Leonard Bernstein: A Life Lived for Music

Discover the life and works of this famous 20th century composer.

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Leonard Bernstein composingNational Museum of American Jewish History

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.

Leonard Bernstein (1988) by © Susesch BayatDeutsche Grammophon

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.

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. 

Dmitri Mitropoulos (1945) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Dmitri Mitropoulos

Dmitri Mitropoulos (1896–1960) was a Greek composer, pianist, and conductor. He was known for conducting with his hands alone—no baton—and for conducting completely from memory. 

Leonard Bernstein (1956) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Leonard Bernstein at the Piano

Bernstein began playing the piano when a family member gave him an old upright. His talent was soon apparent, and his father bought a baby grand piano for him soon after. This photograph shows Bernstein at the piano with his own children in 1956.

A Home for Boston Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Hall was built in 1900 as a home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In a recent season, the orchestra celebrated Bernstein’s accomplishments as composer and conductor with performances of several of his works.

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.

LIFE Photo Collection

Fritz Reiner, Conductor

Fritz Reiner (1888–1963) had a reputation for being demanding and expecting perfection from students and musicians. It was this strict teaching style that helped Bernstein develop into a world-class conductor. 

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Randall Thompson, Composer

Randall Thompson (1899–1984) was an American composer, the director of the Curtis Institute of Music and a professor at Harvard University. Thompson composed a variety of types of musical works, but he is best known for his choral compositions.

Leonard Bernstein - Conductor (1956-12) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

On Being Prepared

Bernstein once said about his work as a conductor, ‘You had no right to step up on the podium unless you knew everything about what every member of the orchestra had to do. And if you didn’t, God pity you...”.

Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Lenox, MA

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.

Bernstein at Carnegie Hall - Bernstein with Serge Koussevitzky at TanglewoodCarnegie Hall

Serge Koussevitzky

Serge Koussevitzky was Bernstein’s instructor, mentor and friend. He nurtured the younger man’s belief in himself and often offered professional guidance. Koussevitzky championed the composers of his day and personally mentored many conductors and composers.

Leonard Bernstein with baton by Google Arts & Culture

Leonard Bernstein with Baton

Koussevitzky made Bernstein his assistant in 1942. After his mentor’s death in 1951, Bernstein became head of Tanglewood’s orchestral and conducting departments. He taught and performed at Tanglewood every summer for 50 years and conducted his last concert there.

Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed

In late 1936, Mary Tappan gifted Tanglewood, her family estate, to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Concerts in the summer of 1937 were held under a tent. This music pavilion was inaugurated in 1938 and rededicated as the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed on its 50th anniversary. 

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. 

LIFE Photo Collection

Bruno Walter, Conductor

Bruno Walter (1876–1962) was a German pianist, composer and conductor. Just hours before he was due to guest-conduct the New York Philharmonic, he came down with the flu. Bernstein was asked to take his place, and the rest is history.

"Opening Of Philharmonic" (1958-10) by Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

Bernstein in Carnegie Hall

This image, taken in 1958, shows Bernstein standing in the auditorium in an empty Carnegie Hall. It was in that year that he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, which resided in Carnegie Hall from 1891 to 1962.

Carnegie Hall (1960-02-20) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Backstage

Here’s Bernstein preparing backstage for a performance. He conducted 11 performances during his first year at Carnegie Hall and over 375 concerts throughout his career there.

Leonard Bernstein (1960-02) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Conducting a Rehearsal

This photograph from 1960 shows Bernstein conducting the Philharmonic in rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. Then as now, some rehearsals at the hall are open (though not free) to member patrons.

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.

Preparing the orchestra by Google Arts & Culture

Preparing the orchestra

This photograph, taken in 1952, shows Bernstein preparing the orchestra before a performance of his opera Trouble in Tahiti, which premiered at the Brandeis Creative Arts Festival that year. Bernstein composed 2 other operas: Candide (1956) and A Quiet Place (1983).

By Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Trouble in Tahiti

This photograph was taken during the 1952 outdoor performance of Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein composed the music and also wrote the libretto for this one-act opera. 

By Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

The Story

Trouble in Tahiti presents a day in the life of an unhappy young couple living in suburbia. It is a dark story told—or sung—in everyday language.

By Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Chorus

Trouble in Tahiti employs a chorus who move the story along and comment on the action like a chorus in an ancient Greek play. Bernstein wanted their numbers to sound like radio jingles.

Young People’s Concerts

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.

David Geffen Hall

Most of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were presented at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, now David Geffen Hall. Bernstein left his post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, but he continued to host and conduct these concerts until 1972. 

By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Opening Night at Lincoln Center

In all, Bernstein conducted 53 episodes of Young People’s Concerts, most of them at Lincoln Center. And of course, he also conducted regular New York Philharmonic concerts at this venue. Here he is on an opening night in Philharmonic Hall.

By Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

Educator

Through the Young People’s Concerts series, Leonard Bernstein introduced a generation of listeners to the classical repertoire. To many who grew up on the shows, his legacy as an educator equals his accomplishments as a composer and conductor.

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.

Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971-09-08) by Fletcher DrakeThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Opening Night

Bernstein’s Mass was a spectacular piece involving over 200 performers. The text was sung by a full choir, a boys’ choir and numerous soloists. The dramatization in dance was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and performed by members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

Rehearsal of Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971-08) by Fletcher DrakeThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Rehearsal

This photograph from August 1971 shows Bernstein leading a rehearsal for Mass. In attendance are Senator Edward Kennedy (seated in suit), his wife Joan and baritone Alan Titus, who sang a principal role in the piece.

By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Patrons of the Arts

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy were strong supporters of the arts, and Bernstein had occasion to meet the First Lady long before the Kennedy Center opening. Here he greets her at the 1962 opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center.

Leonard Bernstein ConductingNational Museum of American Jewish History

Kennedy Center Honors

The Kennedy Center recognises outstanding American performing artists with a yearly awards ceremony. Leonard Bernstein hosted the very first Kennedy Center Honors gala in 1978 and was himself an honouree in 1980.

The Last Years

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.

Leonard Bernstein - Conductor (1956-12) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Final Performance

Bernstein’s final performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood took place on August 19, 1990. The concert featured Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major. 

Bernstein, LeonardLIFE Photo Collection

Recognition

Bernstein won many awards throughout his life, including the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, numerous Grammies, a Special Tony Award, a Drama Desk Circle Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, several Emmies and an Obie.

Bernstein’s Burial Place

Bernstein had a lifelong interest in religion and the world’s religions. Green-Wood Cemetery is a non-sectarian Christian cemetery, yet Bernstein, who was Jewish, chose this site for his final resting place.

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