Composer, conductor, pianist
Leonard Bernstein is an immensely talented American conductor, composer, pianist, and educator who has made significant contributions to the realms of both classical and popular music through numerous concerts, compositions, recordings, television appearances, and classes. He is one of the best-known American composers and the first American-born conductor to regularly conduct European orchestras.
Born on August 25,1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein is the eldest of three children born to Samuel and Jennie Resnick Bernstein, Russian-Jewish immigrants. Though he was named Louis by his parents, at age sixteen Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard to distinguish himself from other Louis Bernsteins in the family. Bernstein attended Boston's highly competitive Latin School and, despite his father's wish that he work for the family cosmetic business, studied piano, beginning at the rather late age of ten, with Helen Coates and later Heinrich Gebhard. In 1935 Bernstein enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied music with Edward Ballantine, Edward Brulingame Hill, A. Tillman Merritt, and Walter Piston, as well as philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and philology. After earning a B.A. in 1939, Bernstein studied with a number of renowned musicians at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia: Isabella Bengerova, Renee Longy, Randall Thompson, and Fritz Reiner. During the summers of 1940 and 1941 Bernstein studied conducting with the celebrated conductor Sergei Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky recognized Bernstein's talent and in 1942 appointed him his assistant.
At this time Bernstein worked for a music publisher, arranging popular songs, transcribing band pieces, and notating jazz improvizations, which were published under the pseudonym Lenny Amber. He ocassionally conducted Boston ensembles and became the assistant conductor under Arthur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, when Bruno Walter, who was scheduled to conduct the orchestra's nationally broadcast concert, suddenly became ill, Bernstein substituted for him with such success that his career was launched.
From 1944 to 1950 Bernstein served as guest conductor to seven major orchestras and replaced Leopold Stokowski as music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a position Bernstein held from 1945 to 1948. During his tenure with the orchestra, Bernstein conducted primarily twentieth-century works by European and American composers and proved to be an effective proponent of American music, which was largely ignored until his intervention. Bernstein's compositions of this period include his Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," which premiered in 1944 under his own direction and the ballet Fancy Free, which later became the basis for the critically acclaimed Broadway musical "On the Town." Bernstein was also active as a pianist, and in 1949 performed the solo part in his own Sym-phony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety."
In 1951 Bernstein married his longtime friend, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn. That same year Koussevitzy died, and Bernstein replaced him as director of the orchestra and conducting departments at the Berkshire Music Center. He was also appointed professor of music at Brandeis University, a position he held until 1955. While at Brandeis and in the late 1950s Bernstein continued to compose works for the stage, including the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, the Broadway musical "Wonderful Town," the comic operetta Candide, and the monumentally sucessful Broadway musical "West Side Story." He also composed the film score for On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Bernstein achieved international stature as a conductor. He was the first American to conduct at the famous opera venue Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, Italy, when in 1953 he directed the celebrated soprano Maria Callas in Cherubini's Medea. After a year as co-director under Dimitri Mitropoulos, in 1958 Bernstein acceded to the directorship of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein adapted a thematic approach to organizing concert programs and premiered works by American composers. With the orchestra, he produced many recordings and toured widely, including the Near East, Japan, Alaska, and Canada. The orchestra attracted record crowds. Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," premiered in 1963, and the following year Bernstein took a sabbatical leave to experiment with composing using twelve-tone serial techniques. He did not find this popular technique to his liking and the product of this period, the Chichester Pslams, is a re-affirmation of his belief in tonality. At this time Bernstein also considered writing another musical, but was unable to settle on an appropriate project. To devote more time to composing, in 1969 Bernstein resigned as the permanent conductor, though he was given the permanent title "laureate conductor" and thus allowed to conduct ocassionally.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein often guest-conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he has made recordings and television appearances. His Mass, a work commissioned by the John F. Kennedy family for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was premiered in 1971, and his ballet based on a classic Jewish legend, The Dybbuk, was first performed in 1974 with choreography by Jerome Robbins, who had choreographed West Side Story. After many months of work on a musical about life in the White House, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," which was lambasted by critics, Bernstein gave up composing musicals. In 1977 tragedy struck when his wife Felicia died from cancer.
In 1980 Bernstein began the challenging project of concert performances, and television and record recordings of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde. After a busy concert season in 1982, Bernstein focused his attention on the opera A Quiet Place (Tahiti II), which premiered in 1983. After visiting Europe again in late 1983 for concerts and recordings, Bernstein opened a concert tour with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted in a series of guest appearances. He then went to Milan, where a revised version of A Quiet Place became the first American opera to be performed at Teatro alla Scala. Bernstein continued to revise this work for some time afterward, and for the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic he composed Jubilee Games.
Approaching music intellectually, but with passion, Bernstein believes that as a conductor, he must intimately understand the intent of the composer and the culture in which he or she lived in order to "recompose" the work on stage. Sometimes his interpretations have been considered self-indulgent, and commentators have long criticized what they consider to be overly exuberant conducting gestures, but by and large he is acclaimed wherever he appears. Bernstein has become especially well known for his interpretations of the works of Mahler and Wagner, which include recordings of the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. Since he first took to the podium, Bernstein has made over four hundred recordings, for which he has received many Grammy nominations and awards.
Bernstein has also been the recipient of numerous awards for his work as a composer and educator. In the 1970s and 1980s music festivals were held in his honor, and the arrival of his seventieth birthday was feted with numerous performances of his works. Bernstein calls himself both a compulsive composer and educator. In 1954 he produced a series of television lectures about music that were published a year later as The Joy of Music. Subsequent television shows were regularly shown on network television, among them fifty-two talks for young listeners (published as Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts for Reading and Listening) and a series of Harvard lectures (published as The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard). Bernstein has published a number of other informative books and regularly conducts workshops at Tangelwood for promising conducting students.
Though Bernstein refuses to be associated with any single orchestra in his later years, he has spent more time conducting than composinget composing is never far from his mind. His 1988 composition, Arias and Barcarolles, is only one of several songs cycles he plans to compose, which he has hinted may evolve into an opera. At a press conference a week before his seventieth birthday, Bernstein expressed his thankfulness for the opportunities he has enjoyed throughout his career and his desire for more years during which to use the talents with which he has been so abundantly blessed.
Pslam 149 (for voice and piano), 1935.
Music for the Dance, No. 1, No. 2, 1938.
Scenes from the City of Sin (eight minitures for piano, four hands), 1939.
The Peace (music for the play by Aristophanes), 1940. Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," 1942.
Seven Anniversaries (piano solo), 1943.
Fancy Free (ballet), 1944.
On the Town (musical comedy), 1944.
Hashkivenu (for cantor [tenor], four-part choir and organ), 1945.
Afterthought (for voice and piano), 1945.
Facsimile (ballet), 1946.
Choreographic Essay for Orchestra, 1946.
La Bonne Cuisine (four "recipes" for voice and piano), 1947.
Ssimchu na (Hebrew folk song for four-part choir and piano or orchestra), 1947.
Re'ena (Hebrew folksong for choir and orchestra), 1947.
Rondo for Lifey (for trumpet and piano), 1948.
Elegy for Mippy I (for horn and piano), 1948.
Elegy for Mippy II (trombone solo), 1948.
Waltz for Mippy III (for tuba and piano), 1948.
Fanfare for Bima (for trumpet, horn, trombone, and tuba), 1948.
Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Axniety" (symphony for piano and orchestra), 1949.
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble), 1949.
Peter Pan (stage music, lyrics by Bernstein), 1950.
Yigdal (Hebrew liturgical melody for choir and piano), 1950.
Trouble in Tahiti (opera in one act), 1950.
Five Anniversaries (piano solo), 1951.
Silhouette: Galilee (for voice and piano), 1951.
Wonderful Town (musical comedy), 1953.
Serenade (after Plato's Symposium: for violin solo, string orchestra, harp and percussion), 1954.
On the Waterfront (music for the film), 1954.
On the Waterfront (symphonic suite from the music for the film), 1955.
Salome (music for Oscar Wilde's dream, for chamber orchestra and vocal solo), 1955.
Candide (comic operetta), 1956.
West Side Story (musical), 1957.
The First Born (two pieces for voice and percussion for the drama by Christopher Fry), 1958.
West Side Story (symphonic dances for orchestra), 1960.
Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish" (symphony for orchestra, mixed choir, boys' choir, speaker and soprano solo), 1963.
Chichester Psalms (for choir, boy's solo, and orchestra), 1965.
Shivaree (for double brass ensemble and percussion), 1969.
Mass: Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, 1971.
Dybbuk (ballet music and two orchestral suites), 1974.
By Bernstein (a revue with songs written for earlier shows but not used in them), 1975.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: A Musical about the Problems of Housekeeping, 1976.
Songfest (a cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra), 1977.
Slava! (overture for orchestra or symphonic band), 1977.
Divertimento (for orchestra), 1980.
A Musical Toast (for orchestra), 1980.
Touches (piano solo), 1981.
Halil (Nocturno for solo flute, string orchestra and percussion), 1981.
A Quiet Place (opera in four scenes), 1983.
A Quiet Place (a new version with Trouble in Tahiti as part of Act II), 1984.
Jubilee Games (two movements for orchestra), 1986.
Prayer (for baritone and small orchestra), 1986.
My Twelve-Tone Melody, 1988.
Arias and Barcarolles (piano four hands and singers), 1988.
Chichester Psalms, Columbia.
The Dybbuk (full ballet), Columbia.
Fancy Free, Columbia.
On the Town, Columbia.
On the Waterfront (film score), Decca.
A Quiet Place, DG.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Columbia.
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, Columbia.
Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," DG.
Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety," DG.
Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," Columbia.
Trouble in Tahiti, Columbia.
West Side Story (complete), DG.
Wonderful Town, Columbia.
Gottlieb, Jack, Leonard Bernstein: A Complete Catalogue of His Works, Amberson Enterprises, 1978.
Gradenwitz, Peter, Leonard Bernstein: The Infinite Variety of a Musician, Oswald Wolff Books, 1987.
Gruen, John, and Ken Hyman (photographer), The Private World of Leonard Bernstein, Viking Press, 1968.
Peyser, Joan, Bernstein: A Biography, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Berkshire Eagle, August 18, 1988; August 21, 1988.
Boston Globe, August 18, 1988.
Hackensack Record, September 13, 1987.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 4, 1986; January 22,1987. Miami Herald, June 26, 1988.
Newark Star-Ledger, January 22, 1989.
Pittsburgh Press, September 12, 1984.
Jeanne M. Lesinski
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