Leonard Bernstein: A Life Lived for Music

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A virtual journey through the most important places and music institutions in Leonard Bernstein's life and career.  

Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. Soon after his birth, he and his parents moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Bernstein showed an early interest in music. He began playing the piano at age 10 and eventually developed into a highly accomplished pianist, composer, and conductor. Best known for his Broadway hit West Side Story, he was one of the first American-born and educated conductors to gain international acclaim.

Leonard Bernstein

The Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Bernstein first heard a symphony performed live at Boston Symphony Hall in 1937. He was 19. The visiting conductor that evening was Dmitri Mitropoulos. Bernstein became immediately enthralled with Mitropoulos’s passionate performance. At a reception the following day, Mitropoulos heard Bernstein play a piano sonata. The conductor was so impressed with the young man’s abilities, he invited him to attend his rehearsals. By the end of the week, Bernstein knew he wanted to dedicate his life to music.

Boston Symphony Hall

Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

After graduating from Harvard University in 1939 with a degree in music theory, Bernstein spent a year fine-tuning his technical skills at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, he studied piano under Isabella Vengerova, conducting under Fritz Reiner, and orchestration with Randall Thompson. He later recalled that it was at Curtis that he learned the absolute importance of organization and preparation to the work of a musician.

Curtis Institute of Music

Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (Koussevitzky Music Shed), Lenox, Massachusetts

In 1940, 22-year-old Bernstein was invited to attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute at the newly opened Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. Bernstein was one of only 5 students accepted into a master conducting class taught by renowned Russian-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who served as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director from 1924 to 1949. This was the beginning of Bernstein’s lifelong relationship with Tanglewood.

Berkshire Music Center

Carnegie Hall, New York City, New York

In 1943, Bernstein became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, which called Carnegie Hall home. On November 14, 1943, Bernstein was asked to fill in for visiting conductor Bruno Walter. Despite having only a few hours to prepare, he led the orchestra in a performance that enthralled audience members and listeners across the nation (the symphony was broadcast live on the radio). The next morning, the performance was front-page news—Bernstein had become a famous conductor overnight.

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Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

Throughout the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein was a visiting professor of music at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. This is Brandeis’s Slosberg Music Center, the building in which Bernstein taught and where his childhood upright piano now resides. In 1952, he founded the Creative Arts Festival, an annual showcase presenting a wide variety of performances and art by Brandeis students and alumni. Brandeis University still holds the Creative Arts Festival every year.

Brandeis University

Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts

From 1952 to 1961 the CBS and ABC television networks aired a series called Omnibus, which featured discussions on the arts, science and the humanities. Leonard Bernstein contributed several music lectures to the program. From 1958 to 1972, he hosted a spin-off series called Young People’s Concerts, in which he led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in performances designed to introduce young listeners to classical music. The NYPO moved from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center in 1962, and many of the episodes were staged here.

Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

The idea for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts dates to the late 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an act to finance a national performing arts center. It was kept alive by President John F. Kennedy, who stepped up the fundraising effort. The Kennedy Center opened on September 8, 1971, as a ‘living memorial’ to the assassinated president with the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, which had been commissioned for the occasion.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Leonard Bernstein died from a heart attack on October 15, 1990, at the age of 72 and was buried here at Green-Wood Cemetery in New York City. He suffered from emphysema from his mid-50s onward, but his passion for music and all it encompassed—composing, conducting, performing, teaching—never waned, and he resisted retiring for as long as he could. In fact, he announced his retirement only 5 days before he died.

Green-Wood Cemetery
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