Leonard Bernstein


Renowned as both a composer and as a conductor, Leonard Bernstein is probably the best-known of all American classical musicians.  He also had an enormous impact upon popular music, producing several hit Broadway musicals.  Among these, the ever-popular “West Side Story” perhaps best exemplifies the way in which Bernstein bridged the gap between classical and popular genres.

Massachusetts Upbringing

Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918.  Both his parents, Samuel Bernstein and Jennie Resnick, were Russian Jewish immigrants.  Although he made his living selling toupees and hair products, Samuel Bernstein came from a family of rabbis and himself studied the Talmud.  At one point, young Leonard wanted to be a rabbi as well.  This connection to Judaism was to surface again and again throughout his career as a musician.

When Bernstein was nine, his family moved to Roxbury, a suburb of Boston.  Not long thereafter, his aunt Clara divorced and left town, giving her piano to his parents.  Bernstein was eager to take piano lessons and did so, even though his father hated the thought of his son becoming a musician.  Progressing rapidly, Bernstein soon began giving piano lessons himself, charging a dollar a lesson.  He also started composing and putting on amateur productions, including a parody of Carmen in which he took on the title role.

Bernstein’s non-musical education took place first at the Garrison School and then at the renowned Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States.  After graduating from high school, Bernstein went on to Harvard University.  There he studied with Walter Piston and Edward Burlingame Hill, among others.  For the most part, the Harvard community stood in awe of Bernstein’s talent (as well as his colorful personality).  His counterpoint teacher, however, gave him only a C-plus.

During his college years, Bernstein became acquainted with Aaron Copland, playing piano at Copland’s birthday party.  Copland’s music was to become an overwhelming influence on Bernstein, and Bernstein was later able to return the favor by conducting much of Copland’s music.  Another composer who impressed Bernstein was George Gershwin.  Bernstein’s senior thesis, entitled The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music, deals largely with jazz elements in Gershwin’s works.

Further Study and Overnight Success

After graduating from Harvard in 1939, Bernstein decided to continue his studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  There he worked with conductor Fritz Reiner and Randall Thompson, who taught orchestration.  According to a story Bernstein told many years later, he was such a success at sight-reading orchestral scores that a jealous member of his conducting class bought a gun with which to kill Bernstein.  Luckily, Randall Thompson found out about the plan and called the police. 

During his summer breaks from Curtis, Bernstein studied with Sergey Koussevitzky, renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at the orchestra’s summer home in Tanglewood.  Bernstein said of Koussevitzky, “He became like a surrogate father to me” (Peyser 80).  At Tanglewood, Bernstein also strengthened his relationship with Copland, who looked over Bernstein’s scores even though Bernstein never enrolled in any of the Tanglewood composition courses.

In 1941, Bernstein received his conducting degree from Curtis, and he became an assistant to Koussevitzky the following year.  This was not, however, a lucrative position, and Bernstein was dissatisfied.  Leaving Boston in the fall of 1942, he moved to New York, where he found a job making piano arrangements of jazz improvisations.  Greater things were on the horizon, however.  On August 25, 1943 (Bernstein’s twenty-fifth birthday), he was chosen as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Only a few months later, on November 14, Bernstein had to fill in at a few hours’ notice for an ill Bruno Walter on a nationally broadcast concert.  The timing could not have been worse, as Bernstein had stayed up most of the previous night celebrating the performance of his song cycle I Hate Music! at Carnegie Hall.  Nevertheless, Bernstein’s conducting premiere was a phenomenal success.  American audiences, unaccustomed to seeing an American on the podium, responded enthusiastically, making Bernstein famous overnight.

Between Broadway and the Concert Hall

The next year brought several breakthroughs for Bernstein as a composer.  The first of these was the premiere of the First Symphony “Jeremiah,” which the New York Music Critics’ Circle deemed the best American work of the year.  The ballet Fancy Free, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, also won great acclaim.  Finally, the musical On the Town brought Bernstein to Broadway for the first time.

Bernstein remained a high-profile conductor as well.  In 1945, less than two years after he had joined the New York Philharmonic, he became conductor of the City Symphony.  Bernstein had his sights set on a greater prize, however: conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Retiring in 1947, Koussevitzky, still among Bernstein’s staunchest supporters, made it clear that he wanted Bernstein to succeed him.  The orchestra’s trustees appointed the Frenchman Charles Munch instead.  In the same year, Bernstein resigned from the City Symphony.

When Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein realized part of his ambition to succeed his mentor by becoming head of the conducting and orchestral departments at Tanglewood.  Although he had yet to find another permanent position with a major orchestra, he made numerous guest appearances with well-known orchestras.  Among other achievements, he became the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, in a 1953 performance featuring Maria Callas

During the 1950s, Bernstein composed mainly for the theater.  The long list of shows includes Peter Pan, Trouble in Tahiti, Candide, and West Side Story.  Premiered in 1957, West Side Story is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that replaces noble Veronese families with New York street gangs.  It was only a modest success when it first appeared on Broadway, but West Side Story gradually became one of America’s most beloved musicals as well as Bernstein’s best-known work.

In 1951, Bernstein married Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean-American actress and pianist whom he had met five years earlier.  Both before and after the wedding, Bernstein’s sexuality was a topic of much discussion.  Some speculate that he married Montealegre to quell the rumors that he was gay.

Conducting the New York Philharmonic

When Bernstein was selected as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, his fame grew even greater, particularly as he was the first conductor of American birth that the symphony had ever appointed.  Under his baton, the symphony recorded a wide range of repertoire.  Bernstein’s recordings of Beethoven, Mahler, and American composers such as Ives and Copland are especially revered.  He also brought some new ideas, such as concerts planned around themes and televised programs to acquaint young people with classical music. 

During his time at the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein moved away from the world of musical theater.  Instead, he devoted himself to “serious” compositions, such as Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish” (completed in 1963 and dedicated to the late President John F. Kennedy).  Another major work based on liturgical material is Chichester Psalms (1965). 

Last Years

Bernstein stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, receiving the honorary title of laureate conductor.  Nevertheless, he continued to conduct all over the world, particularly with the Vienna Philharmonic.  Perhaps his most memorable appearance took place just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin.  To reflect the circumstances, the word “Freude” (joy) was changed to “Freiheit” (freedom).

In the 1970s, Bernstein’s marriage took a turn for the worse.  Although Bernstein and Montealegre had three children together, he left Montealegre for Tom Cothran in 1976.  Shortly thereafter, Montealegre learned that she had lung cancer.  Bernstein moved back in with his wife, taking care of her until her death in 1978.

Bernstein’s pace of composition slowed down in his final years.  His later music includes a musical about the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), and an opera, A Quiet Place (1983).  Along with most of his other late works, these have received a mixed reception.


Burton, William Westbrook, ed.  Conversations About Bernstein.  With an introduction
by William Westbrook Burton.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Conrad, Jon Alan: ‘West Side Story,’ New Grove Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 21
August 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

Peyser, Joan.  Bernstein: A Biography, Revised and Updated.  New York: Billboard
Books, 1998.

Schiff, David: ‘Bernstein, Leonard’, New Grove Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 02 June
2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>