Leonard Bernstein: American conductor and composer (1918 - 1990) | Biography
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Leonard Bernstein
American conductor and composer

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American conductor and composer
A.K.A. Lenny Bernstein, Louis Bernstein
Was Musician Conductor Pianist Composer Musicologist Film score composer
From United States of America
Field Academia Film, TV, Stage & Radio Music
Gender male
Birth 25 August 1918, Lawrence, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA
Death 14 October 1990, New York City, New York, USA (aged 72 years)
Star sign Virgo
Mother: Jennie Resnick
Father: Samuel Joseph Bernstein
Spouse: Felicia Montealegre
Children: Jamie BernsteinAlexander Bernstein
Harvard University
Curtis Institute of Music
Eliot House
Notable Works
Symphony No. 1  
Symphony No. 2  
West Side Story  
Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany  
Ring of Honour of the City of Vienna 1982
Great Golden Medal of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria  
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 1985
Praemium Imperiale 1990
Léonie Sonning Music Prize 1965
Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal 1987
Kennedy Center Honors 1980
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic  
honorary doctor of Tel Aviv University  
honorary doctor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem  
Classical music
Leonard Bernstein
The details (from wikipedia)


Leonard Bernstein (/ˈbɜːrnstn/ BURN-styne; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author, and humanitarian. Considered to be one of the most important conductors of his time, he was the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. Bernstein was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history" according to music critic Donal Henahan. Bernstein won seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, 16 Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kennedy Center Honor.

As a composer, Bernstein wrote in many genres, including symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music, and pieces for the piano. His best-known work is the Broadway musical West Side Story, which continues to be regularly performed worldwide, and has been adapted into two (1961 and 2021) feature films. Bernstein's works include three symphonies, Chichester Psalms, Serenade after Plato's "Symposium", the original score for the film On the Waterfront, and theater works including On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and his MASS.

Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. He was music director of the New York Philharmonic and conducted the world's major orchestras, generating a significant legacy of audio and video recordings. Bernstein was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, in whose music he was most passionately interested. A skilled pianist, Bernstein often conducted piano concertos from the keyboard. He was the first conductor to share and explore classical music on television with a mass audience. Through dozens of national and international broadcasts, including Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein sought to make music both intelligible and enjoyable to all. Through his educational efforts, including several books and the creation of two major international music festivals, Bernstein influenced several generations of young musicians.

A lifelong humanitarian, Bernstein worked in support of civil rights, protested against the Vietnam War, advocated nuclear disarmament, raised money for HIV/AIDS research and awareness, and engaged in multiple international initiatives for human rights and world peace. He conducted Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at the funeral of president John F. Kennedy, and in Israel at a world famous concert, Hatikvah on Mt. Scopus, after the 1967 war. The sequence of events was preserved for posterity in a documentary entitled Journey to Jerusalem. At the end of his life, Bernstein conducted a historic performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was televised live, worldwide, on Christmas Day, 1989.

Early life and education

1918–1934: Early life and family

Born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein was the son of Jewish parents, Jennie (née Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, both of whom immigrated to the United States from Rivne (now in Ukraine). His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard. Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard when he was 18, shortly after his grandmother’s death. To his friends and many others, Bernstein was simply known as “Lenny”.

Bernstein’s father was the owner of The Samuel Bernstein Hair and Beauty Supply Company. It held the New England franchise for the Frederick’s Permanent Wave Machine, the immense popularity of which helped Sam get his family through the Great Depression.

In Bernstein’s early youth, his only exposure to music was the household radio and music on Friday nights at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Roxbury, Massachusetts. When Bernstein was ten years old, Samuel’s sister Clara deposited her upright piano at her brother’s house. Bernstein began teaching himself piano and music theory, and was soon clamoring for lessons. He had a variety of piano teachers in his youth, including Helen Coates, who later became his secretary. In the summers, the Bernstein family would go to their vacation home in Sharon, Massachusetts, where young Leonard conscripted all the neighborhood children to put on shows ranging from Bizet‘s ‘’Carmen‘’ to Gilbert and Sullivan‘s ‘’The Pirates of Penzance‘’. He would often play entire operas or Beethoven symphonies with his younger sister, Shirley. Leonard’s youngest sibling, Burton, was born in 1932, 13 years after Leonard. Despite the large age differences, the three siblings remained close their entire lives.

Sam was initially opposed to young Leonard’s interest in music and attempted to discourage his son’s interest by refusing to pay for his piano lessons. Leonard then took to giving lessons to young people in his neighborhood. One of his students, Sid Ramin, became Bernstein’s most frequent orchestrator and lifelong beloved friend.

Sam took his son to orchestral concerts in his teenage years and eventually supported his music education. In May 1932, Leonard attended his first orchestral concert with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler. Bernstein recalled, “To me, in those days, the Pops was heaven itself … I thought … it was the supreme achievement of the human race.” It was at this concert that Bernstein first heard Ravel‘s ‘’Boléro, which made a tremendous impression on him.

Another strong musical influence was George Gershwin. Bernstein was a counselor at a summer camp when news came over the radio of Gershwin’s death. In the mess hall, a shaken Bernstein demanded a moment of silence, and then played Gershwin’s second Prelude as a memorial.

On March 30, 1932, Bernstein played Brahms‘s Rhapsody in G minor at his first public piano performance in Susan Williams’s studio recital at the New England Conservatory. Two years later, he made his solo debut with orchestra in Grieg‘s Piano Concerto in A minor with the Boston Public School Orchestra.

1935–1940: College years

Bernstein's first two education environments were both public schools: the William Lloyd Garrison School, followed by the prestigious Boston Latin School, for which Bernstein and classmate Lawrence F. Ebb wrote the Class Song.

Harvard University

In 1935, Bernstein enrolled at Harvard College, where he studied music with, among others, Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. Bernstein's first extant composition, Psalm 148, set for voice and piano, is dated 1935. He majored in music with a final year thesis titled "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music" (1939; reproduced in his book Findings). One of Bernstein's intellectual influences at Harvard was the aesthetics Professor David Prall, whose multidisciplinary outlook on the arts inspired Bernstein for the rest of his life.

One of Bernstein's friends at Harvard was future philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom Bernstein played piano duets. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds, performed in the original Greek. Bernstein recycled some of this music in future works.

While a student, Bernstein was briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club as well as an unpaid pianist for Harvard Film Society's silent film presentations.

Bernstein mounted a student production of The Cradle Will Rock, directing its action from the piano as the composer Marc Blitzstein had done at the infamous premiere. Blitzstein, who attended the performance, subsequently became a close friend and mentor to Bernstein.

As a sophomore at Harvard, Bernstein met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos's charisma and power as a musician were major influences on Bernstein's eventual decision to become a conductor. Mitropoulos invited Bernstein to come to Minneapolis for the 1940–41 season to be his assistant, but the plan fell through because of union issues.

In 1937, Bernstein sat next to Aaron Copland at a dance recital at Town Hall in New York City. Copland invited Bernstein to his birthday party afterwards, where Bernstein impressed the guests by playing Copland's challenging Piano Variations, a work Bernstein loved. Although he was never a formal student of Copland's, Bernstein would regularly seek his advice, often citing him as his "only real composition teacher".

Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939 with a Bachelor of Arts cum laude.

Curtis Institute of Music

After graduating from Harvard, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. At Curtis, Bernstein studied conducting with Fritz Reiner (who anecdotally is said to have given Bernstein the only "A" grade he ever awarded); piano with Isabelle Vengerova; orchestration with Randall Thompson; counterpoint with Richard Stöhr; and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle.

In 1940, Bernstein attended the inaugural year of the Tanglewood Music Center (then called the Berkshire Music Center) at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home. Bernstein studied conducting with the BSO's music director, Serge Koussevitzky, who became a profound lifelong inspiration to Bernstein. He became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant at Tanglewood and later dedicated his Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety to his beloved mentor. One of Bernstein's classmates, both at Curtis and at Tanglewood, was Lukas Foss, who remained a lifelong friend and colleague. Bernstein returned to Tanglewood nearly every summer for the rest of his life to teach and conduct the young music students.

Life and career


Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein and Benny Goodman in rehearsal, ca. 1940–1949

Soon after he left Curtis, Bernstein moved to New York City where he lived in various apartments in Manhattan. Bernstein supported himself by coaching singers, teaching piano, and playing the piano for dance classes in Carnegie Hall. He found work with Harms-Witmark, transcribing jazz and pop music and publishing his work under the pseudonym "Lenny Amber". (Bernstein means "amber" in German.)

Bernstein briefly shared an apartment in Greenwich Village with his friend Adolph Green. Green was then part of a satirical music troupe called The Revuers, featuring Betty Comden and Judy Holliday. With Bernstein sometimes providing piano accompaniment, The Revuers often performed at the legendary jazz club the Village Vanguard.

On April 21, 1942, Bernstein performed the premiere of his first published work, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, with clarinetist David Glazer at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston.

Leonard Bernstein
Carnegie Hall playbill, November 14, 1943Radio announcement:

New York Philharmonic conducting debut

On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor to Artur Rodziński of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein made his major conducting debut at short notice—and without any rehearsal—after guest conductor Bruno Walter came down with the flu. The challenging program included works by Robert Schumann, Miklós Rózsa, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss.

The next day, The New York Times carried the story on its front page and remarked in an editorial, "It's a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves."

Many newspapers throughout the country carried the story, which, in combination with the concert's live national CBS Radio Network broadcast, propelled Bernstein to instant fame.

Over the next two years, Bernstein made conducting debuts with ten different orchestras in the United States and Canada, greatly broadening his repertoire and initiating a lifelong frequent practice of conducting concertos from the piano.

Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah, Fancy Free, and On the Town

On January 28, 1944, Bernstein conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Jennie Tourel as soloist.

In the fall of 1943, Bernstein and Jerome Robbins began work on their first collaboration, Fancy Free, a ballet about three young sailors on leave in wartime New York City. Fancy Free premiered on April 18, 1944, with the Ballet Theatre (now the American Ballet Theatre) at the old Metropolitan Opera House, with scenery by Oliver Smith and costumes by Kermit Love.

Bernstein and Robbins decided to expand the ballet into a musical and invited Comden and Green to write the book and lyrics. On the Town opened on Broadway's Adelphi Theatre on December 28, 1944. The show resonated with audiences during World War II, and it broke race barriers on Broadway: Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato in a leading role; a multiracial cast dancing as mixed race couples; and a Black concertmaster, Everett Lee, who eventually took over as music director of the show. On the Town became an MGM motion picture in 1949, starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as the three sailors. Only part of Bernstein's score was used in the film and additional songs were provided by Roger Edens.

Leonard Bernstein
Photo of Bernstein by Carl Van Vechten (1944)

Rising conducting career

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945)

From 1945 to 1947, Bernstein was the music director of the New York City Symphony, which had been founded the previous year by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. The orchestra (with support from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia) had modern programs and affordable tickets.

In 1946, Bernstein made his overseas debut with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. He also recorded Ravel's Piano Concerto in G as soloist and conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra. On July 4, 1946, Bernstein conducted the European premiere of Fancy Free with the Ballet Theatre at the Royal Opera House in London.

In 1946, Bernstein conducted opera professionally for the first time at Tanglewood with the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which was commissioned by Koussevitzky. That same year, Arturo Toscanini invited Bernstein to guest conduct two concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, one of which featured Bernstein as soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G.

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

In 1947, Bernstein conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, beginning a lifelong association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, then known as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. The next year, he conducted an open-air concert for Israeli troops at Beersheba in the middle of the desert during the Arab-Israeli war. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. In 1967, he conducted a concert on Mount Scopus to commemorate the Reunification of Jerusalem, featuring Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with soloist Isaac Stern. The city of Tel Aviv added his name to the Habima Square (Orchestra Plaza) in the center of the city.

First television appearance

On December 10, 1949, Bernstein made his first television appearance as conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The concert, which included an address by Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated the first anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and included the premiere of Aaron Copland's "Preamble" with Sir Laurence Olivier narrating text from the UN Charter. The concert was televised by NBC Television Network.

Summer at Tanglewood

In April 1949, Bernstein performed as piano soloist in the world premiere of his Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety with Koussevitzy conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Later that year, Bernstein conducted the world premiere of the Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Part of the rehearsal for the concert was recorded and released by the orchestra. When Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein became head of the orchestra and conducting departments at Tanglewood.


Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein, c. 1950s

The 1950s comprised among the most active years of Bernstein's career. He created five new works for the Broadway stage, composed several symphonic works and an iconic film score, and was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic with whom he toured the world, including concerts behind the Iron Curtain. Bernstein also harnessed the power of television to expand his educational reach, and he married and started a family.

Compositions in the 1950s

Theatrical works
Peter Pan

In 1950, Bernstein composed incidental music for a Broadway production of J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan. The production, which opened on Broadway on April 24, 1950, starred Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff in the dual roles of George Darling and Captain Hook. The show ran for 321 performances.

Trouble in Tahiti

In 1951, Bernstein composed Trouble in Tahiti, a one-act opera in seven scenes with an English libretto by the composer. The opera portrays the troubled marriage of a couple whose idyllic suburban post-war environment belies their inner turmoil. Ironically, Bernstein wrote most of the opera while on his honeymoon in Mexico with his wife, Felicia Montealegre.

Bernstein was a visiting music professor at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1956. In 1952, he created the Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts, where he conducted the premiere of Trouble in Tahiti on June 12 of that year.

The NBC Opera Theatre subsequently presented the opera on television in November 1952. It opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre on April 19, 1955, and ran for six weeks.

Three decades later, Bernstein wrote a second opera, A Quiet Place, which picked up the story and characters of Trouble in Tahiti in a later period.

Wonderful Town

In 1953, Bernstein wrote the score for the musical Wonderful Town on very short notice, with a book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The musical tells the story of two sisters from Ohio who move to New York City and seek success from their squalid basement apartment in Greenwich Village.

Wonderful Town opened on Broadway on February 25, 1953, at the Winter Garden Theatre, starring Rosalind Russell in the role of Ruth Sherwood, Edie Adams as Eileen Sherwood, and George Gaynes as Robert Baker. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actress.


In the three years leading up to Bernstein's appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was simultaneously working on the scores for two Broadway shows. The first of the two was the operetta-style musical Candide. Lillian Hellman originally brought Bernstein her idea of adapting Voltaire's novella. The original collaborators on the show were book writer John Latouche and lyricist Richard Wilbur.

Candide opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956, at the Martin Beck Theatre, in a production directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Anxious about the parallels Hellman had deliberately drawn between Voltaire's story and the ongoing hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Guthrie persuaded the collaborators to cut their most incendiary sections prior to opening night.

While the production was a box office disaster, running for only two months for a total of 73 performances, the cast album became a cult classic, which kept Bernstein's score alive. There have been several revivals, with modifications to improve the book. The elements of the music that have remained best known and performed over the decades are the Overture, which quickly became one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer; the coloratura aria "Glitter and Be Gay", which Barbara Cook sang in the original production; and the grand finale "Make Our Garden Grow".

West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein
L-R: Elizabeth Taylor, Carmen Gutierrez, Marilyn Cooper, and Carol Lawrence from the original Broadway cast sing "I Feel Pretty" (1957)

The other musical Bernstein was writing simultaneously with Candide was West Side Story. Bernstein collaborated with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

The story is an updated retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in the mid-1950s in the slums of New York City's Upper West Side. The Romeo character, Tony, is affiliated with the Jets gang, who are of white Northern European descent. The Juliet character is Maria, who is connected to the Sharks gang, recently arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico.

The original Broadway production opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957, and ran 732 performances. Robbins won the Tony Award for Best Choreographer, and Oliver Smith won the Tony for Best Scenic Designer.

Bernstein's score for West Side Story blends "jazz, Latin rhythms, symphonic sweep and musical-comedy conventions in groundbreaking ways for Broadway". It was orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal following detailed instructions from Bernstein. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in musical theatre.

In 1960, Bernstein prepared a suite of orchestral music from the show, titled Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which continues to be popular with orchestras worldwide.

A 1961 United Artists film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins and starred Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony. The film won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a ground-breaking Best Supporting Actress award for Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno playing the role of Anita.

A new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg opened in 2021.

Serenade, Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and On The Waterfront

In addition to Bernstein's compositional activity for the stage, he wrote a symphonic work, Serenade after Plato's "Symposium"; the score to the Academy Award-winning film On The Waterfront; and Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, composed for jazz big band and solo clarinet.

First American to conduct at La Scala

In 1953, Bernstein became the first American conductor to appear at La Scala in Milan, conducting Cherubini's Medea, with Maria Callas in the title role. Callas and Bernstein reunited at La Scala to perform Bellini's La sonnambula in 1955.


On November 14, 1954, Bernstein presented the first of his television lectures for the CBS Television Network arts program Omnibus. The live lecture, entitled "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony", involved Bernstein explaining the symphony's first movement with the aid of musicians from the "Symphony of the Air" (formerly NBC Symphony Orchestra). The program featured manuscripts from Beethoven's own hand, as well as a giant painting of the first page of the score covering the studio floor. Six more Omnibus lectures followed from 1955 to 1961 (later on ABC and then NBC) covering a broad range of topics: jazz, conducting, American musical comedy, modern music, J.S. Bach, and grand opera.

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein with members of the New York Philharmonic rehearsing for a television broadcast, c. 1958

Music director of the New York Philharmonic

Bernstein was appointed the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, sharing the post jointly with Dimitri Mitropoulos until he took sole charge in 1958. Bernstein held the music directorship until 1969 when he was appointed "Laureate Conductor". He continued to conduct and make recordings with the orchestra for the rest of his life.

Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic

Bernstein's television teaching took a quantum leap when, as the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, he put the orchestra's traditional Saturday afternoon Young People's Concerts on the CBS Television Network. Millions of viewers of all ages and around the world enthusiastically embraced Bernstein and his engaging presentations about classical music. Bernstein often presented talented young performers on the broadcasts. Many of them became celebrated in their own right, including conductors Claudio Abbado and Seiji Ozawa; flutist Paula Robison; and pianist André Watts. From 1958 until 1972, the 53 Young People's Concerts comprised the most influential series of music education programs ever produced on television. They were highly acclaimed by critics and won numerous Emmy Awards.

Some of Bernstein's scripts, all of which he wrote himself, were released in book form and on records. A recording of Humor in Music was awarded a Grammy award for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording (other than comedy) in 1961. The programs were shown in many countries around the world, often with Bernstein dubbed into other languages, and the concerts were later released on home video by Kultur Video.

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein at the piano, making annotations to a musical score, 1955
United States Department of State tours

In 1958, Bernstein and Mitropoulos led the New York Philharmonic on its first tour south of the border, through 12 countries in Central and South America. The United States Department of State sponsored the tour to improve the nation's relations with its southern neighbors.

In 1959, the Department of State also sponsored Bernstein and the Philharmonic on a 50-concert tour through Europe and the Soviet Union, portions of which were filmed by the CBS Television Network. A highlight of the tour was Bernstein's performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, in the presence of the composer, who came on stage at the end to congratulate Bernstein and the musicians.


New York Philharmonic Innovations

Bernstein's innovative approach to themed programming included introducing audiences to lesser performed composers at the time such as Gustav Mahler, Carl Nielsen, Jean Sibelius, and Charles Ives (including the world premiere of his Symphony No. 2). Bernstein actively advocated for the commission and performance of works by contemporary composers, conducting over 40 world premieres by a diverse roster of composers ranging from John Cage to Alberto Ginastera to Luciano Berio. He also conducted US premieres of 19 major works from around the globe, including works by Dmitri Shostakovich, Pierre Boulez, and György Ligeti.

Bernstein championed American composers, especially with whom he had a close friendship, such as Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and David Diamond. This decade saw a significant expansion of Bernstein and the Philharmonic's collaboration with Columbia Records, together they released over 400 compositions, covering a broad swath of the classical music canon.

Bernstein welcomed the Philharmonic's additions of its first Black musician, Sanford Allen, and its second woman musician, Orin O'Brien. Bernstein also shared the Philharmonic's commitment to connecting with as many New Yorkers as possible. That vision became a reality with the launch of the Concerts in the Parks in 1965, which Bernstein conducted often.

Another milestone was the Philharmonic's first visit to Japan in 1961, when Bernstein led acclaimed Philharmonic concerts and engaged in cultural exchange. Over the years, he led the Orchestra on tours to 144 cities in 38 countries.

Bernstein initiated the Philharmonic's informal Thursday Evening Preview Concerts, which included Bernstein's talks from the stage, a practice that was unheard of at the time.

In one oft-reported incident, on April 6, 1962, Bernstein appeared on stage before a performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor to explain that the soloist, Glenn Gould, had chosen an idiosyncratic approach to the work. Bernstein explained that while he did not totally agree with it, he thought Gould's interpretation was an artistically worthy exploration. Bernstein questioned: "In a concerto, who is the boss: the soloist or the conductor?" The incident created a stir that reverberated in the press for decades.

Bernstein and Mahler

In 1960, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic marked the centennial of Gustav Mahler's birth with a series of performances. The composer's widow, Alma, attended some of Bernstein's rehearsals. That same year, Bernstein made his first commercial recording of a Mahler symphony (the Fourth). Over the next seven years, he recorded the entire Mahler symphony cycle with the New York Philharmonic (except for the 8th Symphony, which was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra).

The combination of concert performances, television talks, and recordings led to a renewed interest in Mahler, especially in the United States. Bernstein claimed that he identified with the works on a personal level, and once wrote of the composer: "I'm so sympathetic to Mahler: I understand his problem. It's like being two different men locked up in the same body; one man is a conductor and the other a composer ... It's like being a double man."

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein during a visit to Finland, 1959
Opening Lincoln Center

On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. On September 23, 1962, the New York Philharmonic moved from Carnegie Hall to its new home, Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall). Bernstein conducted the gala opening concert featuring works by Mahler, Beethoven, and Vaughan Williams, as well as the premiere of Aaron Copland's Connotations.

Metropolitan Opera debut

In 1964, Bernstein conducted at The Metropolitan Opera for the first time in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Verdi's Falstaff. In subsequent years, Bernstein returned to The Met to conduct Cavalleria Rusticana (1970) and Carmen (1972), as well as at the Centennial Gala in 1983.

An Artist's Response to Violence

In 1961, Bernstein composed and conducted a fanfare for President John F. Kennedy's pre-inaugural gala.

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein in Amsterdam, 1968

On November 23, 1963, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring the Mahler's Symphony No. 2: "Resurrection". Later that week, in a speech to the United Jewish Appeal, Bernstein said: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

After President Kennedy's brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Bernstein conducted at the funeral mass, featuring the "Adagietto" movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Kaddish and Chichester Psalms

Due to his commitment to the New York Philharmonic and his many other activities, Bernstein had little time for composition during the 1960s. Nevertheless, he was able to compose two major works.

Bernstein's Symphony No. 3: Kaddish was written in 1963; Bernstein dedicated the work: "To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy." The work features a large orchestra, a full choir, a boys' choir, a soprano soloist, and a narrator. "Kaddish" refers to the Jewish prayer recited for the dead. Bernstein wrote the text of the narration himself; his wife, Felicia Montealegre, narrated the US premiere of the work.

In 1965, Bernstein took a sabbatical year from the New York Philharmonic in order to concentrate on composition, during which he composed Chichester Psalms. Commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Walter Hussey, the work premiered at Philharmonic Hall in New York City on July 15, 1965, conducted by Bernstein himself, and subsequently at Chichester Cathedral, conducted by John Birch. For his text, Bernstein chose excerpts from the Book of Psalms in the original Hebrew. In 2018, Bernstein's Centennial year, Chichester Psalms was cited as the 5th-most performed concert work worldwide.

Vienna Philharmonic debut

In 1966, Bernstein began a lifelong rich relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting concerts as well as making his debut at the Vienna State Opera in Luchino Visconti's production of Falstaff with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role. Bernstein was largely responsible for restoring the works of Mahler to the Vienna Philharmonic's core repertoire. Bernstein recorded Mahler's Symphonies numerous times with the orchestra.

Bernstein returned to the State Opera in 1968 for a production of Der Rosenkavalier and in 1970 for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's Fidelio.


Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein by Allan Warren, 1973

During the 1970s, Bernstein's company, Amberson, in partnership with Unitel, produced and coordinated filmed recordings of his symphonic concerts around the world. For the rest of his life, Bernstein preferred to derive his audio recordings from live performances. Nearly 80% of Bernstein's recordings with his new recording partner, Deutsche Grammophon, were recorded live.

Bernstein's major compositions during the 1970s were his Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers; his score for the ballet Dybbuk; his orchestral vocal work Songfest; and his U.S. bicentennial musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, which was his last Broadway show and only theatrical flop.

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers

In 1966, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned Bernstein to compose a work for the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Bernstein began writing Mass in 1969 as a large-scale theatrical work based on the Tridentine Mass of the Catholic Church, and in 1971, Bernstein invited the young composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who had recently opened the musical Godspell off-Broadway, to collaborate as co-lyricist. The world premiere took place on September 8, 1971, conducted by Maurice Peress, directed by Gordon Davidson, and choreographed by Alvin Ailey.

Bernstein's score combines elements of musical theater, jazz, gospel, blues, folk, rock, and symphonic music, and the libretto combines Latin and English liturgy, Hebrew prayer, and additional lyrics written by Bernstein and Schwartz.

Mass received both rapturous and critical reactions, from audiences and music critics alike. While some members of the Catholic Church praised the piece's expression of contemporary crises of faith, others considered it blasphemous. (In 2000, Pope John Paul II requested a performance of Mass at the Vatican itself.) President Richard Nixon declined to attend the premiere due to its anti-Vietnam War message. Viewpoints on Mass continue to evolve over time, and Edward Seckerson wrote in 2021, 50 years after its premiere: "Put simply, no other work of Bernstein's encapsulates exactly who he was as a man or as a musician; no other work displays his genius, his intellect, his musical virtuosity and innate theatricality quite like MASS."

The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard

In the 1972–73 academic year, Bernstein was appointed to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry at Harvard, where he delivered six lectures, The Unanswered Question, which explored such elements as tonality, harmony, and form through the lens of Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories. Bernstein provided musical examples from the piano, and pre-recorded musical works with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Amberson arranged for the lectures to be videotaped at the WGBH studios in Boston. The six lectures were broadcast on PBS in 1976, and subsequently released on home video and published as a book.


Bernstein collaborated with Jerome Robbins to create Dybbuk, a ballet based on S. Ansky's play of the same name. The ballet depicts Ansky's tale of a young woman possessed by a malicious spirit, known in Jewish folklore as a "dybbuk". Dybbuk was premiered by the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater on May 16, 1974, with Bernstein conducting. A revision of the choreography and the score was made later the same year, titled Dybbuk Variations. It received its premiere in November 1974.

Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra

Bernstein's Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra premiered on October 11, 1977, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, with the composer conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. The work was intended as a tribute to the 1976 American Bicentennial, but was not finished in time.

The work sets an array of texts by 13 American poets spanning three centuries. Bernstein deliberately selected the widest possible array of literary voices to express the nation's essential diversity; the poets include June Jordan, Julia de Burgos, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes.

On July 4, 1985, Bernstein conducted a nationally televised performance of Songfest as part of the National Symphony's annual A Capitol Fourth concert.

International conducting and recordings

After becoming Conductor Laureate of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, Bernstein took advantage of his freed-up schedule to increase the pace of his world travel, conducting twenty-nine orchestras throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and making live recordings with them for both Unitel GmbH & Co.KG and Deutsche Grammophon.

Bernstein founded Amberson Productions in 1969. In partnership with Unitel, Amberson created many video productions of concert performances, starting with Verdi's Requiem Mass in St. Paul's Cathedral with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970, produced and directed by Humphrey Burton. Burton would go on to collaborate with Bernstein on his music video projects for the rest of Bernstein's life.

In 1972, Bernstein recorded Bizet's Carmen, with Marilyn Horne in the title role and James McCracken as Don Jose, after leading several stage performances of the opera at The Metropolitan Opera. The recording was one of the first in stereo to use the original spoken dialogue between the sung portions of the opera. The recording was Bernstein's first for Deutsche Grammophon and won a Grammy.

In working with Unitel and Deutsche Grammophon, Bernstein made a host of video and audio recordings with such orchestras as Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della Rai, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and Orchestre National de France. In the late 1970s, Bernstein conducted a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic, and cycles of Brahms and Schumann were to follow in the 1980s.

Among the many noteworthy Amberson productions with Unitel were Bernstein conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in 1973 and Fidelio at the Vienna State Opera in 1978. In 1970, Bernstein wrote and narrated "Bernstein on Beethoven: A Celebration in Vienna," an in-depth exploration of Beethoven on the composer's 200th birthday, filmed on location in and around Vienna. It features excerpts of Bernstein's rehearsals and performance of Fidelio at the Vienna State Opera, directed by Otto Schenk (which was later revived and filmed in 1978); Bernstein playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 and conducting from the piano; and a performance of Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic, featuring the young Plácido Domingo among the soloists. The show, produced and directed by Humphrey Burton, was broadcast around the world and won an Emmy Award.

Also recorded by Unitel, in October 1976, was Bernstein's concert in Munich with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and pianist Claudio Arrau to benefit Amnesty International. To honor his late wife and to continue their joint support for human rights, Bernstein subsequently established the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA to provide aid for human rights activists.

In 1979, Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the first and only time, in two charity concerts for Amnesty International featuring performances of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, recorded live on Deutsche Grammophon. The invitation for the concerts had come from the orchestra and not from its principal conductor Herbert von Karajan. There has been speculation about why Karajan never invited Bernstein to conduct his orchestra. The full reasons will probably never be known—they were on friendly terms, but sometimes practiced a little mutual one-upmanship.


Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein visited Japan with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1985 and conducted Mahler's Symphony No. 9

During the 1980s, Bernstein pursued a packed schedule, continuing to conduct, teach, compose, and produce several television documentaries.

Bernstein's most significant compositions of the decade were his opera A Quiet Place; Divertimento for Orchestra; Ḥalil for flute and orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra "Jubilee Games"; and the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. Bernstein received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1980, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, France's Legion of Honor (Commandeur) in 1985, and Japan's Praemium Imperiale in 1990, among others.

In the 1980s, Bernstein cemented his educational legacy by co-founding three music academies: Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival Orchestral Academy, and the Pacific Music Festival.

Bernstein continued his longtime relationship with Tanglewood to the end of his life, including a lavish televised gala in 1988 to celebrate his 70th birthday, as well as his final concert performance in August 1990.

A Quiet Place

In 1983, Bernstein wrote a new opera, A Quiet Place, with a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth. The opera premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on June 17, 1983, conducted by John DeMain. The opera was a sequel to Bernstein's 1951 opera Trouble in Tahiti, which preceded the new opera at the premiere. In 1984, Bernstein and Wadsworth reconfigured A Quiet Place to include Trouble in Tahiti in its middle. This version was performed at La Scala and the Kennedy Center, with John Mauceri conducting. In 1986, Bernstein himself conducted and recorded the work at the Vienna State Opera.

Conducting activities

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein with Maximilian Schell on PBS Beethoven TV series, 1983

During the 1980s, in addition to continuing his productive relationship with the New York, Israel, and Vienna Philharmonics, Bernstein was also a regular guest conductor with several other major orchestras around the world.

In Munich with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein recorded works including Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; Haydn's Creation; and Mozart's Requiem and Great Mass in C minor.

In Rome with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Bernstein recorded works by Debussy, as well as Puccini's La bohème, featuring an all-American cast.

In Amsterdam with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernstein recorded Mahler's Symphonies No. 1, 4, and 9, among other works.

In May 1986, the London Symphony Orchestra mounted a Bernstein Festival at the Barbican Centre, featuring a concert in which Bernstein conducted his own works. Queen Elizabeth II attended the performance.

In December 1989, Bernstein conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in his operetta Candide and subsequently recorded the work at Abbey Road Studios. The recording starred Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Christa Ludwig, and Adolph Green in the leading roles. The live concert from the Barbican Centre in London was captured on video.

Ode to "Freedom"

On December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin's Schauspielhaus as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had conducted the same work in West Berlin the previous day. The orchestra consisted of members representing the two German States and the four Occupying Power States of post-war Berlin. The Christmas Day concert was broadcast live in more than twenty countries to an estimated audience of 100 million people.

For the occasion, Bernstein reworded Friedrich Schiller's text of the Ode to Joy, replacing the word Freude (Eng: joy) with the word Freiheit (Eng: freedom). Bernstein added, "I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing."

Final concert at Tanglewood

Bernstein conducted his last concert on August 19, 1990 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. He led Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. The program also included Bernstein's own Arias and Barcarolles in a new orchestration by Bright Sheng. However, poor health prevented Bernstein from preparing it, and Tanglewood Conducting Fellow Carl St. Clair was engaged to conduct the work in his stead.

Bernstein suffered a coughing fit during the third movement of the Beethoven, but continued to conduct the piece to its conclusion, leaving the stage during the ovation, appearing exhausted and in pain. The concert was later issued on CD as Leonard Bernstein – The Final Concert by Deutsche Grammophon.

Amberson Productions

Bernstein's Amberson Productions continued its collaborations with Unitel throughout the 1980s.

In 1982, PBS aired an Emmy-nominated series Bernstein/Beethoven featuring all nine Beethoven symphonies and other works using films that Unitel had recorded of Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the late 1970s. The series includes conversations between Bernstein and actor Maximilian Schell, who also read from Beethoven's letters.

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1985

In 1984, Bernstein conducted a Deutsche Grammophon recording of West Side Story, his only recording of the entire work. The album, featuring opera singers Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Marilyn Horne, and Tatiana Troyanos, was an international bestseller. An Emmy-nominated film The Making of West Side Story documented the recording process.

Other documentaries that Bernstein made during the 1980s include The Little Drummer Boy, which delved into the music of Gustav Mahler, and The Love of Three Orchestras, exploring his work with the New York, Vienna, and Israel Philharmonics.

Educational activities

Bernstein's nurturing experience at the Tanglewood Music Festival inspired him to use his international influence to recreate that environment for young musicians in the final years of his life.

During summer 1987, Bernstein celebrated the 100th anniversary of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. Bernstein gave a master class inside the castle of Fontainebleau.

Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute

In 1982, Bernstein, with Los Angeles Philharmonic General Manager Ernest Fleischmann and University of Southern California professor Daniel Lewis, co-founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, a summer training academy inspired by Tanglewood. Bernstein served as artistic co-director and taught conducting classes for two summers. During that time, he performed and recorded American works, including some of his own, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon.

Orchestra Academy of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival

In May 1986, Bernstein conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for the inaugural concert of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, in a performance of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation). He returned the following year when he founded the festival’s Orchestra Academy, once again recreating the nurturing atmosphere of Bernstein's Tanglewood experience. Over three summers, Bernstein took the students on international tours to Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union.

To commemorate Bernstein’s legacy as an educator and founder of the Orchestra Academy, the festival created the Leonard Bernstein Award in 2002, which has honored young musicians including Lang Lang, Jonathan Biss, and Alisa Weilerstein, among many others.

Founding of the Pacific Music Festival

In 1990, Bernstein's final summer, he founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. The Festival's goal was to emphasize musical training for young students in the Pacific region.

In his opening address, Bernstein said: "And my decision has been, without too much thought, to spend most of the remaining energy and time the Lord grants me in education and sharing, as much as possible, with younger people." As Artistic Director, Bernstein worked with the students in that first summer, but had to cut his time short due to ill health.

Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund

In 1990, Bernstein received the Praemium Imperiale, an international prize awarded by the Japan Arts Association for lifetime achievement in the arts. Bernstein used the $100,000 prize to establish The Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund. He provided this grant to develop an arts-based education program. The Leonard Bernstein Center was posthumously established in April 1992, and initiated extensive school-based research, ultimately leading to the current Leonard Bernstein Artful Learning Program.

Personal life

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein in Amsterdam, 1968

Leonard Bernstein had two younger siblings, Shirley and Burton. The three children lived with their parents, Samuel and Jennie, in the suburbs of Boston, MA, in a community of mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Bernstein had asthma, and the condition kept him from serving in the military during World War II.

Bernstein married actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn on September 9, 1951. They had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina. The Bernstein family lived in New York City and Fairfield, Connecticut, and maintained a close-knit atmosphere surrounded by extended family and friends. Bernstein had a studio with a piano in every place he lived. The contents of his studio in Fairfield, CT, are currently housed at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Throughout his life, Bernstein had affairs with both women and men. Bernstein sought advice in April 1943 from Aaron Copland about living as a gay man in the public eye, suggesting he could resolve the dilemma by marrying his then "girl-friend ... my dentist's daughter", a notion he brought up again in a letter to David Oppenheim in July of that year. Adolph Green asked Bernstein about the status of this idea in a letter a few months later. In a private letter written after their marriage, Felicia acknowledged her husband's sexual orientation. She wrote him: "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?"

In 1976, Bernstein left Felicia for a period to live in Northern California with Tom Cothran, a music scholar who had assisted him on research for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that Bernstein delivered at Harvard. The following year, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. Bernstein moved back in with her and cared for her until her death on June 16, 1978.

Bernstein continued to have relationships with men until his death on October 14, 1990.

When he was not composing and conducting, Bernstein enjoyed skiing, playing tennis, and engaging in all manner of word games, especially cutthroat anagrams.

Death and legacy

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein's grave in Green-Wood Cemetery

Bernstein announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990. He died five days later at the age of 72, in his New York apartment at The Dakota, of a heart attack brought on by mesothelioma. A longtime heavy smoker, Bernstein had emphysema from his mid-50s. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out "Goodbye, Lenny". Bernstein is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, next to his wife and with a copy of Mahler's Fifth Symphony opened to the famous Adagietto lying across his heart.

On August 25, 2018 (his 100th birthday), Bernstein was honored with a Google Doodle. The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles created an exhibition titled Leonard Bernstein at 100 for his centennial.

Social activism

While Bernstein was very well known for his music compositions and conducting, he was also known for his outspoken political views and his strong desire to further social change. Bernstein's first aspirations for social change were made apparent in his producing (as a student) a recently banned opera, The Cradle Will Rock, by Marc Blitzstein, about the disparity between the working and upper class. Bernstein's first opera, Trouble in Tahiti, was dedicated to Blitzstein and has a strong social theme, criticizing American civilization and suburban upper-class life in particular. As he went on in his career, Bernstein would go on to fight for everything from the influences of "American Music" to the disarming of western nuclear weapons.

Like many of his friends and colleagues, Bernstein had been involved in various left-wing causes and organizations since the 1940s. He was blacklisted by the US State Department and CBS in the early 1950s, but unlike others his career was not greatly affected, and he was never required to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Bernstein's political life received substantial press coverage though in 1970, due to a gathering hosted at his Manhattan apartment at 895 Park Avenue on January 14, 1970. Bernstein and his wife held the event seeking to raise awareness and money for the defense of several members of the Black Panther Party against a variety of charges, especially the case of the Panther 21. The New York Times initially covered the gathering as a lifestyle item, but later posted an editorial harshly unfavorable to Bernstein following generally negative reaction to the widely publicized story.

This reaction culminated in June 1970 with the appearance of "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's", an essay by journalist Tom Wolfe featured on the cover of the magazine New York. The article contrasted the Bernsteins' comfortable lifestyle in one of the world's most expensive neighborhoods with the anti-establishment politics of the Black Panthers. It led to the popularization of "radical chic" as a critical term. Both Bernstein and his wife Felicia responded to the criticism, arguing that they were motivated not by a shallow desire to express fashionable sympathy but by their concern for civil liberties.

Bernstein was named in the book Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television (1950) as a Communist along with Aaron Copland, Lena Horne, Pete Seeger, Artie Shaw and other prominent figures of the performing arts. Red Channels was issued by the right-wing journal Counterattack.

Bernstein was also a committed supporter of nuclear disarmament. In 1985, he took the European Community Youth Orchestra on a "Journey for Peace" tour across Europe and Japan, performing at the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing.


Bernstein played an instrumental role in the release of renowned cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich from the USSR in 1974. Rostropovich, a strong believer in free speech and democracy, had been officially held in disgrace; his concerts and tours both at home and abroad cancelled, and in 1972 he was prohibited to travel outside of the Soviet Union. During a trip to the USSR in 1974, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and his wife Joan, urged by Bernstein and others in the cultural sphere, mentioned Rostropovich's situation to Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union Communist Party Leader. Two days later, Rostropovich was granted his exit visa.


Among the many awards Bernstein earned throughout his life, one allowed him to make one of his philanthropic dreams a reality. For a long time, Bernstein wanted to develop an international school to help promote the integration of arts into education. When he won the Praemium Imperiale, Japan Arts Association award for lifetime achievement in 1990, Bernstein used the $100,000 that came with the award to build such a school in Nashville, that would strive to teach teachers how to better integrate music, dance, and theater into the school system which was "not working". The school opened shortly after Bernstein's death. This would eventually yield an initiative known as Artful Learning as part of the Leonard Bernstein Center.

Influence and characteristics as a conductor

Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein in rehearsal of his "Mass", 1971

Bernstein was one of the major figures in orchestral conducting in the second half of the 20th century. He was held in high regard amongst many musicians, including the members of the Vienna Philharmonic, evidenced by his honorary membership; the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was president; and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he appeared regularly as guest conductor. Bernstein was probably the main conductor from the 1960s onwards who acquired a sort of superstar status similar to that of Herbert von Karajan, although unlike Karajan he conducted relatively little opera and part of Bernstein's fame was based on his role as a composer. As the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic, his rise to prominence was a factor in overcoming the perception of the time that the top conductors were necessarily trained in Europe.

Bernstein's conducting was characterized by extremes of emotion with the rhythmic pulse of the music conveyed visually through his balletic podium manner. Musicians often reported that his manner in rehearsal was the same as in concert. As he got older, Bernstein's performances tended to be overlaid to a greater extent with a personal expressiveness which often divided critical opinion. Extreme examples of this style can be found in his Deutsche Grammophon recordings of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations (1982), the end of Mahler's 9th Symphony (1985), and the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony (1986), where in each case the tempos are well below those typically chosen. A skilled pianist, he used to perform the piano parts himself and conduct orchestras from the keyboard (for instance, when he conducted Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue).

Bernstein performed a wide repertoire from the Baroque era to the 20th century, although perhaps from the 1970s onwards he tended to focus more on music from the Romantic era. Bernstein was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler and with American composers in general, including George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman, and of course, himself. Some of Bernstein's recordings of works by these composers would likely appear on many music critics' lists of recommended recordings. A list of his other well-thought-of recordings would include, among others, individual works from Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, Nielsen, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Shostakovich.

His recordings of Rhapsody in Blue (full-orchestra version) and An American in Paris for Columbia Records, released in 1959, are considered definitive by many, although Bernstein cut the Rhapsody slightly, and his more 'symphonic' approach with slower tempi is quite far from Gershwin's own conception of the piece, evident from his two recordings. (Oscar Levant, Earl Wild, and others come closer to Gershwin's own style.) Bernstein never conducted Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, or more than a few excerpts from Porgy and Bess, although he did discuss the latter in his article Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?, originally published in The New York Times and later reprinted in his 1959 book The Joy of Music.

In addition to being an active conductor, Bernstein was an influential teacher of conducting. During his many years of teaching at Tanglewood and elsewhere, Bernstein directly taught or mentored many younger conductors, including John Mauceri, Marin Alsop, Herbert Blomstedt, Edo de Waart, Alexander Frey, Paavo Järvi, Eiji Oue, Maurice Peress, Seiji Ozawa (who made his American TV debut as the guest conductor on one of the Young People's Concerts), Carl St. Clair, Helmuth Rilling, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Jaap van Zweden. Bernstein also undoubtedly influenced the career choices of many American musicians who grew up watching his television programs in the 1950s and 60s.

Audio recordings

Leonard Bernstein
Audio recording for CBS of the Symphony No. 3 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen in Copenhagen, 1965

Between 1945 and 1950, Bernstein recorded a variety of works for the RCA Victor label, consisting primarily of his own compositions and those of other American composers. During this time, he also recorded for Decca Records and Hargail Records.

On April 2, 1956, Bernstein signed his first long-term contract with Columbia Masterworks Records regarding services as conductor, piano soloist, and as commentator. Between 1956 and 1979, Bernstein recorded over 500 compositions for Columbia, 455 of which were recorded with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein's typical pattern of recording at that time was to record major works in the studio immediately following the orchestra's subscription concerts or on one of the Young People's Concerts. Any spare studio time that remained was used to record short orchestral showpieces and other works.

In 1990, Sony Classical Records acquired Columbia Records / CBS Masterworks. Between 1992 and 1993, Sony reissued and digitally remastered Bernstein's Columbia catalog as part of a 100-volume, 125-CD "Royal Edition", featuring watercolors by Charles, Prince of Wales on the covers.

Between 1997 and 2001, Sony released the "Bernstein Century" series, which was a combination of new re-releases and items from the "Royal Edition". The rights to Bernstein's 1940s RCA Victor recordings became fully owned by Sony following its 2008 acquisition of Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG). The complete Bernstein Columbia and RCA Victor catalog was reissued on CD in a three-volume series of box sets (released in 2010, 2014, and 2018, respectively) comprising a total of 198 discs under the mantle "Leonard Bernstein Edition".

In 1972, Bernstein made his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon: Bizet's Carmen. On October 17, 1976, Bernstein made his first live recording on Deutsche Grammophon, leading to a 14-year collaboration until his death in 1990. The vast majority of the DG recordings were of live performances, which had become Bernstein's preferred approach to recording. From the 1970s onward, Bernstein's audio recordings were supplemented with films produced by Amberson Productions and Unitel, which were subsequently released on LaserDisc and DVD.

Bernstein recorded with other labels as well. Notable exceptions include recordings of Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earth and Mozart's 15th piano concerto and "Linz" symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca Records (1966); Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy (1976) for EMI; and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1981) for Philips Records.

In total, Bernstein received 63 Grammy Award nominations and was awarded 16 Grammys in various categories, including for posthumously released recordings. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1985.

Influence and characteristics as a composer

Bernstein was an eclectic composer whose music fused elements of jazz, Jewish music, theatre music, and the work of earlier composers like Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, George Gershwin, and Marc Blitzstein. Some of Bernstein's works, especially his score for West Side Story, helped bridge the gap between classical and popular music. His music was rooted in tonality but in some works like his Kaddish Symphony and the opera A Quiet Place he mixed in 12-tone elements. Bernstein himself said his main motivation for composing was "to communicate" and that all his pieces, including his symphonies and concert works, "could in some sense be thought of as 'theatre' pieces".

Leonard Bernstein
Place Léonard-Bernstein, a square in the 12th arrondissement of Paris

According to the League of American Orchestras, Bernstein was the second most frequently performed American composer by U.S. orchestras in 2008–09 behind Copland, and he was the 16th most frequently performed composer overall by U.S. orchestras. Some performances were probably due to the 2008 90th anniversary of his birth. Bernstein's most popular pieces were the Overture to Candide, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" and the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town.

His shows West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town and Candide are regularly performed, and his symphonies and concert works are programmed from time to time by orchestras around the world. Since Bernstein's death, many of his works have been commercially recorded by artists other than himself. The Serenade, which has been recorded more than 10 times, is probably Bernstein's most recorded work not taken from an actual theatre piece.

Despite the fact that he was a popular success as a composer, Bernstein himself is reported to have been disillusioned that some of his more serious works were not rated more highly by critics, and that he himself had not been able to devote more time to composing because of his conducting and other activities. Professional criticism of Bernstein's music often involves discussing the degree to which he created something new as art versus simply skillfully borrowing and fusing together elements from others.

In the late 1960s, Bernstein himself reflected that his eclecticism was in part due to his lack of lengthy periods devoted to composition, and that he was still seeking to enrich his own personal musical language in the manner of the great composers of the past, all of whom had borrowed elements from others. Perhaps the harshest criticism Bernstein received from some critics in his lifetime though was directed at works like his Kaddish Symphony, his MASS and the opera A Quiet Place, where they found the underlying message of the piece or the text as either mildly embarrassing, clichéd or offensive. Despite this, all these pieces have been performed, discussed, and reconsidered since Bernstein's death.

The Chichester Psalms, and excerpts from his Third Symphony and MASS were performed for Pope John Paul II, including at World Youth Day 1993 in Denver on August 14, 1993, and at the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah on April 7, 1994, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Sala Nervi at the Vatican. Both performances were conducted by Gilbert Levine.


  • Bernstein, Leonard (1993) [1982]. Findings. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-385-42437-0.
  • — (1993) [1966]. The Infinite Variety of Music. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-385-42438-7.
  • — (2004) [1959]. The Joy of Music. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: Amadeus Press. ISBN 978-1-57467-104-9.
  • — (2006) [1962]. Young People's Concerts. Milwaukee; Cambridge: Amadeus Press. ISBN 978-1-57467-102-5.
  • — (1976). The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-92001-5.
  • — (2013). The Leonard Bernstein Letters (paperback). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-20544-2.


  • The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. West Long Branch, New Jersey: Kultur Video. VHS ISBN 1-56127-570-0. DVD ISBN 0-7697-1570-2. (videotape of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard in 1973.)
  • Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. West Long Branch, New Jersey: Kultur Video. DVD ISBN 0-7697-1503-6.
  • Bernstein on Beethoven: A Celebration in Vienna/Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1. West Long Branch, Kultur Video. DVD
  • Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus – The Historic TV Broadcasts, 2010, E1 Ent.
  • Bernstein: Reflections (1978), A rare personal portrait of Leonard Bernstein by Peter Rosen. Euroarts DVD
  • Bernstein/Beethoven (1982), Deutsche Grammophon, DVD
  • The Metropolitan Opera Centennial Gala (1983), Deutsche Grammophon, DVD 00440-073-4538
  • Bernstein Conducts "West Side Story" (1985) (retitled The Making of West Side Story in re-releases) Deutsche Grammophon. DVD
  • "The Rite of Spring" in Rehearsal
  • Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, Exsultate, jubilate & Ave verum corpus (1990), Deutsche Grammophon. DVD 00440-073-4240
  • "Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note" (1998) Documentary on his life and music. Originally aired on PBS's American Masters series. DVD


Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein receiving the Edison Classical Music Award, 1968
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1951
  • Fellow at the MacDowell 1962, 1970, 1972
  • Sonning Award (Denmark), 1965
  • Ditson Conductor's Award, 1958
  • George Peabody Medal – Johns Hopkins University, 1980
  • Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 1987
  • Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal (UK), 1987
  • Edward MacDowell Medal, 1987
  • Knight Grand Cross Order of Merit (Italy), 1989
  • Grammy Award for Best Album for Children
  • Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Album
  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Tony Award for Best Musical
  • Special Tony Award
  • Japan Arts Association Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Gramophone Hall of Fame entrant
  • Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur, 1986

Other awards

Bernstein is also a member of both the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame. In 2015, he was inducted into the Legacy Walk.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 17 Aug 2023. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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