Leonard Bernstein

The Interpretive Genius

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

There can be no doubt that Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” He once told the New York Times, “I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry, and I think I can still do justice to them all.”

It is hardly surprising that Time magazine called him “the Renaissance Man.” His boundless energy and contagious attitude toward music resonated deeply in American culture, and for Bernstein “Life without music is unthinkable, and music without life is academic.” Yet, behind his outgoing and deeply engaging personality was a person who seemed to hide an essential inner loneliness and professional insecurities. Struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality throughout, Bernstein was decidedly unhappy that his professional fame rested almost exclusively on his music for the theater. As has been noted, “his distinct periods and shifts in his personal and professional development became a metaphor for the evolution of 20th-century American culture.”

Conducting Debut at the Carnegie Hall

Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945)

Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945) © Wikipedia

Bernstein was the son of immigrant Russian Jewish parents, and classical music was not a central part of his upbringing. Nevertheless, his fabulous musical talent, enthusiasm, insight and memory attracted immediate attention. Completing his studies at Harvard, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in November 1943 made his spectacular conducting debut at Carnegie Hall. Substituting for the indisposed Bruno Walter, Bernstein held the audience and the orchestra spellbound and became an overnight celebrity.

Propelled by his spectacular debut, Bernstein was appointed at the City Symphony of New York and presented a program of American music in Europe and Palestine. A number of highly significant recordings followed in quick succession, and on 20 November 1957 he was named music director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

The first symphony that Bernstein ever conducted, was his teacher Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony (1932)

Leonard Bernstein on conducting Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony

Bernstein as a Composer

In addition to his brilliant conducting career, Bernstein also composed a variety of music. Some of his works were amongst the most performed contemporary classical music in the 20th century, including his Candide Overture.

Leonard Bernstein Conducting His Candide Overture

Apart from orchestral music, some of Bernstein’s short works include his Seven Anniversaries (1942-3), Thirteen Anniversaries (1964-88), and a set of 4 humorous songs titled as La bonne cuisine.

Leonard Bernstein: 7 Anniversaries, No. 1 “For Aaron Copland” (Alexandre Dossin, piano)

Leonard Bernstein: 7 Anniversaries, No. 7 “For William Schuman” (Alexandre Dossin, piano)

Success on Broadway Musicals and Television

During the 1950’s, Bernstein scored his major triumphs on Broadway and on television. His musicals contain the finest music ever written for the American music theater, and his compositional legacy culminated in the tremendous popular and commercial success of West Side Story.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Conducts Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Simultaneously, Bernstein effectively used television to forge a lasting connection between serious music and the general public. He introduced new works, helped to raise the income of orchestral musicians and almost single-handedly sustained the domestic classical recording industry. In the process, Bernstein had become fabulously wealthy, but his career was gradually suffering “disarray, turmoil and finally a touch of decadence.”

His serious compositions became “an embarrassing and confused mélange of theater, politics, personal confession, theology and music,” and his ambitions of writing an opera ended in dismal failure. His efforts to return to Broadway, particularly his 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue did not fare much better.

Leonard Bernstein & Alan Jay Lerner: A White House Cantata (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue)

His Personal Life

Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia and his children Jamie and Alexander

Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia and his children Jamie and Alexander

Although Bernstein never stopped conducting, his personal life took on a new direction. Publically acknowledging his homosexuality, he distanced himself from his 25-year marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre, and surrounded himself with young male admirers.

Final Years of Life

Leonard Bernstein's grave in Green-Wood Cemetery

Leonard Bernstein’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery

Bernstein had been diagnosed with emphysema in his mid-20s and was supposed to be dead by age 35. In 1986, he jokingly confessed, “Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I’m overcommitted on all fronts.” Apparently, Bernstein wanted to die on the podium like Mitropolous, who had collapsed while rehearsing Mahler. In the event, Bernstein’s final year was far less romantic and included a number of canceled tours and abandoned projects.

He did, however, still manage to conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for the German reunification concert in 1989. Bernstein announced his retirement from conducting on 9 October 1990, and died of a heart attack five days later.

Legacy as an Educator and Conductor

Bernstein’s legacy as an educator and conductor has never been more vital. Above all, he generated tremendous excitement in the concert hall, granting everybody access to an art form “that every human being deserves to experience.”

Now you’ve learnt a lot about the maestro, challenge yourself with this music quiz on everything about Leonard Bernstein!

Bradley Cooper’s new film Maestro, which chronicles the life and loves of Leonard Bernstein, will be premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival in September 2023. Find out why the “Maestro” teaser trailer was controversial.

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Mahler rehearsals with Leonard Bernstein

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