Leonard Bernstein

Composer Leonard Bernstein

American composer of everything from popular musicals to symphonies. He was also the most eminent and successful conductor born in the United States.

Vital Statistics
August, 25, 1918, Lawrence, MA
October, 14, 1990, New York City, pneumonia and pleural tumor
20th Century
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
The Great Depression and New Deal help to forge a new strand of populism in American art. The great era of the American musical crystallizes with the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1943). The collapse of European Communism and the end of the Cold War is symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
Biographical Outline
  • Training: He is born Louis Bernstein, but is always called Leonard and legally changes name in 1933. At Harvard University, Bernstein  studies composition with Walter Piston, and at the Curtis Institute of Music, he studies conducting with Fritz Reiner, and then at the Tanglewood Institute under Serge Koussevitzky.
  • Overnight sensation, Nov. 14 1943: Newly appointed Associate Conductor at the New York Philharmonic, 27-year-old Bernstein fills in at the last minute for Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall, for a live national radio broadcast, no less. A star is born.
  • Composition breakthroughs, 1944: Bernstein sees the premieres of his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), Fancy Free (ballet with Jerome Robbins), and On the Town (musical).
  • Triple-threat, 1946-50s: As a composer, Bernstein writes the scores for Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957), his Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”), the Serenade, and the film score to On the Waterfront. He conducts the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes (1949) and the world premieres of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (1949) and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 (1951). In 1958, he becomes the first American-born Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. As a teacher, he is Professor of Music at Brandeis University, and takes over the conducting and orchestral programs at the Tanglewood Institute. In 1954, he begins his groundbreaking music appreciation series on CBS TV’s Omnibus program.
  • Philharmonic years, 1958-69: With the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein introduces an educational series, the “Young People’s Concerts” the first program of its kind. It is also telecast on CBS. His famous series of recordings with the orchestra encompass all corners of the repertory.
  • Later years: 1969-89: He becomes an international conducting and recording star, composing less often. In 1973, he gives the Norton Professor of Poetry lectures at Harvard. On Christmas Day 1989, he conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall
Fun Facts
  • Teacher’s pet: At Curtis, Bernstein received the only “A” Fritz Reiner ever awarded in conducting class.
  • Internationalist: Bernstein visited Israel early in its existence and continued to conduct there regularly. In 1953, he also was the first American to conduct at La Scala, leading Cherubini’s Medea, with Maria Callas. He founded a training orchestra at the Schleswig-Holstein festival and the Pacific Music Festival, in Sapporo, Japan.
  • Populism: Coming of age in the 1930s, Bernstein showed an early familiarity with popular music, especially jazz, and continued to be visibly liberal throughout his life. When he and his wife gave a fundraising party for the Black Panthers, Tom Wolfe famously lampooned them as an example of “radical chic.”
  • Prizewinner: Bernstein was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, in addition to nine other Grammys, two Tonys and eleven Emmys.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Bernstein’s music is a fusion of many genres and styles, ranging from Mahler’s monumental symphonies to neoclassical styles to big band, Latin jazz and Broadway. His synthesis is original and always recognizable. He wrote the most extensive meldings of jazz and symphonic music up to the 1960s.
Recommended Websites
  • Stage:
    • On the Town (1944), musical
    • Candide (1956), operetta
    • West Side Story (1957), musical
  • Orchestral
    • Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”
    • Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (1949)
    • Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble (1949)
    • Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960)
    • Chichester Psalms (1965) for chorus and orchestra
    • Mass  (1971) for chorus and orchestra