Leonard Bernstein - Biography


Leonard Bernstein the great American conductor and composer was born on August 25th 1918 in Lawrence Mass. and died on Oct 14 1990 in New York City. Bernstein’s family were Russian Jewish immigrants; his father Sam was a business man who ultimately owned a profitable distributorship of women’s hair care supplies that kept the family solidly in the middle class during the depression. Bernstein’s was born as Louis Bernstein but his father and mother Jennie preferred later on to call him Leonard a name that had less of a foreign plebian ring to it. Bernstein sister Shirley (who later in life was a TV quiz show producer and theatrical agent) and who was five years younger, bore a strong resemblance to him and was very close to him. Bernstein was not a musical prodigy. He took piano lessons in his adolescence and was good enough at it to get a skilled professional Helen Coates (later on to become his personal assistant Bernstein) to teach him went to the prestigious Boston Latin High School and then to Harvard. While there he studied music with among others famed composer Walter Piston.


When he graduated Harvard he went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he studied piano with the tempestuous Isabelle Vengerova and conducting with the great and severe taskmaster Fritz Reiner. Bernstein by this time was inspired to become a conductor by the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos whom he would ironically succeed at the New York Philharmonic twenty years later. During his years at Curtis he spent his summers at Tanglewood Massachusetts where an advanced music school founded by the famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein caught Koussevitzky’s eye and he soon became a protégé. Upon graduation from Cutis Bernstein had to do a certain amount of hack arrangement work in Tin Pan Alley under the name Lenny Ambers.


Bernstein was recommended to Artur Rodzindki the conductor of the New York Philharmonic by Koussevitzky to fill an assistant conductor position post. Bernstein’s big chance occurred on November 14th 1943 when guest conductor Bruno Walter became ill and Bernstein substituted on short notice. He handled the program well and the concert was front page news on the New York Times the next day and he was suddenly in the limelight. Bernstein was soon to become conductor of the New York Symphony a former WPA project now run by the city. He was in 1943 to compose his Jeremiah Symphony and the following year the musical On the Town and the ballet Fancy Free. After the war Bernstein concentrated on composing and his work as head of the conducting at Tanglewood. He led the American premiere of Peter Grimes by Britten in 1946 and Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie in 1949.In the early 1950’s he became a successful guest conductor particularly with the New York Philharmonic. In 1949 he composed his Second Symphony “Age of Anxiety” (inspired by the Auden poem) and the hit musical Wonderful Town. Bernstein in 1951 gave the world premiere of Ives Second Symphony nearly fifty years after it was written. With the advent of television Bernstein’s charisma, good looks and communication skills made him a prime contributor to the NBC cultural show Omnibus. Bernstein wrote a musical based on Voltaire’s Candide in 1956 that was initially a failure on Broadway but is now often revived and its overture is very popular


The year 1957 was to be a memorable year for Bernstein he was to become the music director of the New York Philharmonic and his most famous work West Side Story opened on Broadway. Bernstein was an immediate sensation at the Phil. with the audience but had to endure critical carping over his effusive podium manner and emotion laden interpretations. Bernstein established the “Young Persons Concerts” that were televised on CBS where he would analyze and perform works around a particular topic of musical appreciation. CBS was the parent company of Columbia Records with whom Bernstein was making a vast amount of recordings. This period was to reach its pinnacle when the Philharmonics new hall was opened at Lincoln Center in 1962 attended by the world famous including First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. That inaugural concert was to include the first movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Mahler was to become an obsession with him for the balance of his career and he was responsible for moving Mahler from a cult composer to one of the most popular of symphonic composers. Bernstein was a huge supporter of John Kennedy and his death devastated him. Bernstein was to conduct a live performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony the Sunday after his death on the CBS network and dedicated his next major work Symphony # 3 Kaddish to President Kennedy’s memory.


Bernstein in the 1951 married actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn, they were to have three children two girls Jamie, Nina and a boy Alexander. Bernstein in 1964 was to take a sabbatical from the Philharmonic to write his Third Symphony and an English commission for a choral work Chichester Psalms. During this period he concertized in Europe extensively and was particularly embraced in Vienna where he lead highly successful performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. When he returned to New York in 1965 he conducted one memorable performance after another of Mahler, Nielsen, Ives, Stravinsky, and Copland amongst many others. This was a golden age for New York music. Bernstein unexpectedly decided to resign from his Philharmonic post in 1969 to concentrate on composing.


This was to be a period of crisis for Bernstein. He was asked to write a work for the opening of the Kennedy Music Center in 1971 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The work he chose to write was a full evening theatre piece entitled Mass a work that embraced the Broadway Musical and elements of Rock a sort of amalgam of Tommy meets West Side Story. The work created a major scandal; the Catholic Church felt it was a sacrilege of mass classical and theatre music critics thought it was a bad ersatz work (Vitriolic theatre critic John Simon said it was “Mass was short for masturbation). Bernstein was absolutely sincere when writing the work and is now finally receiving recognition A year earlier his liberal activism was mocked by writer Tom Wolfe in an article entitled ‘Radical Chic’ in New York Magazine for a party he and his wife through to raise money for the Black Panthers. Bernstein’s personal life was falling apart; there had always been rumors about his bisexuality but Bernstein had in the 1970’s embraced the Gay Liberation movement and left his wife to live with a young man Tom Cothran. Felicia like Bernstein a heavy smoker was stricken by lung cancer and died in 1979. A guilt ridden Bernstein returned to his wife but he never really recovered.


Bernstein now a man with serious health problems associated with his heavy drinking and smoking went into physical decline. Paradoxically his conducting during the 1980’s was never greater. He changed labels to Deutsche Grammophon after the now pop oriented Columbia lost interest in his extensive recording projects. D.G. being more prestigious worldwide then Columbia gave Bernstein a larger international audience. Europe never hung up with the pop versus classical arguments that bedeviled him in America embraced Bernstein as one of the all time great conductors. Bernstein was troubled that his later work like the autobiographical opera A Quiet Place and the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with his friend lyricist Alan J. Lerner were failures. Others like the ballet the Dybuck and the song cycle Songfest, fine works were only marginal successes. Bernstein’s last public triumph was a performance in Berlin of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony after the Berlin Wall came down in December of 1989. By now Bernstein health was very bad, he had a number of pulmonary maladies that affected his breathing, his final concert was given in Tanglewood in August of 1990 where he was gasping for breath as he led the Boston Symphony in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Shortly after this came the news that he was retiring from the concert stage. Even with all these ominous signs his death on October 14th at the age of 72 had a devastating impact. The new broke in New York as people were leaving the theatre and when TV reporters asked for a reaction the interviewees often broke into tears.


Leonard Bernstein has now been gone for a long time it is still impossible to adequately sum him up. The controversies about his flamboyance, sexuality and politics have long faded into the past. It is impossible to believe that one man accomplished this much as writer, teacher,conductor and composer of concert and theatre music in a short 72 years. We are very fortunate that Bernstein’s huge repertoire is covered by his many recordings from different phases of his career. Particular interest should be paid to his two Mahler cycles and his incomparable recordings of American music.   

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