Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, pianist and conductor. He was the first conductor born in the United States of America to receive world-wide acclaim, and is known for both his conducting of the New York Philharmonic, including the acclaimed Young People's Concerts series, and his multiple compositions, including West Side Story, Candide and On The Town.
Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 to a Jewish family from Rovno, Ukraine. His grandmother insisted his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, as they liked the name better. He had his name changed to Leonard officially when he was sixteen. His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman, and initially opposed Bernstein's interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein frequently took him to orchestra concerts. One time, Bernstein heard a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano at a young age. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison and Boston Latin School. When his father heard about the piano lessons he refused to pay for them, so Bernstein taught young students himself and used that income to pay for his own piano lessons.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935 Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with Walter Piston and was briefly associated with the Harvard Glee Club. After completing his studies at Harvard he enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he received the only grade of "A" that Fritz Reiner ever awarded in his class on conducting. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein also studied piano with Isabella Vengerova and Heinrich Gebhard.
During his younger years in New York City, Bernstein enjoyed a promiscuous sexual life, mostly with young men (citation from Burton, Leonard Bernstein). After a long internal struggle and a turbulent on-and-off engagement, he married Felicia Montealegre Cohn on September 9, 1951, reportedly in order to increase his chances of obtaining the chief conducting position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New York Philharmonic at the time and one of Bernstein's mentors, advised him that marrying would help counter the gossip about his sexual life and appease the conservative BSO board.
Leonard and Felicia had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina. During most of his married life, Bernstein tried to be as discreet as possible with his extramarital liaisons. But as he grew older, and as the Gay Liberation movement gained increasing momentum, Bernstein became more emboldened, eventually leaving Felicia to live with companion Tom Cothran. Felicia took up with actor Michael Wager. Some time after, Bernstein learned that his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. His relationship with Cothran had deteriorated, so Bernstein moved back in with his wife and cared for her until she died. (citations from Burton, Leonard Bernstein). Some people, such as his son, Alexander, believe that he essentially blamed himself for her death, and disliked himself intensely after her passing. (citations from Lacy documentary, Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note). There is arguably a change in his conducting after Felicia's death--it could be argued it is more somber and heavy, more "wrung-out," with grossly elongated structures and, to some, greatly exaggerated emotions.
He was highly regarded as a conductor, composer, pianist, and educator, and probably best known to the public as long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras, and for writing the music for West Side Story. All told, he wrote three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, and numerous other pieces.
On November 13, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his conducting debut when Bruno Walter was ill. He was an immediate success and became instantly famous since the concert was nationally broadcast. The soloist on that historic day was cellist Joseph Schuster, solo cellist of the New York Philharmonic, who played Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. Since Bernstein had never conducted the work before, Bruno Walter coached him on it prior to the concert. After World War II Bernstein's career on the international stage began to flourish. In 1949 he conducted the world première of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen. Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, a post he held until 1969. Beginning in the late 1950's, he became a well-known figure in the US through his series of fifty-three televised Young People's Concerts for CBS, which grew out of his Omnibus programs that CBS aired in the early 1950s. He became as famous for his educational work in those concerts as for his conducting. Some of his music lectures were released on records, with several of these albums winning Grammy awards. To this day, the "Young People's Concerts" series remains the longest running group of classical music programs ever shown on commercial television. They ran from 1958 to 1972. More than thirty years later, twenty-five of them were rebroadcast on the now-defunct cable channel Trio, and released on DVD. Unfortunately, the volumes in the set are not available individually; therefore the concerts are unusually expensive.
In 1947 he conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, beginning a life-long association with Israel. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv; he subsequently made many recordings there. In 1967 he conducted a concert on Mt. Scopus to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem.
Beginning in 1970, Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he re-recorded many of the pieces that he had previously taped with the New York Philharmonic, including sets of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and Schumann. On PBS in the 1980's , he was the conductor and commentator for a special series on Beethoven's music, which featured the Vienna Philharmonic playing all nine Beethoven symphonies, several of his overtures, and the Missa Solemnis. Actor Maximilian Schell was also featured on the program, reading from Beethoven's letters.
On Christmas Day, December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 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, substituting the word "freedom" (Freiheit) for "joy" (Freude). "I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing", said Bernstein.
Bernstein was a highly-regarded conductor among many musicians, in particular the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was a regular guest conductor. He was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copland, Johannes Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich, George Gershwin (especially the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris), and of course with the performances of his own works. (Unfortunately, Bernstein never conducted performances of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, nor did he ever conduct Porgy and Bess.) He had a gift for rehearsing an entire Mahler symphony by acting out every phrase for the orchestra to convey the precise meaning, and of emitting a vocal manifestation of the effect required, with a subtly professional ear that missed nothing.
Leonard Bernstein died just five days after retiring. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.  A longtime heavy smoker, he had battled emphysema from his mid-20s; he suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved and yelled "Goodbye Lenny." Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
Leonard Bernstein was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein.
Awards and recognitions
Principal works with first performance dates
Works for the theater
Orchestral works for the concert hall
Choral music for church or synagogue
Books by Bernstein:
Books about or dealing with Bernstein:
See contemporary composers