Leonard Bernstein Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Combining unusual talent with his appealing stage presence and teaching ability, Bernstein, through his conducting and composing, introduced classical music to a vast general audience.

Early Life

Leonard Bernstein was born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Joseph and Jennie Resnick Bernstein, both Russian immigrants. In many ways his early life contains elements often found in the lives of American child prodigies, for his was not a wealthy family, and his natural talent for music came to light almost by accident. The Bernsteins had agreed to store an old upright piano for a relative, and when it arrived, their ten-year-old son would not be parted from it. He composed simple pieces on it almost immediately and begged for lessons. He decided upon a professional career even at that early age, but though young Bernstein got his lessons, his practical father knew only too well the vicissitudes inherent in a career in music and steadfastly opposed it.

To ensure that their son received a solid and well-rounded early education, the Bernsteins sent Leonard to the prestigious Boston Latin School. While there, he participated and excelled in athletics as well as traditional academic studies. He was still determined to study music when it came time to graduate and, still against his father’s wishes, registered at Harvard University as a music major. Harvard’s music faculty was particularly distinguished in the 1930’s, and though Bernstein intended a career as a concert pianist, he studied not only piano (with Heinrich Gebhard) but also composition (with Walter Piston and Edward Burlinghame Hill).

Bernstein was graduated from Harvard in 1939, and attended the relatively new Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Curtis had, at that time, attracted several famous German émigrés to its faculty, among them Fritz Reiner, with whom Bernstein studied conducting. He continued his studies in piano with Isabella Vengerova and orchestration with Randall Thompson while at Curtis, thus laying the foundation for the three avenues his musical career would simultaneously travel. Just as important in his early development, young Bernstein spent summers studying and working with Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, at the Berkshire Music Center, in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.

Life’s Work

Bernstein’s career was just beginning as the United States entered World War II. The war added to the uncertainties of a young musician trying to establish himself, though uncertainty did not diminish his energies. Indeed, 1941 and 1942 were spent teaching and composing the Clarinet Sonata, his first published work. He also produced operas for the Boston Institute of Modern Art during these years, but his first major opportunity came in September, 1942, when Koussevitzky, his former mentor, appointed him assistant conductor at Tanglewood. This position gave Bernstein the base he needed and paved the way for appearances in the 1942-1943 season at New York’s Town Hall music forums and the “Serenade Concerts” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The New York music world began to take notice of Bernstein’s unusual style and verve, and in 1943, he accepted an appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic from Arthur Rodzinski, then its conductor. It was, indeed, a combination of talent and good fortune that advanced Bernstein’s career to international status late that year. On November 12, 1943, the famous mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel performed his song cycle I Hate Music at Town Hall. The very next day, he received a call from the New York Philharmonic, asking that he substitute as conductor for the suddenly indisposed Bruno Walter. Bernstein conducted the scheduled program with such skill and enthusiasm that he received not only the acclaim of the audience and his colleagues Rodzinski and Koussevitzky but also a front-page encomium in the next day’s The New York Times. (This concert has been preserved on a long-playing record distributed by the Philharmonic.) Thus, barely two years out of Curtis, Bernstein found himself at the beginning of an international career with seemingly limitless horizons.

Late in 1943, Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony premiered in Pittsburgh and Boston. It was performed again in New York on February 18, 1944. Though it received a mixed reception, enough of the critics thought it had sufficient merit to award Bernstein the New York City Music Critics Circle Award for the most distinguished new American orchestral work of the 1943-1944 season. The Jeremiah Symphony has since become a regularly played work among American orchestras and has won audience acceptance.

Still, broad audience popularity also distinguished Bernstein’s career from its earliest years. April...

(The entire section is 2012 words.)