“Two things are necessary for great achievement: a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein
Best known for the musical West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein won seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and sixteen Grammy Awards. He wrote many genres of music, including symphonic, orchestral, ballet, film and theatre music and was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. Aside from these achievements, Bernstein was a lifelong humanitarian. He supported civil rights, raised money for HIV and AIDS research, campaigned against the Vietnam War, and more.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Massachusetts on 25th August 1918 to Ukrainian-Jewish parents Jennie and Samuel Bernstein. His birth certificate states his name as Louis, which was his grandmother’s choice, but his parents preferred to call him Leonard. Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard when he reached adulthood.
Bernstein began learning to play the piano at the age of 10. Whilst he showed considerable talent, Bernstein’s father tried to curb his enthusiasm for the piano by refusing to pay for music lessons. Undeterred, Bernstein began teaching basic piano techniques to other children to earn money to pay for his more advanced studies. Eventually, Bernstein’s father relented and started supporting his son’s music education.
In 1935, Bernstein enrolled on a music course at Harvard University, where he wrote his first voice and piano composition, Psalm 148. Based on the 148th Psalm in the Bible, which begins “Praise ye the Lord from the heavens”, Bernstein was inspired by the music he heard at the synagogue. He also wrote a dissertation called The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music, which demonstrated his support of civil rights. Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939.
After finishing his studies at Harvard, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting, piano, orchestration, counterpoint and score reading. During the summer of 1940, Bernstein studied conducting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951). Koussevitzky considered Bernstein one of his protégés and gave him a pair of cufflinks that Bernstein allegedly wore at every concert he conducted.
On completing his post-graduate studies, Bernstein moved to New York City, where he taught piano and singing lessons. He also played the piano for dance classes at Carnegie Hall. For extra income, Bernstein transcribed jazz and pop music under the pseudonym “Leonard Amber”. He chose this name because Bernstein is the German word for “amber”.
In 1942, Bernstein produced his first published work, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Bernstein conducted the piece, which lasts about ten minutes, at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston, where critics preferred the piano part over the clarinet. Following these reviews, Bernstein stopped writing for the clarinet for the next seven years.
Bernstein’s first major success in the music world came unexpectedly on 14th November 1943, when he stood in for Bruno Walter as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. With not much time to prepare, Bernstein conducted the orchestra through pieces by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann and found himself on the front page of The New York Times the following day. The editorial declared, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves,” and Bernstein’s fame quickly spread across the country. For the next two years, Bernstein became one of the most sought after conductors in the United States and Canada.
In January 1944, Bernstein premiered his first symphony, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Following the story of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, the symphony features verses from the Book of Lamentations sung by a mezzo-soprano. It was rated the best American work of 1944 by the New York Music Critics’ Circle.
A few months after the premiere of Jeremiah, Bernstein’s first ballet collaboration, Fancy Free, was shown at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Bernstein wrote the score, and Jerome Robbins (1918-98) choreographed the dances to tell the story of three American sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City during the Second World War. Following its success, Bernstein and Robbins chose to develop it into a musical called On the Town. It first appeared on Broadway in 1944 and became a film in 1949, starring Gene Kelly (1912-96), Frank Sinatra (1915-98), and Jules Munshin (1915-70) as the three sailors.
Bernstein flourished as a conductor during the latter half of the 1940s. From 1945 to 1947, Bernstein was the music director of the New York City Symphony orchestra. He also conducted performances abroad, such as the Czech Philharmonic in Prague and the 1946 European premiere of Fancy Free with the Ballet Theatre at the Royal Opera House in London.
In 1947, Bernstein flew to Israel to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He returned several times during his career for concerts, including recordings of his symphonies. In 1949, back in the United States, Bernstein made his first television debut as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the first anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bernstein completed his second symphony in 1949, titled The Age of Anxiety after W. H. Auden’s (1907-73) poem of the same name. Rather than conducting the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein played the solo piano sections. The music has since been used for three ballets, the first choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
The 1950s were, without doubt, the busiest period of Bernstein’s career. In 1950, he composed music for a Broadway production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the following year composed the opera Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein wrote the music and libretto while on his honeymoon with Felicia Montealegre (1922-78), who he married on 10th September 1951 and had three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina.
In 1953, Bernstein wrote the music for Wonderful Town, a musical based on My Sister Eileen, a set of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney (1911-72). The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Bernstein’s next work was the operetta-style musical Candide, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire (1694-1778). Bernstein wrote the lyrics to a couple of songs, but the others were written by a selection of lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) and Lillian Hellman (1905-84). Bernstein also worked with Sondheim on his next project, West Side Story.
Sondheim and Bernstein worked alongside Jerome Robbins, who won the 1958 Tony Award for choreography, on a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1950s. Robbins initially had the idea for a story in 1949 about a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unfortunately, the project, titled East Side Story, merely echoed similar anti-Semitic plays, so the musical was put on hold.
Arthur Laurents (1917-2011), who worked on the book for East Side Story, met with Bernstein a few years later and discussed taking another look at the musical. Bernstein suggested changing the families to Mexicans and Californians, but Laurents admitted he knew more about the rivalry between Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers. So, the musical was renamed West Side Story and moved to Harlem, New York. After persuading Sondheim and Robbins to come back on board, the production was soon underway.
On 26th September 1957, West Side Story premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. The Seattle Times noted Bernstein’s score blended “jazz, Latin rhythms, symphonic sweep and musical-comedy conventions in groundbreaking ways for Broadway.” Several popular songs feature in the musical, including Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere. In 1961, Jerome Robbin rechoreographed the dances for the film version, which won 10 Academy Awards, the most any musical film has won to date. In December 2021, a remake by Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) was released, starring Ansel Elgort (b.1994) and Rachel Zegler (b.2001) as the leading characters.
Whilst working on Candide and West Side Story, Bernstein simultaneously worked on other projects, including the score to the film On The Waterfront (1954). He also became the first American to appear at La Scala in Milan, where he conducted the likes of Maria Callas (1923-77) in the comic-opera Médée by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842).
In 1957, Bernstein became the music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he kept until 1969 when he was appointed “Laureate Conductor”. During his time as director, Bernstein brought the Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic onto television screens for the first time. The concerts date to 1885 when conductor Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) established family-friendly weekend matinees. Bernstein made the concerts accessible to many more people by televising the concerts. The first concert aired on 18th January 1958 and continued until 1972.
Throughout the 1960s, Bernstein focused on working with the New York Philharmonic. He introduced lesser-played composers, particularly Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer. In 1960, Bernstein made the first commercial recording of Mahler’s 4th symphony and started giving a combination of concert performances and television talks about the composer. About Mahler’s work, Bernstein said he “showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” Mahler’s widow, Alma (1879-1964), occasionally attended the rehearsals, much to Bernstein’s delight.
In 1961, Bernstein conducted at President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-63) pre-inaugural gala. Unfortunately, he also conducted a memorial concert following the President’s assassination in 1963. At the latter, the orchestra performed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which has since become part of the Philharmonic’s repertoire for national mourning.
Following JFK’s assassination, Bernstein composed his third symphony, Kaddish, and dedicated it to the late president. A Kaddish is a prayer that features in Jewish services for the dead. The symphony begins with an Aramaic recitation of the Kaddish before becoming a powerful narrative that confronts God, expresses anger and grief, and eventually starts to come to terms with the situation.
Realising he wanted more time to concentrate on composing music, Bernstein made the difficult decision to step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, although he continued to conduct and tour with the orchestra. The decision gave Bernstein the opportunity to work with other orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1970, Bernstein wrote and narrated Beethoven’s Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, an Emmy-winning television show to celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday. The show included brief performances of the opera Fidelio, Bernstein playing Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto, and Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony.
Bernstein’s composition work during the 1970s included a Mass commissioned by Jackie Kennedy (1929-94) and the score for the ballet Dybbuk. The Mass combined elements of musical theatre, jazz, gospel, folk, rock, and symphonic music. The libretto featured religious liturgy and Hebrew prayers, which the Catholic church criticised for having an anti-Vietnam War message.
In 1978, Bernstein’s wife passed away from lung cancer, prompting him to establish the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA. Two years earlier, Bernstein took part in an Amnesty International Benefit Concert in Munich, which fuelled in him a passion to help human rights activists. The fund helped raise money to help activists with limited access to resources.
Thirty-two years after the premiere of Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti, he produced its sequel, A Quiet Place. Although it did not receive as many accolades, Bernstein’s international fame prevented it from being a flop. By the 1980s, Bernstein was a celebrated composer and conductor and received invitations to attend and partake in concerts all over the world. On Christmas day in 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He reworded the lyrics of the Ode to Joy (An die Freude) chorus to Ode to Freedom (An die Freiheit), believing “Beethoven would have given us his blessing.”
In 1990, Bernstein founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, with the conductor and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944). The festival aimed to educate people in the Pacific about classical music. By this time, Bernstein had developed lung cancer and knew he did not have long to live. He wanted to devote the remainder of his life to education. After receiving the Praemium Imperiale, a prize awarded by the Japan Arts Association for lifetime achievement in the arts, Bernstein used the prize money to establish The Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc.
Bernstein conducted his final concert on 19th August 1990 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, a music venue he often frequented during his career. His poor health was evident from the coughing fits he suffered on stage, yet he persevered to the very end before leaving during the standing ovation. Whilst this was Bernstein’s last concert, he did not officially retire from conducting until 9th October.
Five days after announcing his retirement, Bernstein passed away after suffering a heart attack brought on by the severity of his lung cancer. Years of smoking had caught up with him, and the United States mourned the loss of the 72-year-old man and his talents. Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, next to his wife. A copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, opened to the Adagietto, was placed on his chest.
Whilst Bernstein’s musical achievements are widely known, particularly due to remakes of West Side Story, his political and social actions are often forgotten. His opera, Trouble in Tahiti, criticised upper-class American lifestyles, and he made it his mission to reveal that “American” music was a blend of many foreign influences.
During the 1940s, Bernstein joined various left-wing organisations, earning him a black mark against his name by the US State Department. Fortunately, this did not ruin his career, but many others involved suffered greatly. In the 1950s, Bernstein was accused of being a Communist, yet his musical talents surpassed these accusations, whether true or false.
Bernstein and his wife made the headlines in the 1970s when they hosted an event to raise money for the defence of several members of the Black Panther Party. The BPP was a Marxist-Leninist Black Power political that challenged police brutality, which ironically resulted in physical fights and deaths. Bernstein supported the BPP because it aimed to establish community health clinics for the treatment of diseases, such as sickle cell anaemia, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the public ridiculed Bernstein’s support of a working-class organisation because he lived in a wealthy neighbourhood.
Whilst Bernstein and his wife appeared to have a happy life with their three children, letters published after Bernstein’s death reveal he was homosexual. Felicia wrote a letter to her husband saying, “You are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?” Bernstein’s friends confirmed he conducted affairs with men, but Felicia appeared to accept this. When questioned, Arthur Laurents said Bernstein was “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”
Bernstein loved his wife and family despite his sexuality. He only left Felicia once to live with another man but returned immediately after hearing about her lung cancer diagnosis. Bernstein nursed and cared for his wife until she passed away on 16th June 1978. He reportedly felt very guilty about her death, and his lifestyle became more excessive, but none of this showed in his professional life.
During his career, Bernstein wrote music for three ballets, three operas, nine musicals, and many orchestral, choral, vocal and piano pieces. He won a total of 16 Grammys, including Best Orchestral Performance (Mahler’s Symphony No. 9), Best Classical Album (Candide) and Best Contemporary Composition. In 1985, Bernstein won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
Bernstein tutored many composers, including John Mauceri (b. 1945), Marin Alsop (b. 1956) and Michael Tilson Thomas, who have worked with orchestras across the world. Unfortunately, he did not take on any students as composers, so his blends of jazz, Jewish music and theatre music remain unique to Bernstein.