Leonard Bernstein’s Carnegie Hall Debut

Carnegie Hall

Leonard Bernstein made one of the most dramatic debuts in Carnegie Hall’s history. On November 14, 1943—when he stepped in at the last minute to conduct the New York Philharmonic, replacing the ailing Bruno Walter—he became an international celebrity at the age of 25. “Lenny” was ready for it, and his name carried superlatives for the rest of his life. 

Leonard Bernstein
A quintessential New Yorker and one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein was uniquely talented as a conductor, pianist, composer, writer, and teacher. In 1958, at age 40, he became one of the youngest—and the first American-born—music directors of the New York Philharmonic, while his “West Side Story” was playing to sold-out houses. Equally at home on Broadway or in the concert hall, Bernstein—who performed at Carnegie Hall more than 400 times—had an enthusiasm for and an understanding of music that extended far beyond the classical realm, encompassing jazz, world music, American popular song, and 1960s pop and rock. His extraordinary communication skills and contagious enthusiasm introduced classical music to millions of people through television, while his writings and lectures inspired controversy and thought. His expansive love of life, of people, and especially of music in all its forms, combined with his charisma and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, made him a living legend. When Bernstein died in 1990 at the relatively young age of 72, after a career that spanned more than 50 years, composer Ned Rorem said, “Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72, but 288.”

Bernstein, 1936

“I can't remember myself as having particular talent for music before the age of 10. My parents were not particularly musical; and since I was the oldest child, I had no older brother or sister to introduce me to music. We didn’t even have a piano in our house. Then one day, out of the blue, an old upright piano arrived ... I was 10 years old that day when my life changed. I fell in love with the piano, and it loved me back. We’ve been happily married ever since.”

—“Being Successful,” August 29, 1949

Bernstein’s Harvard Graduation, 1939

After graduating from Harvard, Bernstein attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and piano with Isabelle Vengerova.

“You see, I still don’t really know quite what I want to do. Conduct, compose, piano, produce, arrange, etc. I’m all of these and none of them.”

—Leonard Bernstein in a letter to Kenneth Ehrman on July 13, 1939

Bernstein with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood

In 1940, Bernstein was chosen as one of three conductors for the newly established Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, the summer music school founded by conductor Serge Koussevitzky. By the age of 22, Bernstein had graduated from the finest music schools in the country, met some of the most illustrious figures in the music field, and had a portfolio of compositions and recommendations, but had not yet found employment.

Telegram from Serge Koussevitzky to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, 1941

Serge Koussevitzky recommended Bernstein for an opening as conductor of the New York City Symphony in 1941, but the Mayor’s office felt that Bernstein was too inexperienced.

New York City Symphony Flyer, 1946

In 1945, in the wake of his dramatic Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York City Symphony orchestra, a post he held for several seasons.

The Penguin by Raymond Scott, arranged by Lenny Amber, 1942

In 1942, Bernstein was hired by a music firm to transcribe improvisations of noted jazz musicians and to make piano arrangements of orchestra pieces. He often used the pseudonym “Lenny Amber” for such work (Bernstein being the German word for “amber”).

Letter from Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, 1943

“I hear rumors all the time about my coming connection with the Philharmonic ... Meanwhile, I go on doing my horrible chores for Warner Brothers in order to live. It is dull beyond belief, and takes much too much time; but I feel that somehow better things must be coming for me.”

New York Philharmonic Press Release, 1943

The New York Philharmonic announced Bernstein’s appointment as assistant conductor on September 9, 1943, concluding with Music Director Artur Rodziński’s remark that he was “greatly impressed with [Bernstein’s] abilities.”

Letter from Bernstein to Helen Coates, 1943

Helen Coates was Bernstein’s first piano teacher and became his personal secretary in 1943—a job she held with meticulousness and devotion until shortly before her death in 1989 at age 89.

“This publicity business is really getting fantastic. Every N.Y. paper had it on Thurs., ... I've just taken a fine apartment in Carnegie Hall. It all gets more exciting each day.”

Bernstein in His Carnegie Hall Studio, 1943

Carnegie Hall Program, 1943

On November 14, 1943, Bernstein made his Carnegie Hall debut when he stepped in at the last minute for Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

The original holder of this concert program pasted in clippings from the next day’s New York Times.

Bernstein’s Score of Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture, Op. 115

Bernstein wrote at the top of the score, “Who’s read Byron lately?”

“So out I strode, in my funny double-breasted suit, and, polite pattering of applause, and went wildly into the crazy three opening chords of Manfred, and it was like a great electric shock, from then on I was just sailing, I don’t know what happened, but those three chords I will never forget. Dum DUM DUM!!! Pause, and in that pause I knew that everything was going to be all right …”

—John Gruen Interview, 1967; Tape 18 / Side A

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

Recorded live on November 14, 1943, at Carnegie Hall and broadcast nationwide on CBS Radio, this performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” opened Bernstein’s legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic.

Rózsa’s Theme, Variations, and Finale

Recorded live on November 14, 1943, at Carnegie Hall and broadcast nationwide on CBS Radio, this performance also included a lesser-known work by Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa: Theme, Variations and Finale, Op. 13.

Telegram from Serge Koussevitzky to Bernstein, 1943

A telegram from mentor Serge Koussevitzky awaited Bernstein when he came off the stage. “Listening now wonderful,” it read.

The New York Times, November 15, 1943

“The next morning [after the debut] the story was carried on the front page of The New York Times. And I was famous. … [The whole thing] happened just by a series of mystical things ... I was suddenly plunged into a worldwide orbit where I guess I’ve been orbiting ever since, for four decades, in one way or another.”

—Humphrey Burton, Love of Three Orchestras, 1984

Bernstein, 1943

Written in November 1943 and published the following January in Harper’s Bazaar, Bernstein’s inscription reads, “To the New York Philharmonic Society in deepest gratitude for giving me my great opportunity.”

Carnegie Hall Program, 1958

On October 2, 1958, Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic, while his West Side Story was playing to sold-out houses.

Carnegie Hall Program, 1958

Honored guests at the concert included diplomatic representatives of each of the 12 countries visited by the orchestra on its Latin American Tour in the preceding months, in addition to the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Opening Night, October 2, 1958

Bernstein held the post of music director until 1969, when he became the Philharmonic’s laureate conductor, a title he held until his death in 1990. Bernstein’s association with the Philharmonic spanned 47 years, 1,244 concerts, and 200-plus recordings.

Bernstein, 1948

“For Carnegie Hall, with many memories and a certain gratitude. Leonard Bernstein”

Bernstein at Carnegie Hall

Few artists have had as close an association with Carnegie Hall as Leonard Bernstein. Between 1943 and 1990, he appeared at the Hall more than 430 times in a multitude of roles, including conductor, pianist, composer, and educator.

Following his auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, Bernstein went on to conduct at the Hall throughout his life, leading not only the New York Philharmonic, but also the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Symphony of the Air, and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Highlights included Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, televised from 1958 to 1962; the 1976 “Concert of the Century,” which marked the 85th anniversary of the Hall’s opening and featured performances by Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Horowitz, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and the gala reopening of the Hall following its extensive renovation in 1986, at which Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in his own “Opening Prayer”—the first Carnegie Hall commission.

Bernstein’s music has been performed at Carnegie Hall more than 900 times, including 11 premieres, from the New York premiere of his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” in March 1944 to the world premiere of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in February 1961. In addition, Bernstein accompanied such performers as mezzo-sopranos Christa Ludwig and Jennie Tourel and clarinetist Benny Goodman in recital, and was the featured soloist in piano concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Gershwin. Bernstein also appeared at many benefits at the Hall for a variety of organizations and causes, including ASCAP, amfAR, the Carnegie Hall Endowment Campaign, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, the United Jewish Appeal, Russian war orphans, and the Musicians Foundation.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is based on Leonard Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, an exhibition presented in 2008 by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, made possible by a generous gift from the Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation.

Our thanks to the Bernstein Family: Alexander, Jamie, and Nina; Marie Carter and Craig Urquhart of the Leonard Bernstein Office; Mark Horowitz and Ray White of the Music Division of the Library of Congress; and Barbara Haws of the New York Philharmonic Archives.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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