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Revisit: Leonard Bernstein at 100



Leonard Bernstein was the greatest and most important classical music figure in American history.  A conductor, composer, educator, concert pianist, philanthropist, and political activist, Bernstein revolutionized the role of the classical musician.  As handsome as a Hollywood star and gifted with an engaging and powerful personality, Bernstein became a music icon, the likes of which have never been matched in American classical music.

He was born over a century ago at a time when our nation still looked longingly toward Europe for its musical inspiration and education. By the time of his death in 1990, America had shed its image as a classical music backwater and had contributed many significant works to the world music treasury, through Bernstein’s own compositions as well as the hundreds of recordings featuring Bernstein conducting the great orchestras of the world. He was as comfortable composing for Broadway as he was conducting on a concert stage. In many cases, he was the catalyst and inspiration behind this new and exciting era of American music.

The proof is in the remarkably large and resilient body of work he left behind.  From West Side Story to Candide, from his symphonies to his Serenade for Orchestra; from his groundbreaking televised Young People’s Concerts to his remarkable run as conductor and guiding force of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein made his mark, loud and clear.  Over one hundred years after his birth, he and his work remain revered and loved by America and the rest of the world.

Leonard Bernstein at 100 exhibition opening reception at the NYPL LPA at Lincoln Center on December 8, 2017.

The Baton

“…The baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement.”

– Leonard Bernstein, 1955

Early Years

Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. (Born Louis Bernstein at the behest of his grandmother, Bernstein was referred to as Leonard or Lenny by his entire family; he officially changed his name at the Lawrence City Hall upon his eighteenth birthday.) Leonard was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants: Samuel Bernstein, a distributor of beauty products, and mother Jennie, née Resnick. Leonard had a sister, Shirley Anne, and a brother, Burton, both of whom were his junior.

As the first born, Leonard was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, eventually taking over the Boston-based Samuel Bernstein Hair Company. But from an early age, Leonard was deeply and emotionally moved by music. He and his father often clashed over his future. To Sam, music could be a hobby, but not a profession. From his youth in Russia, Sam recalled the klezmers, poor itinerant Jewish musicians who made little money and garnered little respect; he feared his son would suffer a similar fate.

Learning to Play

Leonard Bernstein met Helen Coates in 1932 after Heinrich Gebhard, a well-respected piano teacher in Boston, referred Bernstein to her. Coates, an able piano teacher herself, immediately began to refine Bernstein’s budding keyboard talents, encouraging him to dig deeper into his musical psyche, at the same time disciplining his approach to the instrument.

Coates recognized Bernstein’s genius early on. In addition to being his teacher, she became, in effect, his “coach,” working with him to succeed at his recitals and even keeping scrapbooks about her prized student.  Eventually she became Bernstein’s secretary, confidante, and legacy-keeper — roles she would play for the rest of her life.

The exhibit showcased this Baldwin upright piano, on which Bernstein took lessons with Helen Coates. The piano originally belonged to his Aunt Clara, who moved to Florida and dropped off her heavier furniture at her brother Samuel’s house. This is how Leonard Bernstein acquired his first piano. According to Bernstein, one touch of the keys and he knew he had to be a musician.


Leonard Bernstein’s first musical mentor was Solomon Braslavsky, an Austrian conductor and composer who, in 1928, was hired to be the musical director at the Bernstein family’s synagogue, Temple Mishkan Tefila.

In addition to the Jewish cantorial music young Lenny so loved at Temple Mishkan Tefila, he also devoured the popular music coming over the radio. Then, in 1932, Samuel Bernstein treated his 13-year-old son to a performance of the Boston Pops. Lenny was mesmerized by the orchestra’s grand interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero.  He was more infatuated than ever with the idea of a life in music, despite his father’s deep objections.

As he moved through his musical studies, Bernstein’s five main influencers were Dimitri Mitropoulos, Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Marc Blitzstein.

In 1937, while still an undergraduate at Harvard, Bernstein attended a Boston Symphony concert conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Bernstein was moved by how Mitropoulos seemed to throw his entire body into conducting the orchestra. Bernstein was equally impressed that Mitropoulos didn’t use a baton.  Shortly after the concert, Bernstein met Mitropoulos, and the conductor took the young student under his wing. It was Mitropoulos who first encouraged Bernstein to seriously consider becoming a conductor. “You must work very hard,” Mitropoulos advised Bernstein. “You must devote all your time to your art.” Bernstein never forgot that advice.

Leonard Bernstein began studying with conductor Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood in 1940. Born in Russia, Koussevitzky emigrated to the United States in the 1920’s, where he became the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the founder of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.  Koussevitzky recognized Bernstein’s genius early on. He mentored Bernstein, giving his student ample opportunity to conduct while at Tanglewood, and to form his own style. He also encouraged Bernstein’s talent both as a composer and pianist, and he prodded him to make his mark in American music. Bernstein considered Koussevitzky one of the strongest influences in his life.

Bernstein was still a student at Harvard when he met Aaron Copland in 1937. Bernstein was particularly struck by the innovation and daring of Copland’s first great work, the Piano Variations. Bernstein also admired Copland’s artful fusion of jazz, folk, and other American musical elements into works such as Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo. Aaron Copland was the closest Bernstein ever came to having an official composing teacher. The influence of Copland is clearly audible in many of Bernstein’s best works. The two composers became lifelong friends and colleagues.

Like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin saw the beauty and promise of American vernacular music and championed its mix with traditional classical elements. In his 1924 piece, Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin celebrated a marriage of classical and jazz components. Bernstein often referred to “Rhapsody” as one of the great works in the American music treasury. In 1935, another Gershwin masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, premiered to great critical acclaim, showcasing the power of black folk music on an opera stage.

Gershwin’s sudden death in 1937 shocked and saddened young Bernstein. Gershwin’s influence on Bernstein stayed with him his entire life.

Bernstein admired Marc Blitzstein’s courage and composing genius, and the two became good friends. In 1976, he called Blitzstein “the greatest master of the setting of the American language to music.” Blitzstein produced additional acclaimed works, including The Airborne Symphony, which Bernstein premiered in 1946, and his opera Regina in 1949.

Education: Harvard, Curtis Institute, and Tanglewood

Leonard Bernstein entered Harvard College in 1935 as a music major, aspiring to become a concert pianist. In addition to taking traditional classes in music theory and the arts at Harvard, Bernstein studied piano with noted instructor Heinrich Gebhard. Bernstein wrote about the state of American music for his senior thesis. His paper was titled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.” In it Bernstein described how American composers such as Copland and George Gershwin used jazz and other indigenous elements like blues and African-American sacred music to create a new American sound. Bernstein graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1939.

After graduating from Harvard, Leonard Bernstein attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where, upon advice from Dimitri Mitropoulos, he studied conducting. At the time, becoming a conductor of a major American symphony was more daunting than becoming a concert pianist. All the prominent conductors in America were born and educated in Europe. Bernstein was neither.

At Curtis, Bernstein studied with the formidable and rigorous Fritz Reiner. He made his conducting debut on radio, leading the Institute Orchestra in Brahms’ Serenade in A Major. Bernstein also perfected his advanced sight-reading skills at Curtis and continued to study piano, this time with the venerable Madame Isabelle Vengerova.  Bernstein graduated from Curtis in the spring of 1941.

In the spring of 1940, while at Curtis Institute, Leonard Bernstein enrolled at the Berkshire Music Centre, a new summer school begun by the esteemed Russia-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. It was housed at Tanglewood, a recently opened summer performance venue for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, a small community in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. There, Bernstein took conducting classes taught by Koussevitzky, whose influence on Bernstein was profound.

Tanglewood offered far more conducting opportunities than Curtis. Bernstein spent the summers of 1940 and ’41 at Tanglewood, learning as much as he could about conducting under Koussevitzky, gaining valuable experience. In the summer of 1942, Bernstein yet again returned to Tanglewood, this time as Koussevitzky’s assistant. But with World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, Bernstein’s future as a musician was uncertain.

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein made his historic debut as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. Recently appointed to the post of assistant conductor, Bernstein had moved from Massachusetts to New York City that fall. As assistant conductor, his duties included checking on sound at Carnegie Hall; setting up orchestra rehearsals; and standing by in case a conductor should become indisposed – which rarely happened. However, on November 14th, guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill, and music director Artur Rodzinski was delayed due to an upstate snowstorm. It fell to assistant conductor Bernstein to lead the orchestra.

Bernstein had only hours to prepare for a concert that was to be broadcast nationwide on the CBS Radio Network. There would be no time to rehearse, only to review scores. Brilliantly, Bernstein, just 25 years old, led the New York Philharmonic that afternoon as if he were born to do it. Rave reviews followed the next day, including one that was featured on the front page of The New York Times titled “Young Aide leads Philharmonic, Steps In When Bruno Walter Is Ill.”

Over the next few years he frequently conducted the orchestra, as a guest or substitute. In 1957 he became the orchestra’s official Music Director.  From 1958 to 1969, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic through acclaimed seasons, world tours, best-selling recordings, and a move from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center’s newly constructed Philharmonic Hall.

Following this period was a more than two-decade stint as Conductor Laureate, a designation the orchestra created to encourage Bernstein to come back often to conduct—and he did. In nearly a half century of service, Bernstein recorded more than 200 recordings with the New York Philharmonic and led the orchestra in over 1,200 concerts.


Stardom came quickly for Leonard Bernstein after his stunning debut leading the New York Philharmonic in the fall of 1943. His good looks and vibrant personality, coupled with his passionately dramatic conducting style, drew sacks of fan mail and autograph requests. Critics praised his emerging musical genius in their reviews. Newspaper reporters and magazine writers penned complimentary feature stories about him. They stressed his youth (he was just 25 at his Philharmonic debut), his Harvard education, and the fact that he was American — for until Bernstein, no conductor of a leading American orchestra had ever been American-born.

West Side Story

West Side Story is Leonard Bernstein’s best-known work and his most lauded artistic triumph. It is a true American music treasure.  Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in 1950s New York. The idea was originally proposed by choreographer Jerome Robbins in the late 1940s.  It took several years for the music, lyrics, and dance routines to jell.  But when it did, lightning struck.

West Side Story included such Bernstein masterpieces as “America” “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere,” featuring lyrics by a fresh face on the Broadway scene: Stephen Sondheim.  Underneath the narrative of juvenile delinquency and gang culture, West Side Story dealt with race, religion, immigration, and what it means to be an American—all issues that still tear at our country today.

West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 to rave reviews.  In 1961, the film version won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The soundtrack won a GRAMMY.  A Broadway revival cast recording won a GRAMMY in 2010.  West Side Story continues to be produced on stages around the world, from opera houses to high school auditoriums, demonstrating the timeless genius of the music and the story.

Young People’s Concerts

Leonard Bernstein’s signature education program, the Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, did more than teach the youth about the intricacies and joys of orchestral music.  Televised several times a year to a national audience, the programs made Bernstein a household name and influenced an entire generation of young musicians and music lovers.

The Young People’s Concerts aired on CBS from 1958 to 1972.  Over the course of those 15 years, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic presented 53 concerts. With themes such as “What is Classical Music?” and “Who is Gustav Mahler?” and “Humor in Music,” Bernstein, in his affable and passionate manner, artfully explained the nuances of music that young people—and adults—could easily understand and appreciate.

The exhibit featured an interactive orchestra visitors were able to “conduct.” Shown here is Bernstein’s son, Alexander, trying it out.

Bernstein and the GRAMMYs

The GRAMMY Award is the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music, given only to the greatest music makers. In his career, Bernstein won 16 GRAMMY Awards in numerous categories for his recordings. He won his first at the inaugural GRAMMY ceremony in 1959 for Best Classical Performance – Orchestra for Stravinsky: Le Sacre Du Printemps. He was also honored with the Recording Academy’s Governor’s Award in 1971 and its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. Five of Bernstein’s recordings are in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. This exhibit is yet another honor bestowed on Bernstein by the Recording Academy.  Only two other artists—folk singer Woody Guthrie and American Songbook legend Frank Sinatra—have been honored with centennial exhibits of this size and scope.

Political Activist

Leonard Bernstein was a lifelong activist.  A political liberal and champion of human rights, Bernstein rarely shied away from using his musical genius or celebrity status to fight for worthy causes. Whether it was standing up for civil rights, decrying the horrors of war, or joining the battle against AIDS, Bernstein could be counted on to raise money or awareness, or both.

Bernstein had his critics, including those who thought art should not interfere with politics.  When he and his wife, Felicia, hosted a gathering to raise money for the Black Panthers in 1970, a time when the organization was nearly at war with the police in America, Bernstein was picketed outside his apartment by the Jewish Defense League, who considered the Panthers to be anti-Zionist. But Bernstein stood by his convictions until the end of his life, rarely caving to cautiousness or criticism. The awards and honors bestowed upon him over the years attest to this.

Behind the Genius: Family Man

Leonard Bernstein married the beautiful Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre, in September 1951.  Together, the couple had three children: Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.  In public, the Bernsteins presented themselves as content and carefree.  It was no secret, however, that Leonard’s life was far more complicated.  Bernstein was bi-sexual, and he had many relationships with men throughout the years.

By all accounts, Felicia loved Leonard dearly and understood his homosexuality was an irrefutable part of him.  Eventually, though, the double life fractured the marriage.  The Bernsteins separated in 1976.  They reunited a year later whereupon Felicia Bernstein was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She died in 1978, with her husband at her side.

Final Years

Neither advanced age nor failing health seriously curtailed Bernstein’s energy or enthusiasm for music in the latter part of his life.  Bernstein continued to perform, travel, socialize, and plan future projects. He spent part of most summers at his favorite place, Tanglewood, engaging with students and admirers, and leading both the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood’s student orchestra with gusto. He received many awards and accolades and enjoyed his role as dean of American classical music.

People close to Bernstein, however, noticed the toll his years of heavy smoking was finally taking on him.  Shortness of breath—he suffered from emphysema—became more common and his conducting stamina withered. His final concert took place at his beloved Tanglewood in August 1990.

In early October, Bernstein announced his retirement from performing. Five days later, on October 14, 1990, he died at his Dakota apartment in Manhattan.  He was 72 years old.  To the very end, Leonard Bernstein remained committed to music—the single, most important thing in his life.