(1918-1990) was perhaps the most influential figure in classical music
in the last half of the twentieth century. Composer, conductor, author,
lecturer and often controversial media personality, the American-born
Bernstein had a dramatic impact on the popular audience's acceptance
and appreciation of classical music. His own work as a composer,
particularly his scores for such Broadway musicals as West Side Story
and On the Town, helped forge a new relationship between classical and
For much of his career, including his legendary tenure as music
director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein recorded exclusively
for Columbia/CBS Masterworks, which is now Sony Classical. This vast
legacy of recordings, featuring his work as both composer and
conductor, is now being remastered and collected in a comprehensive new
Sony Classical series entitled Bernstein Century.
Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He took piano lessons as
a boy and attended the Garrison and Boston Latin schools. At Harvard
University he studied with Walter Piston, Edward Burlingame-Hill and A.
Tillman Merritt, among others. Before graduating in 1939, he made an
unofficial conducting debut with his own incidental music to The Birds
and directed and performed in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.
Then, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he studied
piano with Isabella Vengerova, conducting with Fritz Reiner and
orchestration with Randall Thompson. In 1940 he studied at the Boston
Symphony Orchestra's newly created summer institute at Tanglewood with
the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitsky. Bernstein later became
Koussevitzky's conducting assistant.
Bernstein was appointed to his first permanent conducting post in 1943,
as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14,
1943, he substituted on a few hours notice for the ailing Bruno Walter
at a Carnegie Hall concert, which was broadcast nationally on radio,
receiving critical acclaim. Soon orchestras worldwide sought him out as
a guest conductor.
In 1945 he was appointed music director of the New York City Symphony
Orchestra, a post he held until 1947. After Serge Koussevitzky died in
1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at
Tanglewood, teaching there for many years. In 1951 he married the
Chilean actress and pianist Felicia Montealegre. He was also visiting
music professor and head of the Creative Arts Festivals at Brandeis
University in the early 1950s.
Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.
From then until 1969 he led more concerts with the orchestra than any
previous conductor. He subsequently held the lifetime title of laureate
conductor, making frequent guest appearances with the orchestra. More
than half of Bernstein's four-hundred-plus recordings were made with
the New York Philharmonic.
Bernstein traveled the world as a conductor. Immediately after World
War II, in 1946, he conducted in London and at the International Music
Festival in Prague. In 1947 he conducted in Tel Aviv, beginning a
relationship with Israel that lasted until his death. In 1953 Bernstein
was the first American to conduct opera at the Teatro alla Scala in
Milan: Cherubini's Medea with Maria Callas.
Bernstein was a leading advocate of American composers, particularly
Aaron Copland. The two remained close friends for life. As a young
pianist Bernstein performed Copland's Piano Variations so often he
considered the composition his trademark. Bernstein programmed and
recorded nearly all of the Copland orchestral works, many of them
twice. He devoted several televised Young People's Concerts to Copland,
and gave the premiere of Copland's Connotations, commissioned for the
opening of the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln
Center in 1962.
While Bernstein's conducting repertoire encompassed the standard
literature, he may be best remembered for his performances and
recordings of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius and Mahler.
Particularly notable were his performances of the Mahler symphonies
with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s. These now-legendary
performances reintroduced Mahler's works into the concert repertoire
and initiated the restoration of Mahler's reputation as a composer (SMK
Inspired by his Jewish heritage, Bernstein completed his first
large-scale work, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah (1943). The piece was first
performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1944, conducted by
the composer, and received the New York Music Critics' Award.
Koussevitzky premiered Bernstein's Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety
with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bernstein as piano soloist. His
Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, composed in 1963, was premiered by the Israel
Kaddish is dedicated "To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy."
Other major compositions by Bernstein include Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble (1949); Serenade for violin,
strings and percussion (1954); Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
(1960); Chichester Psalms for chorus, boy soprano and orchestra (1965);
Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, commissioned
for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
in Washington, D.C., and first produced there in 1971 (SM2K 63089);
Songfest, a song cycle for six singers and orchestra (1977);
Divertimento for Orchestra (1980); Halil for solo flute and small
orchestra (1981); Touches for solo piano (1981); Missa Brevis for
singers and percussion (1988); Thirteen Anniversaries for solo piano
(1988); Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games (1989); and Arias and
Barcarolles for two singers and piano duet (1988).
Bernstein also wrote a 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) and Facsimile (1946) for the American Ballet Theatre
and Dybbuk (1975) for the New York City Ballet (SMK 63090). He composed
the score for the award-winning movie On the Waterfront in 1954 (SMK
63085) and incidental music for two Broadway plays, Peter Pan (1950)
and The Lark (1955).
Bernstein contributed substantially to the Broadway musical stage. He
collaborated with Betty Comden and Adolph Green in On the Town (1944)
and Wonderful Town (1953). In collaboration with Richard Wilbur,
Lillian Hellman and others, he wrote Candide (1956). Other versions of
Candide were written in association with such collaborators as Hugh
Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim. In 1957 he again collaborated with Jerome
Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, as well as Arthur Laurents, on the
landmark musical West Side Story, also made into the Academy
Award-winning film (SMK 63085). In 1976 Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner
wrote 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Festivals of Bernstein's music have been produced throughout the world.
In 1978 the Israel Philharmonic sponsored a festival commemorating his
years of dedication to Israel. The Israel Philharmonic also bestowed on
him the lifetime title of laureate conductor in 1988. In 1986 the
London Symphony and the Barbican Centre produced a Bernstein Festival.
The London Symphony Orchestra in 1987 named him honorary president. In
1989 the city of Bonn presented a Beethoven/Bernstein Festival.
In 1985 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Mr.
Bernstein with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. He won eleven
Emmy Awards in his career. His televised concert and lecture series
started with the Omnibus program in 1954, followed by the extraordinary
Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 1958 that
extended over fourteen seasons. Among his many appearances on the PBS
series Great Performances was the eleven-part acclaimed Bernstein's
Beethoven. In 1989, Bernstein and others commemorated the 1939 invasion
of Poland in a worldwide telecast from Warsaw.
Bernstein's writings were published in The Joy of Music (1959), Leonard
Berstein's Young People's Concerts (1961), The Infinite Variety of
Music (1966), and Findings (1982). Each has been widely translated. He
gave six lectures at Harvard University in 1972-73 as the Charles Eliot
Norton Professor of Poetry. These lectures were subsequently published
and televised as The Unanswered Question.
Bernstein always rejoiced in opportunities to teach young musicians.
His master classes at Tanglewood were famous. He was instrumental in
founding the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in 1982. He helped
create a world-class training orchestra at the Schleswig-Holstein Music
He founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Modeled after
Tanglewood, this international festival was the first of its kind in
Asia and continues to this day.
Bernstein received many honors. He was elected in 1981 to the American
Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him a gold medal. The National
Fellowship Award in 1985 applauded his lifelong support of humanitarian
causes. He received the MacDowell Colony's gold medal; medals from the
Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft; the Handel Medallion,
New York City's highest honor for the arts; a Tony Award (1969) for
distinguished achievement in the theater; and dozens of honorary
degrees and awards from college and universities. He was presented
ceremonial keys to the cities of Oslo, Vienna, Bersheeva and the
village of Bernstein, Austria, among others. National honors came from
Italy, Israel, Mexico, Denmark, Germany (the Great Merit Cross) and
France (chevalier, officer and commander of the Legion d'Honneur). He
received Kennedy Center honors in 1980.
World peace was a particular concern for Bernstein. Speaking at Johns
Hopkins University in 1980 and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
in New York in 1983, he described his vision of global harmony. His
Journey for Peace tour to Athens and Hiroshima with the European
Community Orchestra in 1985 commemorated the fortieth anniversary of
the atom bomb.
In December 1989 Bernstein conducted the historic "Berlin Celebration
Concerts" on both sides of the Berlin Wall, as it was being dismantled.
The concerts were unprecedented gestures of cooperation, the musicians
representing the former East Germany, West Germany and the four powers
that had partitioned Berlin after World War II.
Bernstein supported Amnesty International from its inception. To
benefit the effort in 1987, he established the Felicia Montealegre Fund
in memory of his wife, who died in 1978.
In 1990 Bernstein received the Praemium Imperiate, an international
prize created in 1988 by the Japan Arts Association and awarded for
lifetime achievement in the arts. Bernstein used the $100,000 prize to
launch the Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc.
Bernstein was the father of three children -- Jamie, Alexander and Nina -- and the grandfather of two, Francisca and Evan.