he claimed he composed or studied scores even when surrounded by people.
“God knows, I should be dead by now,” he said as he approached 70, characteristically cavalier about his health. “I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I’m overcommitted on all fronts. . . . I was told that if I didn’t stop smoking I’d be dead at 35. Well, I beat the rap.”
Raising the high-brow music world’s eyebrows, Bernstein campaigned with other celebrities for the civil rights of blacks in the 1960s and against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Criticized for “radical chic,” his leftist political philosophy prompted him to host a storied fund-raising party for the Black Panthers in 1970. In 1989, he rejected a National Medal of the Arts in protest of the withdrawn $10,000 grant (later reinstated) of the National Endowment for the Arts to an art show on AIDS.
Although Peyser made a strong case in her 1987 biography that Bernstein had many homosexual affairs (Bernstein promised his children never to read the book), there was no question that he adored his family. On Sept. 9, 1951, he married Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, and, despite a short separation and subsequent reconciliation in 1976, remained devoted to her and went into a severe depression when she died of lung cancer in 1978.
Bernstein is also survived by two daughters, Jamie and Nina, as well as his sister, Shirley, and brother, Burton.
Spokeswoman Margaret Carson said the funeral would be private.
Staunchly opposed to retiring, until last Tuesday, Bernstein continued his guest conducting, composing, and recording, perhaps topping his more than 200 records with the best of his best, a re-recording of “West Side Story” in 1985. The effort became Deutsche Grammaphon’s all-time best-selling record and prompted Will Crutchfield to write in the New York Times that Bernstein was in a class with Giuseppe Verdi.
French President Francois Mitterrand saluted “West Side Story” anew in 1986 when he made Bernstein a commander of the Legion of Honor.
After a nationwide series of concerts and parties celebrating his 70th birthday in 1988, Bernstein said with uncharacteristic modesty: “I have no further requests of the fates . . . except for time. I’ve achieved more than I had any right to expect. Nobody has been as lucky as I have.”
SUPERSTAR LENNY: Too much talent, too little time, says Martin Bernheimer. A23
Leonard Bernstein ‘Symphonic Dances from West Side Story’: Mambo!
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25th, 1918. The son of Ukrainian Jewish parents, Bernstein’s interest in music education was initially opposed by his father, who was a businessman in the area. His father’s attitude began to change when Bernstein was in his teenage years, where he started taking him to orchestral concerts, and from there Bernstein’s musical education was supported by both of his parents. Saying this, however, it was from a young age that Bernstein began engaging with classical music, more specifically – piano music.
Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music. He had an active musical life around the Harvard campus, where he was involved in musical productions, piano accompaniment, and conducting. Bernstein began taking conducting more seriously after meeting Dimitri Mitropoulos, who’s power as a musician had such an influence over him. During his first year at Harvard, Bernstein also met composer, Aaron Copland. Although he was never officially a student of Copland’s, Bernstein often stated that he was his only ‘real composition teacher.’
After graduating with a BA in music in 1939, Bernstein moved onto study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting, piano performance, orchestration, counterpoint, and score reading. After his time at Curtis, Bernstein moved to New York, where he began taking on music jobs, be that conducting, publishing, producing, or even transcribing music. 1940 saw Bernstein attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute, where he went to conducting classes, led by Serge Koussevitzky. By 1951, Bernstein became Koussevitsky’s conducting assistant, and then the head of the orchestra after Koussevitsky’s death.
Bernstein’s conducting career began to flourish, and he took positions at the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Symphony, where he became very popular both nationally and internationally. The same can also be said about his career in composition, with his score for the ballet Fancy Free (which later became the basis of the musical On the Town ), and his Jeremiah Symphony becoming some of his first very successful works.
During the mid-1950s, Bernstein composed the music for two broadway shows. The first, was for the operetta, Candide, which premiered in 1956. The second was a collaboration between Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Bernstein – West Side Story. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1957, this score has remained one of Bernstein’s most challenging. As much as I would love to go even further into all the work that Bernstein did over the course of his career, I feel like this is a more appropriate place to move onto engaging with West Side Story, and the orchestral piece that came from the score.
Due to the immediate success that West Side Story received from critics and audiences, Bernstein soon adapted it into the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961. The show became an artistic landmark, due to its fusion of opera, ballet, jazz, classical, as well as seriously complex vocal and instrumental demands on the cast and orchestra. This powerful show outlines the classic love vs hate storyline, where two street gangs clash horns on the streets of New York.
Bernstein created the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961, which sees nine connected movements of music, which has been taking from the original show. Although all of the movements create one piece of music, the order in which the music appears is different from the show itself. The nine movements are as follows:
Prologue (Allegro Moderato)
Scherzo (Vivace e Leggiero)
Cha-Cha (Andantino Con Grazia)
Meeting Scene (Meno Mosso)
‘Cool’, Fugue (Allegretto)
8.Rumble (Molto Allegro)
Perhaps one of the reasons why this particular ‘Symphonic Dance’ suite has become so popular, is because it is a stand-alone concert piece in its own right. One does not need to have any prior knowledge of West Side Story to be able to understand and enjoy this work. However, for those interested, for each section I shall offer a short outline of what unfolds in the scene from the show, which may add some context to the music.
1. Prologue – ‘The growing rivalry between two teenage gangs – the Jets and the Sharks’
Throughout the ‘Prologue’, Bernstein keeps the listener on their toes, whether that is through extremities in ranges or dynamics, or through the surprising accents heard. Some main themes are established in this movement. This whole section is rather unsettled, which represents the tension between the two gangs. The quiet sections build up tension, with short bursts of extremely loud brass-led sections show the anger and frustration of the music. A short burst of a jazz theme is heard, before returning to one of the main themes. The music is structured chaos, and the drive of the music is exciting, until it begins to calm down with its segue into the next, much slower section.
2. ‘Somewhere’ – ‘In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship’
The relief from the start of this section, after the tension-loaded ‘Prologue’ is very welcome. This beautiful adagio section is led by the strings, and hears the famous melody from ‘Somewhere’ being played out, and then developed by the orchestra. This melody rises to the 7th of the chord, but then falls to the 6th, which shows the reach for hope for a ‘Somewhere’, but instead the fall shows the in-completion of this dream. Towards the end of this movement we hear the winds and brass enter to exclaim ‘Somewhere!’, but this soon dies away, and the transition into the next section is set up.
3. Scherzo – ‘In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun’
Back into a major tonality in the ‘Scherzo’, this movement is upbeat, positive and driven to achieve this atmosphere of ‘space, sun, and air’. With a sweet melody in the high winds and tuned percussion leading this section, the brass and strings interject throughout, but never fully penetrate the music properly. This playful movement differs from both the first and second movements. The seamless transition in and out of this movement is surely some of Bernstein’s finer orchestrating.
4. Mambo – ‘Reality again competitive dance between the gangs’
The sweet and playful nature of the previous movement is soon dissolved with the boisterous nature of ‘Mambo’. The use of accidentals here give a certain uneasiness to the music, paired with the extensive use of percussion and brass to create the Bernstein flair we have all grown to love. The accented dance rhythms create the excitement of a dance battle, with references to Latin rhythms and jazz, this section is perhaps one of the most exhilarating.
5. Cha-Cha – ‘The star-crossed lovers (Tony and Maria) see each other for the first time, and dance together’
After the incredibly powerful dance battle, this section is much more settled in it’s melody unity. The instrumentation is perhaps the most interesting part of this sequence, with the lower winds being used to create an air of curiosity, whereas the upper winds are used for the sweet melodies. The tambourine and shaker remind us that this is still a dance scene, with their rhythmic patterns. The sweetness of this section represents the two lovers meeting for the first time.
6. Meeting Scene – ‘Music accompanies their first spoken words’
After the easiness of the previous section, the tonality of the next is surprising. Bernstein’s use of a tritone is grating, and the way it is repeated could represent the yearning between the two characters. This is only a very short section, but it offers a melodic transition into the seventh section.
7. ‘Cool’, Fugue – An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility’
The main melodic kernel from the song ‘Cool’ is established early on in this sequence. Again, Bernstein’s intelligent orchestrations highlight interesting pairing’s of instruments to play the call and response sections of the song. The underlying swung snare beat creates quite a foreboding atmosphere. This movement builds up into another big outburst from the whole orchestra. We see the return of surprising accents, led by the brass, which could also represent the physical struggle from the scene.
8. Rumble – ‘Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed’
It is very interesting that ‘Rumble’ is placed after ‘Cool’, considering their opposing points of view. The constant off-kilter rhythms create the conflict and builds the tension up. The ‘Maria’ theme is used in this movement, but instead of symbolising love, it symbolises a war cry, which can be heard in the trombones and horns. The flute cadenza at the end of this movement reflects Maria’s innocence towards the conflict, and the blood that has been shed at the ‘Rumble’.
9. Finale – ‘Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of ‘Somewhere’
This movement utilises the theme from ‘Somewhere’. The strings and winds are used to represent the mourning and tears shed at the death of the protagonist, Tony. The slow and rich build up to when the muted trumpets enter, represent the funeral procession. The repetition of the ‘Somewhere’ theme at the end hones in on the idea of reaching that somewhere, but under tragic circumstances. The idea of this scene is that both gangs reach out for some level of peace, it has been due to the tragic loss of Tony. The final Cb/F chord creates some kind of uncertainty, which perhaps shows that although the gangs may be reaching out now, the tension will never be fully resolved due to the loss of life in ‘Rumble’.
A multi-dimensional work can easily stand alone as its own concert piece, due to its seamless musicality, orchestration and imagery used throughout. This work is demanding for even the top orchestras, with its infamously difficult brass parts. An absolutely fantastic work, which is a must listen, especially if you’re a fan of West Side Story !
From humble beginnings to Leonard Bernstein the legend
Leonard Bernstein with his parents, Samuel and Jennie, and his sister, Shirley, in 1933. Library of Congress, Music Division
The exclamation points jump off the page as the teenager describes his family’s move from Roxbury to a new brick home in the suburbs.
“You should see the place! It’s bigger, I think, than the two-family home I lived in last year,” Leonard Bernstein wrote to his friend Sid Ramin in 1933. “It is beautiful in Newton! Our house couldn’t be gorgeouser than it is. And guess what!! I’m getting an organ for Newton. ”
The organ idea may have been far-fetched, but as Bernstein’s hard-working immigrant parents ascended the economic ladder in Greater Boston, their eldest son was laying the groundwork for his own improbable rise.
Much to the surprise of his father, the boy who first practiced on a secondhand piano and produced opera spoofs with neighborhood kids turned out to be one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.
On Aug. 25 this year, Leonard Bernstein — world-famous conductor and composer of “West Side Story” — would have turned 100. He died in 1990.
In many ways, the Bernstein family’s experience mirrored that of other Jewish immigrants to the Boston area in the early 20th century.
Leonard’s father, Samuel, left a shtetl in the Ukraine in 1908 as a teenager, according to a biography by Humphrey Burton. He worked his way up from cleaning fish in New York to launching the Boston-based Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Supply Company. Whatever spare time he had was spent studying the Talmud.
Leonard’s mother, Jennie, was also from the Ukraine. Her family settled in Lawrence, where they worked in the textile mills.
Toward the end of her first pregnancy, Jennie went to stay with her parents in Lawrence, where Leonard was born. The sickly infant was nurtured at his grandparents’ home until he was deemed strong enough to join Sam in Mattapan, according to Burton Bernstein, the composer’s brother, in his memoir, “Family Matters.”
As Leonard’s father strove for success, the Bernstein family moved almost every year: from Mattapan to Allston to Revere, back to Mattapan, and then Roxbury, where they had five different addresses.
“This was the immigrant experience — ups and downs, hopes and disappointments — on steroids,” said Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University. “The family only settled down when the business was secure.”
At one of those apartments, Aunt Clara, who was going through a divorce, deposited her ancient upright piano in the front hall. For Leonard, who was 10, this was kismet.
Leonard Bernstein’s family moved often while he was growing up. This is the home on Schuyler Street in Roxbury where Aunt Clara’s piano was deposited. Judith Kogan
“He was absolutely obsessed with music from the moment Aunt Clara’s piano arrived in the front hall,” Leonard’s daughter Jamie said in an interview. “He just knew he had to be a musician.”
Bernstein taught himself to play by ear and eventually asked for lessons. His parents found a neighbor’s daughter to teach him for $1 a lesson, and he quickly outpaced her. Leonard found a new teacher at the New England Conservatory, but she charged $3 an hour.
His father refused to foot the bill, fearful that his son might pursue a career as a musician.
“As far as Sam was concerned,” Jamie Bernstein said, “a musician meant being a klezmer who shlepped from village to village with his little fiddle and played at a wedding or bar mitzvah and got a bowl of soup and a few coins.”
To pay for the lessons himself, Leonard began giving piano lessons to children of friends and neighbors in Roxbury. On weekends, he worked with a little jazz band, playing weddings on broken pianos.
Impressed with Lenny’s poise and accomplishment at his bar mitzvah — he delivered his speech in both English and Hebrew — Sam bought him a baby grand piano, according to the Burton biography.
Aunt Clara’s upright became the backup piano. It’s now property of Brandeis University in Waltham, where Bernstein taught from 1951 to 1956.
The piano “reminds us of the tremendous life force that music was for Bernstein,” said Ingrid Schorr, director of the Brandeis Office of the Arts. “Playing the piano was one of the great joys of his life.”
Eventually, Sam Bernstein had earned enough to build two family houses: a 10-room red brick Colonial in Newton and a summer cottage in Sharon. Leonard was 15 when the Bernsteins moved to Newton, and the family paid $100 per term so he could finish high school at the Boston Latin School.
When Leonard Bernstein was a teenager, his family moved to a single-family home on Park Avenue in Newton. Judith Kogan
Jennie fussed over her son. Their Newton neighbors sometimes called to complain about his practicing the piano when they were trying to sleep. “So you know what I said to them?” Jennie boasted, according to Burton’s biography. “‘Someday you’re going to pay to hear him.’ And they did.”
During summers near the lake in Sharon, there was community and music. While Sam helped establish Temple Adath Sharon, Lenny produced operas with his sister, Shirley, and the neighborhood kids. Rehearsals were in the Bernstein living room — some 30-odd kids piled on the furniture and spread out on the floor, singing at the top of their lungs to Lenny’s direction.
A star student even at Boston Latin, Leonard went on to Harvard, close enough to come home on some weekends. In 1941, the Bernsteins sold the Newton house, and moved full time to Sharon.
There’s no evidence Leonard ever got that organ. But it wasn’t long before his talent and ambition were rewarded.
In a nationally broadcast radio concert in 1943, he stepped in for the ailing conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and the 25-year-old became an overnight star. After the concert, as the story goes, a journalist approached Samuel and asked: “Is it true that you wouldn’t pay for your son’s piano lessons?”
Sam responded: “How was I to know he’d become Leonard Bernstein?”
Leonard Bernstein wrote letters to his friend Sid Ramin in 1933 about his family’s imminent move to Newton. Leonard Bernstein Estate
Leonard Bernstein Estate
Leonard Bernstein at his Harvard graduation in 1939. Harvard University
Leonard Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal for a concert at Tanglewood in 1988. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Judith Kogan is a harpist and radio journalist who has written extensively about classical music.
Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the great artists of the 20th century. A renowned composer, conductor and teacher, he served on the Brandeis University Department of Music faculty from 1951-56 and was a prominent supporter of the young university.
For the university’s first commencement in 1952, he directed the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts. Guest artists included Merce Cunningham, William Carlos Williams Aaron Copland, and Phyllis Curtin. Bernstein conducted the world premiere of his opera, “Trouble in Tahiti,” and a new translation by Marc Blitzstein of “The Threepenny Opera.”
The following year, Bernstein gave the festival the theme of “The Comic Spirit,” inviting S.J. Perelman, Fred Allen, Irwin Corey, among others, to speak. There was a symposium on the comic strip, a performance of comic poetry, a comic opera, and a concerto for tap dancer and orchestra. He taught courses on modern music and opera, and held an intimate seminar for undergraduate composers at which he workshopped his new score for “Candide.”
Bernstein served as a University Fellow from 1958-76 and on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 1981. He was a trustee emeritus until his death in 1990.
The Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis honors his legacy as an artist, an educator, an activist and a humanitarian. He believed in the power of art to affect social change and we proudly carry on that tradition.
Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the first son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. As a child he played an upright piano that today resides in Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis. He graduated with a degree in music from Harvard University, where he studied with Aaron Copland, among others, and wrote his undergraduate thesis on “Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”
In 1943, he made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, filling in for a guest conductor on a few hours’ notice. Bernstein’s association with the Philharmonic spanned 47 years, 1,244 concerts, and 200-plus recordings. Beginning in 1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.
He conducted the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv in 1947, cementing a lifelong relationship with Israel. In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct opera at La Scala in Milan: Cherubini’s “Medea” with Maria Callas.
Bernstein composed his first large-scale work in 1943: Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” which drew on his Jewish heritage. His Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish” (1963) was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” (1971) was commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Bernstein collaborated with choreographer Jerome Robbins on three major ballets. He composed the score for the film “On the Waterfront” (1954) and contributed substantially to Broadway theatre: “On The Town” (1944), “Candide” (1956) and the landmark musical “West Side Story” (1957), later made into an Academy Award-winning film.
Social Justice and Activism
Bernstein used his celebrity and connections to bring attention to causes he believed in, from civil rights to advocacy for people with AIDS.
On the final day of the historic Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965, Bernstein performed in the Stars for Freedom rally and concert, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He co-hosted “Broadway for Peace,” a 1968 fundraiser to support congressional candidates opposing the Vietnam War.
In 1970, he and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, hosted a fundraiser at their home for legal aid to 21 jailed Black Panther members. The media responded with ridicule and the federal government with surveillance.
Bernstein was one of the first public advocates for AIDS research, raising $1.7 million in 1987 for a community-based clinical trials program run by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR).
In West Berlin on Christmas 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an international group of musicians, marking the first time East and West Berliners could mingle freely in 28 years.
Bernstein refused to accept the National Medal of Arts in 1989 from President George H.W. Bush after federal funding was pulled from an exhibit of AIDS-related art.
Among Bernstein’s many honors and awards are membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters the Kennedy Center Honor a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award eleven Emmy Awards 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 Broadway’s Tony Award and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities. He received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis in 1959 and the university’s Creative Arts Award in 1974.
“I sometimes think that man’s capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering. Laughing cleanses a man: it restores his sanity, and balances his sense of values. Now in a time of caution and fear, in an atmosphere turgid with non-direction and non-expressivity, let us laugh and let laugh, lighten the air we breathe, and feel clean.”
Leonard Bernstein, 72, Music's Monarch, Dies
Leonard Bernstein, one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American history, died yesterday evening at his apartment at the Dakota on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 72 years old.
Mr. Bernstein's spokeswoman, Margaret Carson, said he died of a heart attack caused by progressive lung failure.
His death followed by five days the announcement that Mr. Bernstein would retire from performing because of health problems. A heavy smoker for most of his life, he had been suffering from emphysema, pulmonary infections and a pleural tumor.
In recent months, Mr. Bernstein had canceled concerts in Japan and in Charleston, S.C., and a tour of Europe. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on Aug. 19, when he led the Boston Symphony in Britten's 'ɿour Sea Interludes'' and the Beethoven Seventh Symphony.
Long before Mr. Bernstein became, at the age of 40, the youngest music director ever engaged by the New York Philharmonic, the drama critic Harold Clurman sized up the flamboyant musician's future: ''Lenny is hopelessly fated for success.''
It was Mr. Bernstein's fate to be far more than routinely successful, however. His fast-burning energies, his bewildering versatility and his profuse gifts for both music and theater coalesced to make him a high-profile figure in a dozen fields, among them symphonic music, Broadway musicals, the ballet, films and television.
Still, his hydra-headed success did not please all his critics. While he was music director of the Philharmonic from 1959 to 1969, some friends and critics urged him to quit and compose theater music full time. Many regarded him as potentially the savior of the American musical, to which he contributed scores for ''On the Town,'' ''Wonderful Town,'' '⟊ndide'' and ''West Side Story.''
At the same time, others were deploring his continued activity in such fields, contending that to be a successful leader of a major orchestra he would have to focus on conducting.
Still other observers of the Bernstein phenomenon wished he would concentrate on the ballet, for which he had shown an affinity ('⟺ncy Free,'' '𧾬simile''), or on opera and operetta (''Trouble in Tahiti,'' '⟊ndide'').
Or on musical education. His television programs on such subjects as conducting, symphonic music and jazz fascinated millions when he appeared on ''Omnibus,'' the cultural series, and later as star of the Philharmonic's televised Young People's Concerts.
And still others, a loyal few, counseled Mr. Bernstein to throw it all over and compose more serious symphonic scores. His gifts along this line were apparent in such works as his Symphony No. 1 (''Jeremiah'') of 1942, Symphony No. 2 (''The Age of Anxiety'') of 1949 and Symphony No. 3 (''Kaddish'') of 1963. He played the piano well enough to have made a separate career as a virtuoso. He was a facile poet. He wrote several books, including the popular ''The Joy of Music'' (1959). He was a teacher of rare communicative talent, as television audiences discovered.
But Mr. Bernstein resolutely resisted pressure to restrict his activities. During his decade as the Philharmonic's musical director, he grew steadily as an interpreter and as a technician.
His performances of Mahler's symphonies were almost universally conceded to be of the highest quality, and his recordings for Columbia Records of the complete set not only constituted the first such integral collection but also continue to be regarded as among the most idiomatic Mahler performances available. His obsession with that composer, in fact, has been credited with generating the Mahler boom in America.
His conducting of works by Classical composers like Mozart and Haydn, often derided in his earlier days, attracted more and more praise as his career unfolded and he could relax a little. ''There is nothing Lenny can't do supremely well,'' an acquaintance remarked several years ago, ''if he doesn't try too hard.''
The future Renaissance man of American music was born in Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 25, 1918, the son of Samuel and Jennie Resnick Bernstein. His father, a beauty-supplies jobber who had come to the United States from Russia as a boy, wanted Leonard to take over the business when he grew up. For many years the father resisted his son's intention to be a musician.
The stories of how he discovered music became encrusted with legend over the years, but all sources agree he was a prodigy. Mr. Bernstein's own version was that when he was 10 years old his Aunt Clara, who was in the middle of divorce proceedings, sent her upright piano to the Bernstein home to be stored. The child looked at it, hit the keys and cried: ''Ma, I want lessons!''
Until he was 16, by his own testimony, he had never heard a live symphony orchestra, a late start for any musician, let alone a future musical director of the Philharmonic. Virgil Thomson, while music critic of The New York Herald Tribune in the 1940's, commented on this:
''Whether Bernstein will become in time a traditional conductor or a highly personal one is not easy to prophesy. He is a consecrated character, and his culture is considerable. It might just come about, though, that, having to learn the classic repertory the hard way, which is to say after 15, he would throw his cultural beginnings away and build toward success on a sheer talent for animation and personal projection. I must say he worries us all a little bit.'' These themes - the concern over Mr. Bernstein's ''talent for animation'' and over his penchant for ''personal projection'' - were to haunt the musician through much of his career.
Economy of Motion Not His Virtue
As for 'ɺnimation,'' that theme tended to dominate much of the criticism of Mr. Bernstein as a conductor, particularly in his youthful days. Although he studied conducting in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute with Fritz Reiner, whose precise but tiny beat was a trademark of his work, Mr. Bernstein's own exuberant podium style seemed modeled more on that of Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony's music director. The neophyte maestro churned his arms about in accordance with some inner message, largely ignoring the clear semaphoric techniques described in textbooks. Often, in moments of excitement, he would leave the podium entirely, rising like a rocket, arms flung aloft in indication of triumphal climax.
So animated, in fact, was Mr. Bernstein's conducting style at this point in his career that it could cause problems. At his first rehearsal for a guest appearance with the St. Louis Symphony, his initial downbeat so startled the musicians that they simply looked in amazement and made no sound.
Like another prodigally gifted American artist, George Gershwin, Mr. Bernstein divided his affections between the ''serious'' European tradition of concert music and the ''popular'' American brand. Like Gershwin, he was at home in jazz, boogie-woogie and the cliches of Tin Pan Alley, but he far outstripped his predecessor in general musical culture.
In many aspects of his life and career, Mr. Bernstein was an embracer of diversity. The son of Jewish immigrants, he retained a lifelong respect for Hebrew and Jewish culture. His ''Jeremiah'' and ''Kaddish'' symphonies and several other works were founded on the Old Testament. But he also acquired a deep respect for Roman Catholicism, which was reflected in his ''Mass,'' the 1971 work he wrote for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
A similar catholicity was reflected throughout his music. His choral compositions include not only songs in Hebrew but also ''Harvard Songs: Dedication and Lonely Men of Harvard.'' He was graduated in 1939 from Harvard, where he had studied composition with Walter Piston and Edward Burlingame Hill.
A sense of his origins, however, remained strong. Koussevitzky proclaimed him a genius and probable future musical director of the Boston Symphony - ''The boy is a new Koussevitzky, a reincarnation!'' - but the older conductor urged Mr. Bernstein to improve his chances for success by changing his name. The young musician replied: ''I'll do it as Bernstein or not at all!''
He pronounced the name in the German way, as BERN-stine, and could no more abide the pronounciation BERN-steen than he could enjoy being called ''Lenny'' by casual acquaintances.
In a sense, he was in lifelong flight from Lenny Bernstein, from being treated as the raffish ''ordinary guy'' that the nickname seemed to suggest. Although some elder members of the New York Philharmonic never stopped calling him Lenny, Mr. Bernstein lived down the nickname, and in his late years heard himself addressed almost reverentially as ''Maestro'' in the world's music capitals. The man who had been patronized in print for many years as ''Glamourpuss'' or ''Wunderkind of the Western World'' became a favorite of Vienna both as conductor and as accompanist for such lieder specialists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig.
Fame brought the usual honorary degrees, and honors far beyond the usual. He not only conducted at La Scala in Milan, at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Staatsoper in Vienna, but he was also invited by Harvard in 1973 to lecture, as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of History, on linguistics as applied to musical analysis. The distinction had previously been conferred on Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith. Typically, Mr. Bernstein's Harvard performance was greeted with a mingling of critical raves and boos.
Harvard played an important part in Mr. Bernstein's rise, providing a pinch of Brahminism. The boy whose bar mitzvah was at Temple Mishkan Tefila had gone on to the elite Boston Latin School, and graduated cum laude from Harvard with a B.A.
During his last semester at Harvard, he organized and led a performance of Marc Blitzstein's 'ɼradle Will Rock,'' a left-wing musical that had been banned in Massachusetts, but that could not be proscribed within the academic walls. It was not his first fling as a producer. At age 16 he had starred in his own production of '⟊rmen'' at a summer camp, playing the title role alluringly in wig and black gown.
It was as a result of another schoolboy production, at Camp Onota in the Berkshires, that he met Adolph Green, with whom he later collaborated in several Broadway musicals. Mr. Bernstein was a camp counselor and theater director and Mr. Green was in ''The Pirates of Penzance.''
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An Unlikely Start For a Conductor
Subsequently, when Mr. Bernstein was out of a job in New York City, he looked up Mr. Green, moved in with him in his East Ninth Street apartment in Greenwich Village, and began playing the piano at the Village Vanguard for a group called the Revuers. The ensemble included, besides Mr. Green, his musical comedy collaborator Betty Comden and the actress Judy Holliday.
Mr. Bernstein met Aaron Copland at Harvard in 1937, and through him came to know two other aspiring composers, Roy Harris and William Schuman. Admiring his intuitive grasp of modern music and his phenomenal skill at playing complex orchestral scores on the piano, the composers agreed that Mr. Bernstein should become a conductor. Dimitri Mitropoulos, the New York Philharmonic's music director, met Mr. Bernstein in 1938 and added to the consensus.
At that point, Mr. Bernstein 'ɽidn't know a baton from a tree trunk,'' as he later put it.
Nevertheless, he had made up his mind. Because he had applied at the wrong time of the year and was turned down by the Juilliard School, he went to Philadelphia to audition for Reiner's conducting class at the Curtis Institute. The Hungarian maestro opened a score in the middle, put it on the piano and told Mr. Bernstein to play until he could recognize the piece.
The aspiring conductor, who was having difficulty seeing the music because he was suffering from an allergic reaction to Copland's cat, nevertheless discerned that the work was the 'mic Festival'' Overture of Brahms. He was accepted.
At Curtis, he studied conducting with Reiner and piano with Isabella Vengerova. His earlier piano teachers included a neighbor, Freida Karp, Helen Coates and Heinrich Gebhard. In 1940 he went to Tanglewood, where he studied at the Berkshire Music Center with Koussevitzky, who quickly adopted Mr. Bernstein and called him Lenyushka.
In later years, Mr. Bernstein prided himself on having retained the respect and friendship of both Koussevitzky and Reiner, who held virtually opposing ideas about what a conductor should do and how he should do it. But the story as the famously irascible Reiner told it to acquaintances was different: ''He didn't leave me for Koussevitzky - I threw him out.''
In truth, not all of Mr. Bernstein's associations with elder colleagues were warm and collegial. In John Gruen's biographical ''The Private World of Leonard Bernstein,'' published in 1968, Mr. Bernstein asserted that Artur Rodzinski had once pinned him against the wall of a dressing room, trying to choke him because of jealousy over the young assistant's flair for publicity. But according to Mr. Bernstein, Rodzinski had by this time become somewhat peculiar: he always carried a gun in his back pocket, for instance, for psychological support when he faced the orchestra.
A Boycott Causes Stumble at the Start
It was Rodzinski, however, who gave Mr. Bernstein his chance at conducting the New York Philharmonic at a lean time when the young man was scraping along as a musician in New York. When he was 22, Mr. Bernstein had been offered a guest-conducting engagement with the Boston Symphony by Koussevitzky but had been forced to refuse. The American Federation of Musicians, to which Mr. Bernstein belonged, advised its members to boycott the Boston Symphony, the last of the major orchestras remaining unorganized. Mr. Bernstein tried to mark time by opening a teaching studio in Boston, he later recalled, but ''nobody came.''
That fall, he moved to New York, where he fared hardly better.
Eventually he got a $25-a-week job at Harms-Remick, a music-publishing house, where his duties included listening to Coleman Hawkins and Earl (Fatha) Hines, and getting their jazz down on paper. He also wrote popular arrangements under the name of Lenny Amber (Bernstein in English).
The Philharmonic offer by Rodzinski came without warning. Rodzinski had heard Mr. Bernstein conduct a rehearsal at Tanglewood, remembered the young man, and after an hour's discussion, had hired him as an assistant for the 1943-44 season.
Assistant conductors by tradition do a great deal of assisting, but not much conducting. Destiny had other plans for Leonard Bernstein, however, and when opportunity knocked one Sunday afternoon in 1943, he was ready to open the door. On Nov. 14, Bruno Walter fell ill and could not conduct the Philharmonic. The young assistant took over his program (works by Schumann, Rosza, Strauss and Wagner) and achieved a sensational success. Because the concert was broadcast over radio and a review appeared on page 1 of The New York Times the next day, the name of Leonard Bernstein suddenly became known throughout the country.
''Typical Lenny luck,'' some longtime Bernstein observers said. But Mr. Bernstein had given luck a hand: Knowing that Walter was not feeling well, he had studied the program's scores especially hard, just in case. At 25, he had become a somebody in the symphonic world.
After that break, though he was still more then a decade away from becoming music director of the Philharmonic, Mr. Bernstein began to consolidate his gains. He put in three exciting but financially unproductive seasons (1945-48) as conductor of the New York City Symphony. He received no fee, and neither did the soloists.
In 40's, Celebrity And Back Muscles
In the late 1940's Mr. Bernstein bloomed as a public figure. He came to be a familiar sight at the Russian Tea Room, at Lindy's and at Reuben's. Columnists reported that he liked boogie-woogie, the rumba and the conga, and that female admirers swooned when he stepped on the podium.
Tallulah Bankhead once watched Mr. Bernstein conduct a Tanglewood rehearsal and said to him in her husky baritone: '⟚rling, I have gone mad over your back muscles. You must come and have dinner with me.''
Just about everyone in those years wanted Mr. Bernstein. The United States Chamber of Commerce named him as one of the outstanding men of the year, along with Nelson A. Rockefeller and John Hersey. His fans, it was reported, ripped at his clothes and attacked him in his car. Paramount tested him for the title part in a film about Tchaikovsky, but he was turned down, according to the conductor, because ''my ears were too big.''
Mr. Bernstein, in fact, looked the part of a pop idol with his strong profile and wavy black hair.
Musically, his career was on the upswing, too. In 1947 he conducted a complete Boston Symphony concert as a guest, the first time in Koussevitzky's 22-year reign that any other conductor had been permitted to do that in Carnegie Hall. He served as musical adviser of the Israel Philharmonic Symphonic Orchestra for the 1948-49 season. He was a member of the Berkshire Music Center from 1948 and head of its conducting department from 1951. He served as professor of music at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1956.
In 1953 Mr. Bernstein became the first American-born conductor to be engaged by La Scala in Milan, Italy's foremost opera house, leading a performance of Cherubini's ''Medea'' with Maria Callas in the title role.
During the six-year tenure of Mitropoulos as music director of the Philharmonic, beginning in the 1951-52 season, Mr. Bernstein was a frequent guest conductor. In 1957-58, the two worked jointly as principal conductors of the orchestra. A year later, Mr. Bernstein was named music director.
The New York appointment would have been a severe test of any conductor. The orchestra's quality had gone downhill, its repertory had stagnated and audiences had fallen off. Orchestra morale was low and still sinking. Mr. Bernstein leaped in with his customary brio and showmanship and his willingness to try new ideas.
He designated the Thursday evening concerts as ''Previews,'' at which he spoke informally to the audience about the music. He built his season around themes like ''Schumann and the Romantic Movement'' and ''Keys to the 20th Century.'' Strange-sounding works by avant-garde composers like Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gunther Schuller and John Cage began to infiltrate the Philharmonic's programs. He took the orchestra on tours to Latin America, Europe, Japan, Alaska and Canada.
It sometimes seemed that Mr. Bernstein could not possibly squeeze in one more engagement, one more social appearance. During one particularly busy stretch, he conducted 25 concerts in 28 days. His conducting style accurately reflected his breathless race through life. Although in later years he toned down his choreographic manner, he remained one of the more consistently elevating conductors of his time. That irrepressible buoyancy sometimes led to trouble: in 1982 he fell off the stand in Houston while conducting Tchaikovsky and two years later encored that frightening stunt while leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Chicago. The worst injury he suffered, however, was a bruise from a medallion he wore around his neck.
Throughout his Philharmonic years, he kept his ties with Broadway and the show-business friends he had made before he became an internationally adulated maestro. He had already written music for the musical version of ''Peter Pan'' (1950) and ''The Lark,'' a play starring Julie Harris (1955). For Hollywood, he wrote the score to ''On the Waterfront'' (1954). Musical successes on the stage followed: ''On the Town'' (1944), ''Wonderful Town'' (1953), '⟊ndide'' (1956) and ''West Side Story'' (1957). Several of the stage works continue to thrive: in 1985 Mr. Bernstein conducted a quasi-operatic version of ''West Side Story'' (the cast included Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras) that pleased him immensely and introduced the work to a new generation of listeners.
Then there were the ballets '⟺ncy Free'' (1944) and '𧾬simile'' (1946) the song cycles ''I Hate Music'' and ''La Bonne Cuisine'' the ''Jeremiah'' and 'ɺge of Anxiety'' symphonies the one-act opera ''Trouble in Tahiti'' Serenade for violin and string orchestra with percussion the Symphony No. 3 (''Kaddish''), and the 'ɼhichester Psalms.''
In the years after he had left the music directorship of the Philharmonic to become the orchestra's laureate conductor, he returned to the theater. He created the ecumenical and controversial ''Mass'' and, with Jerome Robbins, the ballet 'ɽybbuk,'' staged by the New York City Ballet in 1974.
Mr. Bernstein's life took a turn toward greater stability in 1951 when he married the actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn. Her American father had been head of the American Smelting and Refining Company in Chile and she had been sent to New York City to study the piano. After several years of off-and-on romance, they were married in Boston. They had three children: a daughter, Jamie, a son, Alexander Serge (named for Serge Koussevitzky) and a second daughter, Nina.
In addition to his children, who all live in New York City, and his mother, of Brookline, Mass., Mr. Bernstein is survived by a sister, Shirley Bernstein of New York City, and a brother, Burton, of Bridgewater, Conn.
Mr. Bernstein and his wife began a ''trial separation'' after 25 years of marriage. They continued, however, to appear together in concerts, one such occasion being a program in tribute to Alice Tully at Alice Tully Hall, where Mr. Bernstein conducted Sir William Walton's ''' with his wife as one of the two narrators. Mrs. Bernstein died in 1978 after a long illness.
After leaving the music director's post with the Philharmonic in 1969, Mr. Bernstein hardly curtailed his frantic activities. He continued to guest-conduct, to record for Columbia Records, to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera and to play the piano for lieder recitalists. His company, Amberson Productions, which he had formed with his friend Schuyler G. Chapin to handle his diverse interests, expanded into the new field of videocassettes.
Mr. Bernstein, a longtime Democrat and liberal, took a deep interest in politics and was a friend of the Kennedys. His ''Mass'' was dedicated to John F. Kennedy. Among guests at fund-raising parties in his apartment during the late 1960's, one could find some of the leading civil-rights advocates of the period, a form of hospitality that inspired the writer Tom Wolfe to coin the term ''radical chic.'' In his book ''Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,'' Mr. Wolfe described a fund-raising party that Mr. Bernstein gave for the Black Panthers.
During Mr. Bernstein's Philharmonic decade, the orchestra engaged its first black member, the violinist Sanford Allen.
He continued composing, if only in spurts. Late works included ''Jubilee Games,'' 'ɺrias and Barcarolles,'' ''Halil'' and a sequel to his opera ''Trouble in Tahiti'' entitled 'ɺ Quiet Place.'' After its premiere in Houston in 1983, 'ɺ Quiet Place'' was produced at the Vienna State Opera, La Scala and the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Almost to the time of his death, Mr. Bernstein carried on a bewildering variety of activities, rushing about the world with the same tireless abandon that had characterized his life in the days when he was churning out a hit a season on Broadway.
But Broadway had changed by the time Mr. Bernstein's final theatrical score reached the Mark Hellinger Theater in March 1976. The long-awaited work that he and Alan Jay Lerner had composed, ' Pennsylvania Avenue,'' closed after seven performances.
He turned up in Israel, where the Israel Philharmonic was putting on a Leonard Bernstein retrospective festival to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his debut on an Israeli podium. During a two-week period, his music was heard in concert halls, theaters, movie houses and other auditoriums all over the country. In 1988, when he was 70 years old, Mr. Bernstein was named laureate conductor of the Israeli orchestra. That birthday year brought honors from all directions, but none seemed to gratify him more than the celebration staged for him at the Tanglewood Festival, scene of so many triumphs early in his career. On Nov. 14, 1988, to mark the 45th anniversary of his Philharmonic conducting debut, he led the orchestra in an all-Bernstein concert.
Laurel wreaths continued to shower on him in his last decades. Elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982, he was awarded the Academy's Gold Medal three years later. The city of Milan, home of La Scala, also gave him its Gold Medal.
A discordant note sounded in 1989 when he refused to accept a medal from the Bush Administration, apparently as a protest against what he regarded as censorship of an AIDS exhibition by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like many other artists and public figures, he contributed his services at concerts to benefit the fight against AIDS.
Mr. Bernstein's private life, long the subject of rumors in the musical world, became an open book in 1987 when his homosexuality was brought to wide public attention by Joan Peyser's '➾rnstein: A Biography.''
As Age Advances, The Pace Does Too
Far from slowing down as age encroached, Mr. Bernstein seemed to accelerate. Last Christmas he led a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the wall between East and West Germany. With typical flair, he substituted the word 'ɿreiheit'' ('ɿreedom'') for the poet's 'ɿreude'' (''Joy'') in the choral finale. The East German Government bestowed on him its Star of People's Friendship Medal.
Although he had reportedly refused an offer to return to the New York Philharmonic as music director, he was scheduled to conduct six weeks of concerts for the next few seasons. Before collapsing from exhaustion this year in Japan, Mr. Bernstein had taken part in the Pacific Music Festival.
Late in his extraordinarily restless and fruitful life, Mr. Bernstein defended his early decision to spread himself over as many fields of endeavor as he could master. ''I don't want to spend my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same 50 pieces of music,'' he wrote in The Times.
''It would,'' he continued, 'ɻore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all.''
Composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, thinker, and adventurous spirit, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) transformed the way Americans and people everywhere hear and appreciate music. Bernstein's successes as a composer ranged from the Broadway stage-West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide-to concert halls all over the world, where his orchestral and choral music continues to thrive. His major concert works include three symphonies-subtitled Jeremiah (1944), The Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963)-as well as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) Serenade for violin, strings and percussion (1954) Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960) Chichester Psalms (1965) Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971) Songfest (1977) Divertimento for orchestra (1980) Halil for solo flute and small orchestra (1981) Touches (1981) and Thirteen Anniversaries (1988) for solo piano Missa Brevis for singers and percussion (1988) Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games(1989) and Arias and Barcarolles (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. He collaborated with choreographer Jerome Robbins on three major ballets-Fancy Free (1944), Facsimile (1946), and Dybbuk (1975). He received an Academy Award nomination for his score for On the Waterfront (1954).
As a conductor, Bernstein was a dynamic presence on the podiums of the world's greatest orchestras for almost half a century, building a legacy that endures and continues to grow through a catalogue of over 500 recordings and filmed performances. Bernstein became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, a position he held until 1969. Thereafter as permanent Laureate Conductor he made frequent guest appearances with the orchestra. Among the world's great orchestras, Bernstein also enjoyed special relationships with the Israel Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, both of which he conducted extensively in live performances and recordings. He won 11 Emmy Awards for his celebrated television work, including the Emmy award-winning Young People's Concerts series with the New York Philharmonic. As teacher and performer, he played an active role with the Tanglewood Festival from its founding in 1940 till his death, as well as with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and Pacific Music Festival (both of which he helped found) and the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival.
Bernstein received many honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors (1980) the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal (1981) the MacDowell Colony's Gold Medal medals from the Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft New York City's Handel Medallion a special Tony Award (1969) dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities and national honors from Austria, Italy, Israel, Mexico, Denmark, Germany, and France. In 1985 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Bernstein with the Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY Award. His 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). As the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, Bernstein also delivered six lectures at Harvard University in 1972-1973 that were subsequently published and televised as The Unanswered Question. In 1990, he received the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Arts Association awarded for lifetime achievement in the arts. Bernstein died on October 14, 1990.
Brandeis Celebrates Bernstein
How did Leonard Bernstein, raised in the Jewish faith, come to write a monumental work based on the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass?
Bernstein had long contemplated composing some sort of religious service. While known primarily for his secular and symphonic work, he had published short Jewish motets during his early days in New York, and in 1965 was commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival in England to write the “Chichester Psalms.”
He composed his “MASS” at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971. Bernstein loved and admired the late president, for whose inaugural gala he had composed and conducted a fanfare. He conducted the music at the president’s funeral, and in 1963 dedicated his Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”) to the president’s memory.
Kennedy’s assassination only added to Bernstein’s profound desire to “make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” He characterized “MASS” as an attempt “to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith.”
The Tridentine Mass served as the core ritual for Catholics for over four centuries. These prayers are vehicles for petition, praise and affirmation. In Bernstein’s setting, he seeks to challenge and question the meaning of the original prayers by inserting tropes, or commentaries, between each movement. The tropes build dramatic tension throughout the work by questioning authority, and by commenting on contemporary issues, in particular the Vietnam War.
Musically, “MASS” is one of Bernstein’s most eclectic works, utilizing various forms, timbres and compositional styles, from gospel to jazz to pop.
Having only a short time to compose this work, Bernstein called upon Stephen Schwartz, the young composer and lyricist who had recently premiered the musical “Godspell” on Broadway. Schwartz was charged with writing many of the dramatic tropes, such as “I Go On” in response to the “Our Father”:
When my courage crumbles, when I feel confused and frail,
When my spirit falters on decaying altars and my illusions fail,
I go on.
Another massively popular young songwriter, Paul Simon, provided text to challenge the core tenets of faith expressed in the “Credo”:
Half the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. /
Half the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.
By the time Bernstein wrote “MASS,” he had been under investigation by the U.S. government for 20 years. An 800-page FBI file documented his leftist activities and beliefs about war, inequality and racism. In the summer of 1971, the FBI informed the White House of a meeting between Bernstein and Daniel Berrigan, a left-wing Jesuit priest who had been imprisoned for destroying draft files. While the meeting was simply part of Bernstein’s research for “MASS,” the FBI believed that he was plotting to insert subversive anti-war messages into the Latin texts, and advised President Richard Nixon to stay home from the premiere.
That premiere took place on Sept. 8, 1971, conducted by Maurice Peress and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. The performance was fully staged, with over 200 participants. At the completion of the work, a three-minute silence engulfed the house, followed by a 30-minute standing ovation. Those in attendance embraced fully the last words of the libretto, as sung by the presiding priest, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”
On April 22, the Brandeis University Chorus and Chamber Singers, with the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra and guest soloists, will perform a concert version of Bernstein’s “MASS.”
— by Robert Duff, Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Choral Programs
This excerpt appeared originally in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of State of the Arts.
Photograph of Leonard Bernstein at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1971. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The Music Division of the Library of Congress has created a significant Bernstein Collection website that includes a few thousand items from its extraordinary holdings. You may visit the Brandeis-specific Bernstein Collection or the General Bernstein Collection.
Explore Leonard Bernstein's site on Google Arts & Culture, where the maestro comes alive through rich multimedia stories featuring interviews with former cast members and students.
“Musically, 'MASS' is one of Bernstein’s most eclectic works, utilizing various forms, timbres and compositional styles, from gospel to jazz to pop. ”
Leonard Bernstein at the Kennedy White House
In November of 1961, two Washington Post columnists hailed President John F. Kennedy as “the best friend culture has had in the White House since Thomas Jefferson.” 1 President Kennedy appreciated the arts and demonstrated his dedication to the arts community throughout his administration. He and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited the media to cultural events at the White House, highlighting its role in influencing the public’s perception of the arts. 2 The Kennedys invited many popular performing arts organizations to entertain at the Executive Mansion, including The Metropolitan Opera, Jerome Robbins Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and American Shakespeare Festival. 3 Perhaps one of the most visible relationships was between the Kennedys and composer Leonard Bernstein.
During Kennedy’s rise as a presidential candidate, he and Bernstein were already acquaintances. Both men were born and raised in Massachusetts and attended Harvard University within years of each other. 4 However, Kennedy and Bernstein belonged to different social circles. According to Bernstein, “The people he saw at Harvard were not the people I saw—it’s that simple.” 5 Bernstein remembered first meeting Kennedy while he was a United States Senator for Massachusetts. Bernstein’s first impressions of the young senator were “informality and stateliness… and a casualness and majesty… that made you feel important, which is an extraordinary thing for a politician.” 6
While Bernstein did not publicly support Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, he was asked to participate in the pre-Inaugural gala by conducting the National Symphony Orchestra to play a special piece, titled Fanfare, which he composed for the occasion. 7 He also conducted “Stars and Stripes Forever” and George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” 8 Frank Sinatra made plans with Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, for the inauguration. These included pre-inauguration rehearsals, fancy dinners and swanky inauguration balls that were, “Black tie or white tie diamond and emeralds and all that jazz.” 9
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attending a fundraiser for National Culture Center, now known as the Kennedy Center, on November 29, 1962. Composer Leonard Bernstein was enlisted to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra for the occasion.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA
Placed permanently on the White House Guest List, Bernstein visited on many occasions. Leonard and Felicia dined alone with the President, First Lady, and another couple on November 14, 1961, the day after attending a White House dinner in honor of the great cellist Pablo Casals. 10 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attended additional performances of Bernstein’s orchestra. Felicia Bernstein and the first lady watched the performances together, and afterwards escorted Mrs. Kennedy backstage. Leonard Bernstein would greet the first lady after the show “like an old friend” according to historian Allen Shawn. 11
The Bernsteins cultivated their relationship with the First Family throughout Kennedy’s presidency. In January 1962, Felicia and Leonard attended a White House dinner in honor of the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera. 12 President Kennedy also asked Leonard Bernstein to act as the master of ceremonies for the telecast, “An American Pageant of the Arts,” in celebration of National Cultural Center Week. 13 By including performers in the telecast such as Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, and Robert Frost, the president hoped that the American public would gain interest in additional fundraising for a cultural center on the banks of the Potomac River in the nation’s capital. 14 “An American Pageant of the Arts” raised nearly half a million dollars, about a third of President Kennedy’s goal, for the building now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 15
After President Kennedy’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein expressed his sorrow through performance and personal reflection. At “Night of Stars,” a memorial to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on November 25, 1963, Bernstein contemplated his recent performance with the New York Philharmonic of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection. Bernstein stated they played this piece “not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.” 16 He continued, saying, “We [artists] loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.” 17
Leonard Bernstein speaking at “An American Pageant of the Arts.”
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA
The Kennedy and Bernstein families remained friends after the president’s death. Leonard Bernstein claimed that almost two years of the assassination he still couldn’t visit the White House, saying, “I couldn’t be at that place. It just seems too soon after the event.” 18 Jacqueline Kennedy brought her two children, John Jr. and Caroline, to Fairfield for a relaxing trip with the Bernstein family in 1964. 19 She later asked Bernstein if he would participate in the funeral of President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. 20 This time Bernstein performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, to which Jacqueline Kennedy wrote, “I thought it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard.” 21 As a testament to Bernstein’s close relationship with the Kennedy family, the former first lady proclaimed that this piece was perfect and “much more appropriate for this Kennedy—my Kaleidoscopic brother-in-law.” 22 Kennedy also asked Bernstein to participate in the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. by conducting Mass: A Theater Piece for singer, Players, and Dancers. 23
Bernstein remained a famous and well-respected conductor throughout the rest of his career. He produced ballets and Broadway shows, including Dybbuk and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He traveled the world and conducted ensembles in various countries, including Israel, Mexico, and the Vatican. He received the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts in December, 1980. His last concert with the New York Philharmonic took place on October 31, 1989. He remained an activist for social justice and world peace while advocating for public support of the performing arts. Bernstein passed away at his home on October 14, 1990 at the age of 72.