Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was as firmly rooted in New England as Boston clam chowder, Maine lobster, Vermont maple syrup, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

For over 75 years, composers have lionized, critics have analyzed and biographers have summarized Bernstein’s tremendous talents and the sweeping scope of his influence on both classical and popular music. What’s often neglected in such heady discussions, debates and deliberations, though, is that New England served as the bookends of Bernstein’s life and legacy, from his childhood in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the 1920s, high-school days at Boston Latin in the 1930s and college years at Harvard in the 1940s, to his directorship of the orchestra and conducting departments at Tanglewood in the 1950s, professorship at Harvard in the 1970s and the final concert of his career, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1990.

The quintessential Renaissance man – composer, conductor, performer, educator and public personality almost in equal measure – Bernstein’s unprecedented fusion of traditional, jazz and theatre elements with classical music, particularly the works of Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, revolutionized each genre like nothing before. From his decades as conductor of the BSO, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York Symphony to his gigantic Broadway hits and global efforts with the Czech Philharmonic, Palestine Symphony Orchestra and Vienna State Opera, it’s impossible to overstate Bernstein’s impact on 20th-Century music.

Born Louis Bernstein in 1918, his parents immigrated to the US from modern-day Ukraine. Though his grandmother insisted his name be Louis, his parents always called him Leonard and he took that name legally at age 18, shortly after his grandmother’s death and his graduation from the Boston Latin School in 1935. To his friends and associates, Bernstein was always “Lenny.”

Bernstein’s earliest exposure to music was on the household radio and on Friday nights at synagogue. When he was ten years old, his aunt left her upright piano in his family’s house and soon after he began teaching himself, he was clamoring for lessons. Initially, Bernstein’s father was opposed to his son’s intense interest in music and refused to allow any lessons, but within two years he acquiesced and Bernstein had a variety of piano teachers from age 12, including Helen Coates, who later became his secretary. By his mid-teens, at the family’s summer home in Sharon, Massachusetts, Bernstein was coordinating performances ranging from Bizet’s Carmen to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance with other kids in the neighborhood.

In 1932, the 14-year old Bernstein saw his first orchestral concert, the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler, calling the experience “heaven itself.” That same year, Bernstein played piano in public for the first time, at the New England Conservatory, and in 1934 he debuted with the Boston Public School Orchestra.

In 1935, Bernstein enrolled at Harvard, where he majored in music and wrote his first known composition, “Psalm 148.” He accompanied the Harvard Glee Club, was a pianist for silent-film presentations and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1939 after writing a final-year thesis titled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”

In 1940, after spending a year studying conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Bernstein attended the inaugural year of Tanglewood (then called the Berkshire Music Center), the summer home of the BSO, where he studied with its music director, Serge Koussevitzky, and eventually became his conducting assistant. Bernstein first performed at Tanglewood in 1949 as a piano soloist with the BSO in the world premiere of his Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety, which he dedicated to and was conducted by Koussevitzy. Throughout his life, Bernstein returned to Tanglewood almost every summer to conduct and teach.

During the 1940s, Bernstein was busy, both domestically and internationally, first as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and then, from 1945 to 1947, music director of the New York City Symphony. In addition, he made his overseas debut with the Czech Philharmonic, conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, conducted opera professionally for the first time at Tanglewood, and in 1949 made his first television appearance as BSO conductor at Carnegie Hall.

In 1951, the 42-year old took charge of Tanglewood’s orchestra and conducting departments  following Koussevitzky’s death, and the 1950s became some of Bernstein’s most active years professionally. Several of his works appeared on Broadway including West Side Story, Candide, On the Town and Wonderful Town, and he composed a number of symphonies along with the iconic score for the film On the Waterfront, which won an Oscar nomination. 

In 1958, Bernstein was appointed the music director of the New York Philharmonic – playing concerts in 144 cities in 38 countries through the 1960s, including their first performance in Japan and others in Soviet-Bloc countries – and he held that directorship until 1969 when he was appointed Laureate Conductor. From 1955 to 1961, Bernstein hosted a series of lectures on topics including jazz, conducting, musical comedy, modern music and grand opera that were broadcast on the pioneering CBS television program Omnibus.

In 1962, Bernstein expanded the reach of the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts series dramatically when they became the first concerts ever televised from the recently opened Lincoln Center; an inspiration to musicians and music lovers worldwide, the series was eventually syndicated in over 40 countries, with Bernstein leading it until 1972. In the 1964, Bernstein debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, followed by the Vienna State Opera in 1966, and he became an equal-rights champion by hiring the Philharmonic’s first Black musician and its second female one. In 1965 Bernstein began the Concerts in the Parks program, substantially boosting the Philharmonic’s popularity across New York City.

In 1973, Bernstein became Professor of Poetry at Harvard and gave a series of six lectures on music with examples played by the BSO. In the lectures – televised in 1976 as The Unanswered Question after a work by noted composer Charles Ives, a Connecticut native – Bernstein analyzed and compared musical construction to language after having consulted with linguists such as renowned MIT professor Noam Chomsky.

In 1980, Bernstein received a Kennedy Center Honors Award, followed in 1985 by a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. With Tanglewood as a model, he co-founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute as a summertime training academy for young musicians in 1982, then another, the Pacific Music Festival in Japan, in 1990.

On August 19, 1990, at Tanglewood with the BSO, Bernstein conducted his final concert. He suffered a coughing fit near the end, during the third movement of a Beethoven symphony, but conducted until its conclusion, obviously exhausted and in pain while leaving the stage during the standing ovation. In 1992, the concert was released on the album Leonard Bernstein – The Final Concert, having been edited to remove the coughing fit.

Seven weeks later, on October 9, 1990, Bernstein – a creative genius, a global citizen, and a deep-rooted New Englander – announced his retirement, and he died five days later at age 72. According to the League of American Orchestras, Bernstein stands as the second most frequently performed US-born composer by American orchestras, Aaron Copland being the first, and the 16th most frequently performed composer overall.

(by D.S. Monahan – March 2022)

Published on December 28, 2012

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