Leonard Bernstein ("BERN-stine"; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was a multi-Emmy-winning American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist. He was the first conductor born and educated in the United States of America to receive world-wide acclaim. He is perhaps best known for his long conducting relationship with the New York Philharmonic, which included the acclaimed Young People's Concerts series, and his compositions including West Side Story, Candide, and On the Town. He is known to baby boomers primarily as the first classical music conductor to make many television appearances, all between 1954 and 1989. Additionally he had a formidable piano technique and was a highly respected composer. He is one of the most influential figures in the history of American classical music, championing the works of American composers and inspiring the careers of a generation of American musicians.
After completing his studies at Harvard, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he received the only "A" grade Fritz Reiner ever awarded in his class on conducting. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein also studied piano with Isabella Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr, and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle.
Leonard and Felicia had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina. During 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 made great strides, Bernstein became more emboldened, eventually leaving Felicia to live with his lover Tom Cothran. Some time after, Bernstein learned that his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Bernstein moved back in with his wife and cared for her until she died.
It has been suggested that Bernstein was actually bisexual—an assertion supported by comments that Bernstein himself made about not preferring any particular cuisine, musical genre, or form of sex—and it has been alleged that he was conflicted between his devotion to his family and his gay desires, but Arthur Laurents (Bernstein's collaborator in West Side Story), said that Bernstein was simply "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay." Shelly Rhoades Perle, another friend of Bernstein’s, said that she thought "he required men sexually and women emotionally".
In Tom Wolfe's book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, the first piece is set in the composer Leonard Bernstein's duplex on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Bernstein assembled many of his wealthy socialite friends to meet with representatives of the controversial Black Panthers and discuss ways to help their cause. The party was a typical affair for Bernstein, a longtime Democrat, who was known for hosting civil rights leaders at such parties.
The Bernsteins could not be seen with their usual black butler and maid, so they hired white South Americans to serve the party. Bernstein's elite friends and guests (including Oscar-nominated director Otto Preminger and television reporter Barbara Walters) are labeled the "radical chic," as Wolfe characterizes them as pursuing radical ends for social reasons, partially because organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had become too mainstream. Wolfe's criticism is implicitly of the general phenomena of white guilt and armchair agitation becoming facets of high fashion.
New York Magazine featured the incident, in an issue subsequently deemed by the ASME's one of the Top 40 Magazine Covers of the Last 40 Years. (see #35) In a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace Bernstein is reportedly exasperated by the interest in this event.
Bernstein was very highly regarded as a conductor, composer, and educator, and probably best known to the public as longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras, and for writing the music for West Side Story. He wrote three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, and numerous other pieces.
In 1940, he began his study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer institute, Tanglewood, under the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein later became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant. He would later dedicate his Symphony No. 2 to Koussevitzky.
On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his conducting debut on last-minute notification, and without any rehearsal, after Bruno Walter came down with the flu. The next day, The New York Times editorial remarked, "It's a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves."He was an immediate success and became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast. The soloist on that historic day was Joseph Schuster, solo cellist of the New York Philharmonic, who played Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. Because Bernstein had never conducted the work before, Bruno Walter coached him on it prior to the concert. It is possible to hear this remarkable event thanks to a transcription recording made from the CBS radio broadcast that has since been issued on CD.
After World War II, Bernstein's career on the international stage began to flourish. In 1946, he conducted his first opera, the American première of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which had been a Koussevitzky commission. In 1949, he conducted the world première of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen, and when Koussevitzky died two years later, Bernstein became head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, holding this position for many years.
In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world première of the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives. The composer, old and frail, was unable to attend the concert, but listened to the broadcast on the radio with his wife, Harmony. Both of them marveled at the enthusiastic reception of his music, which had actually been written between 1897 and 1901, but until then had never been performed. Bernstein did much to promote the music of this American composer throughout his career. Ives died in 1954. Bernstein was also a visiting music professor in the early 1950s and was the founder/head of the Creative Arts Festivals at Brandeis University from 1952 onward. The festival was named after him in 2005, becoming the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts.
Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 and began his tenure in that position in 1958, a post he held until 1969, although he continued to conduct and make recordings with that orchestra for the rest of his life. 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. His first Young People's Concert was televised only a few weeks after his tenure as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic began. 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 were released on DVD.
In 1947, Bernstein 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. During the 1970s, Bernstein recorded most of his own symphonic music with the Israel Philharmonic.
In 1959, he took the New York Philharmonic on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, portions of which were filmed by CBS. A major highlight of the tour was Bernstein's performance of Shostakovich's fifth symphony, in the presence of the composer, who came on stage at the end to congratulate Bernstein and the musicians. In October, when Bernstein and the orchestra returned to New York, they recorded the symphony for Columbia. He made two recordings of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, one with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s, and another one in 1988 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the only recording he ever made with them (along with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1, also recorded live in concerts at Orchestra Hall in Chicago at that time).
In 1960, Bernstein began the first complete cycle of recordings in stereo of all nine completed symphonies by Gustav Mahler, with the blessings of the composer's widow, Alma. The success of these recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances, greatly revived interest in Mahler, who had briefly been music director of the New York Philharmonic late in his life. That same year, Bernstein conducted an LP of his own score for the 1944 musical On The Town, in stereo, the first such recording of the score ever made, for Columbia Masterworks Records. Unlike his later recordings of his own musicals, this was originally issued as a single LP rather than a 2-record set. It was later issued on CD. The recording featured several members of the original Broadway cast, including Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
In one storied incident, in April 1962, Bernstein appeared on stage before a performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto Op. 15. The soloist was the legendary pianist Glenn Gould. During rehearsals, Gould had argued for tempi much broader than normal, which did not reflect Bernstein's concept of the music. Bernstein gave a brief address to the audience stating,
This speech was subsequently interpreted by Harold Schonberg, music critic for the New York Times, as abdication of personal responsibility and an attack on Gould, but Bernstein always denied that this had been his intent, and has stated that he made these remarks with Gould's blessing . Throughout his life, he professed enormous admiration and personal friendship for Gould.
During his New York Philharmonic directorship, Bernstein was also responsible for introducing the symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen to American audiences, leading to a revival of interest in this composer whose reputation had previously been mostly regional. Bernstein recorded three of Nielsen's symphonies (Nos. 2, 4, and 5) with the Philharmonic, and he recorded the composer's 3rd Symphony with a Danish orchestra after a critically acclaimed public performance there.
In 1966, he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera conducting Luchino Visconti's production of Verdi's Falstaff, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff. In 1970, he returned to the State Opera for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's Fidelio. Sixteen years later, at the State Opera, Bernstein conducted his sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place. Bernstein's final farewell to the State Opera happened accidentally in 1989: Following a performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanchina, he unexpectedly entered the stage and embraced conductor Claudio Abbado in front of a stunned, but cheering, audience.
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, Brahms and Schumann. Some of the Mahler symphony recordings from Bernstein's second cycle for Deutsche Grammophon were also made with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Later that year, Bernstein wrote and narrated a ninety-minute program filmed on location in and around Vienna, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic with such artists as Plácido Domingo, who in his first television appearance performed as the tenor soloist in Beethoven's Ninth. The program, first telecast in 1970 on Austrian and British television, and then on CBS on Christmas Eve 1971, was intended as a celebration of Beethoven's 200th birthday. The show made extensive use of the rehearsals and finished performance of the Otto Schenk production of Fidelio. Originally entitled Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, the show, which won an Emmy, was telecast only once on U.S. commercial television, and it remained in CBS's vaults, until it resurfaced on A&E shortly after Bernstein's death—under the new title Bernstein on Beethoven: A Celebration in Vienna. It was immediately issued on VHS under that title, and in 2005 was issued on DVD.
Bernstein was invited in 1973 to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, Harvard University, to deliver a series of six lectures on music. Borrowing the title from a Charles Ives work, he called the series "The Unanswered Question"; it is a set of interdisciplinary lectures in which he borrows terminology from contemporary linguistics to analyze and compare musical construction to language. Three years later, in 1976, the entire series of videotaped lectures was telecast on PBS. The lectures survive in both book and DVD form today. Noam Chomsky wrote in 2007 on the Znet forums about the linguistic aspects of the lecture: I spent some time with Bernstein during the preparation and performance of the lectures. My feeling was that he was on to something, but I couldn't really judge how significant it was.
In 1978, the Otto Schenk Fidelio, with Bernstein still conducting, but featuring a different cast, was filmed by Unitel. Like the program Bernstein on Beethoven, it also was shown on A&E after his death and subsequently issued on VHS. Although the video has since long been out-of-print, it was released for the first time on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon in late 2006.
In May of 1978, the Israel Philharmonic played two US concerts under his direction to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Orchestra under that name. On consecutive nights, the Orchestra performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall in NYC.
In 1979, Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first and only time, in two charity concerts. The performance, of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, was broadcast on radio and was posthumously released on CD.
He received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1980. On PBS in the 1980s, 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, one of the string quartets arranged for the full string section of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Missa Solemnis. Actor Maximilian Schell was also featured on the program, reading from Beethoven's letters.
Leonard Bernstein was a regular guest conductor of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. In the eighties he recorded, among other pieces, Mahler's first, second, fourth and ninth symphonies with them.
In 1985, he conducted a complete recording of his score for West Side Story for the first and only time. The recording, much criticized for featuring what critics felt were miscast opera singers such as Kiri te Kanawa, Jose Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos in the leading roles, was nevertheless a national bestseller.
In 1989, Bernstein again conducted and recorded another complete performance of one of his musicals, again featuring opera singers rather than Broadway stars. This time it was Candide, and because the show was always intended to be an operetta, the recording made from it was much more warmly received. The performance was released posthumously on CD (in 1991). It starred Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Adolph Green, and Christa Ludwig in the leading roles. The Candide recording, unlike the West Side Story one, also included previously discarded numbers from the show.
A TV documentary of the West Side Story recording sessions was made in 1985, and the Candide recording was made live, in concert. This concert was eventually telecast posthumously.
On Christmas Day, December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin's Schauspielhaus (Playhouse) 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 Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy). Bernstein, in the introduction to the program, said that they had "taken the liberty" of doing this because of a "most likely phony" story, apparently believed in some quarters, that Schiller wrote an "Ode to Freedom" that is now presumed lost. Bernstein's comment was, 'I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing."
Bernstein was highly regarded as a conductor among many musicians, including the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, evidenced by his honorary membership, the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was President, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he appeared regularly as guest conductor. He was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler; with his own compositions; with American composers Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, William Schuman, and George Gershwin. His recordings of Rhapsody in Blue (full-orchestra version) and An American in Paris with the Philharmonic, released in 1959, are considered definitive by many, although, for reasons unknown, Bernstein would always cut the Rhapsody slightly. Unfortunately, he never conducted a performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, nor did he ever conduct Porgy and Bess. However, he did discuss Porgy in his article, Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?, originally published in the New York Times and later reprinted in his 1959 book The Joy of Music.
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.
Bernstein influenced many conductors who are performing now, such as Marin Alsop, Alexander Frey, John Mauceri, Seiji Ozawa, Carl St.Clair, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Ozawa made his first network television debut as guest conductor on one of the Young People's Concerts.
Bernstein conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. The concert was later issued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.
He died of pneumonia and a pleural tumor just five days after retiring. A longtime heavy smoker, he had battled emphysema from his mid-20s. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, yelling "Goodbye Lenny. Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
In August 2008, Sony BMG Masterworks released a 10-disc set of Bernstein's recordings of his own works as a composer, The Original Jacket Collection: Bernstein Conducts Bernstein , which heralds the Bernstein Festival and the Bernstein Mass Project Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic’s three-month program of events, entitled Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, pays tribute to each aspect of Bernstein’s legacy with 50 concerts and education events. 2008 also marks the 65th anniversary of Bernstein’s historic Carnegie Hall debut.
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