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Classical Composers A-Z: Leonard Bernstein

Peter Wintersgill presents a word sketch of Leonard Bernstein, the American conductor and composer.

25th August 1918 in Lawrence, Mass.

Samuel, cosmetic salesman


Eldest of three, sister Shirley and brother Burton

Brought up in an orthodox Jewish home. Parents constantly quarrelled. Educated at Boston Latin School, was a bright scholar but a chronic asthmatic. Had piano lessons at 11 at New England Conservatory. Played in dance bands to pay for his lessons.

Attended Harvard at 17, stayed four years. Worked briefly in father’s business, but soon left. Studied conducting under Reiner at Curtis Institute, Philadelphia. Met Aaron Copland there, who became a lifelong friend. Later still studied at Tanglewood Summer School (1940-1943).

Early Adult Life
Conducting career started suddenly when he deputised for Bruno Walter in a coast-to-coast broadcast in 1943. He wrote three symphonies: (1) Jeremiah (1942), which won the New York Critics’ Award in 1944, (2) The Age of Anxiety (1944), dedicated to Koussevitsky, and (3) Kaddish (1963) in memory of President Kennedy. He conducted the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1946. Was conductor of New York City Orchestra from 1945-48. About this time he carried out a conducting tour of Britain, France, Germany and Israel.

Later Adult Life
He married Celicia against his parents’ wishes, after a previous engagement had been broken off. They had a daughter Nina in 1952 and a son Alexandar in 1954.

He wrote his chamber opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952), also a series of musicals, for which he is best remembered: On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957), based on Romeo and Juliet.

His best-known film music was On the Waterfront (1954).

He followed his ‘musical father’ Koussevitsky as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1951, then in 1958 became principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; he has at times been a guest conductor for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1956 he took a year off from his conducting duties to write the Chichester Psalms, based on a Hebrew text, the premiere being at Chichester Cathedral.

His father Samuel died in 1969. His dear wife Celicia died of lung cancer in 1978 aged 56. Lenny did absolutely nothing for six months, then he gradually started to work again, still deeply depressed.

His last work was the Mass (1971), for which he jointly compiled the libretto from the Roman Catholic mass combined with folk tunes – a theatre piece with jazz.


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