Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music, was born in Massachusetts into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. He had his first piano lessons in 1928, and soon recognised that his life was to be dominated by music. In 1930 he began piano lessons with Susan Williams at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, giving his first piano recital two years later, when he also started to study piano with Helen Coates, later to be his personal secretary. In 1934 he played Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Boston Public School Orchestra. During this period he produced, and performed in, many amateur theatrical productions.
The year 1935 was important for Bernstein: he made his first radio broadcasts (a series of short piano recitals sponsored by his father’s cosmetics company) and he entered Harvard University. Here he continued with his piano studies and composed, studying with Walter Piston amongst others. In 1937 he became friends with several highly influential musicians: the composer Aaron Copland, of whom Bernstein was a life-long supporter; the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, whose flamboyant direction of the Boston Symphony Orchestra convinced Bernstein that conducting was to be his career; and Adolph Green, the actor and scriptwriter of Broadway musicals. In 1938 he became music editor of The Harvard Advocate. He graduated in 1939, when he also mounted a critically-acclaimed production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at Harvard.
Between 1939 and 1941 Bernstein was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Here he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, who considered him to be one of his most outstanding pupils; piano with Isabelle Vengerova; orchestration with Randall Thompson; and score-reading with Renee Longy Miquelle. In 1940 he was selected to participate in Koussevitzky’s conducting class at the Tanglewood summer music school, where he led a performance of Thompson’s Symphony No. 2. After leaving Curtis he set up a studio for the teaching of piano and music analysis, and returned to Tanglewood in 1942, where he conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra. He moved to New York, where he completed his Symphony No. 1, subtitled ‘Jeremiah’, and worked as an arranger and transcriber.
In 1943 Bernstein was appointed as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic- Symphony Orchestra by its then chief conductor Artur Rodzinski. Bernstein’s big break came soon: on 14 November 1943 he substituted for an ailing Bruno Walter as conductor of one of the orchestra’s concerts that was relayed coast-to-coast by American radio. Guest conducting engagements soon followed, and his compositions started to attract attention. 1944 saw the first performances of his ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony, the ballet Fancy Free and the Broadway musical On the Town.
Bernstein’s conducting career took a major step forward in 1945 with his appointment as conductor of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1948. He conducted all the orchestra’s concerts throughout 1946 and 1947. In 1946 he also conducted the first American performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes at Tanglewood. The following year he made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life, conducted as a guest in Prague, Paris, Holland and Belgium, directed the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium, and led his first performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ in New York.
After resigning from the New York City Symphony Orchestra in 1948 Bernstein divided his time between guest-conducting, often abroad as well as throughout the USA, and composing. In 1951 he signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records. Highlights of this period included conducting the world premiere of Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie in Boston (1950), the composition of the score for the musical A Wonderful Town, which won a Tony Award for the best musical of the 1952–1953 Broadway season, and of the music for the film On The Waterfront (1954). In 1953 he became the first American conductor to appear at La Scala, Milan, where he led Maria Callas in Cherubini’s opera Medea. He also started to appear regularly on television, displaying a natural talent for communication across all age and social groups.
Another momentous year for Bernstein came in 1957, with the very successful premiere of his musical West Side Story on Broadway, and his appearances as joint principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic with Mitropoulos, followed by his appointment as the orchestra’s chief conductor with effect from 1958. He introduced many, predominantly educational, innovations with the Philharmonic, such as concert programmes structured around themes, preview concerts in which the conductor discussed the music to be heard, and the televised Young People’s Concerts, which achieved an international audience and did much to demythologise classical music. In 1951 he signed a long-term contract with Columbia Records, which was to result in a large number of recordings of high quality. He retired as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, bringing to an end an era of great artistic renewal for both the orchestra and its audiences in the USA and abroad.
The last twenty years of Bernstein’s life were mostly taken up with guest conducting engagements, many of which were closely tied in to sound and video recordings, and involved the finest European and American orchestras. Bernstein continued to compose, seeking to create in works such as his Mass of 1971 a musical language with wide appeal. In 1973 he returned to academia, delivering the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. In 1990 he inaugurated the Pacific Music Festival at Sapporo, which followed the successful format established many years previously at Tanglewood. His last concert was in August of the same year at Tanglewood, where he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he died on 14 October at his New York home.
Leonard Bernstein’s recorded legacy is huge. His Columbia contract was effectively openended, allowing him to record whatever he wished. The results included a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies which had an enormous international impact upon the understanding and appreciation of this composer. Other Columbia recordings of note included a fiery Beethoven Symphony No. 3, and the Symphonies No. 5 of both Sibelius and Shostakovich, all of which packed a strong emotional punch. The later recordings for Deutsche Grammophon covered broadly similar repertoire, and included many critically-acclaimed readings, such as his Brahms symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with the Israel Philharmonic, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an interpretation whose extremes astounded many commentators. Bernstein was a highly effective conductor of opera, as his recordings of Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier, Fidelio and Carmen well demonstrate. Last but not least, the recordings of him conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in concert, released by the orchestra itself, show him at his most exciting, and often most musically adventurous.
Bernstein frequently divided critical opinion with his highly emotional and at times extreme interpretations. Yet he spoke directly to the public with his whole-hearted musical commitment, and in the process became without question the major American musician of the twentieth century, encompassing the concert hall, theatre, cinema and television with consummate ease as well as with creative and executant virtuosity. He succinctly explained his philosophy: ‘When I conduct Beethoven, I don’t care whether I conduct the way Beethoven would have conducted. What’s important is that I’m convinced that what I’ve done is in the spirit of Beethoven, even if I know that Beethoven would have done it differently. One is not a slave to a work of the past, but a creator here and now!’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).