Leonard Bernstein was one of the few who defined a city; and while he was quintessentially New York, his reach ventured far beyond the Hudson.
On November 14, 1943, Carnegie Hall was packed to the rafters. All 2,840 seats were taken, the audience keen to hear the New York Philharmonic under the baton of famed conductor Bruno Walter. But Walter suddenly fell ill and the job of conducting was given to the 25-year-old assistant conductor. Leonard Bernstein had only a couple of hours to familiarize himself with the scores and obviously hadn’t rehearsed with the orchestra, so management didn’t expect much—they crossed their fingers hoping the performance wouldn’t be a disaster. But what happened blew everyone’s minds.
The young conductor had discussed the score with Walter, but he put his own interpretation on the works to be performed. In the short time he had to prepare, Bernstein examined the music searching for the composers’ true intentions and determined to breathe new life into the well-known pieces on the evening’s playbill. This was an approach he was to take his whole life. Conductor Marin Alsop has remarked that Bernstein was “the ultimate champion of the composer.”
On this auspicious night, his insights bore fruit. The performance was thrilling: the musicians were awed by his technique and the audience leapt to its collective feet to cheer. Broadcast across America, Bernstein became the man of the moment. Before long, he was being invited to conduct orchestras all over America.
Born on August 25, 1918, he was a natural musician, taking to the piano like a duck to water. At 17, he entered Harvard University to study music and he later studied under esteemed conductors Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. As his career flourished and as he moved into composition as well as conducting, he was changing the way Americans thought about their own classical music stars. It was common at the time to engage conductors from Europe and elsewhere rather than hire local conductors—a bit of cultural cringe—but Bernstein’s undeniable panache and skill forced a re-think. He once said, “The baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement,” and he brought this intensity and focus to everything he conducted. From the mid-1940s, he conducted orchestras across the world and in 1953 became the first ever American to conduct opera at Milan’s famous La Scala.
He was also composing. He wrote three symphonies: Symphony No 1: Jeremiah (1943) celebrated his Jewish heritage; Symphony No 2: The Age of Anxiety (1949) was inspired by a poem by W. H. Auden; Symphony No 3: Kaddish (1963) was composed to commemorate the life of President John F. Kennedy. These symphonies and much of his other work have a solid philosophical element to them and Bernstein himself said that he wrote about the “struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith.” Among his major works are Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble (1949), Chichester Psalms (1965), MASS (1971), Songfest (1977), and Concerto for Orchestra (1989).
Then there’s the Broadway and film music. On the Town (1944) captures the youthful high spirits of three sailors on leave in New York; the score for On the Waterfront (1954) is a triumph; Candide (1956) is brilliant; and of course there’s West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in 1957 and became a multi-Oscar award-winning film in 1961. It’s arguably the greatest of all musicals. Even after 60 years, most of us know that “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way”; we can hum along to songs like “America, Tonight” and the beautiful love song “Somewhere.”
Bernstein wrote opera and ballet music; he composed fanfares, sonatas, nocturnes, and occasional pieces. Contemporary, eclectic, and exciting, he was truly a major force on the American classical scene. He was also very famous. His television lectures on classical music ran from 1954-1958 and were widely watched, and he continued to lecture about music his whole life. His non-didactic style and evident passion for musical education attracted countless thousands to his lectures. He wanted people to understand music, to appreciate it. For him, music was a way to impose harmony on a volatile world.
His televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic made him a household name. From 1958-1972, Bernstein led 53 concerts aimed to educate and inspire young people about the joys of classical music. He not only conducted the orchestra, he described what was going on, what the music meant, how it all worked. Playing the monumental classical works, he also championed more modern composers including Copland, Shostakovich, Holst, and others. These programs, broadcast live, had a huge influence on audiences. Don’t forget that television was much simpler then. There were fewer programs, no video-recording, and the whole family had to sit together to watch TV shows. There was nothing cultish about this program—it was an incredibly popular show across America.
One way to gauge the level of Bernstein’s renown is to consider popular television series of the times. In 1949, Bugs Bunny famously impersonated legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski in a cartoon called Long-Haired Hare. In a 1961 episode of The Flintstones, Wilma and Betty are going to a concert conducted by “Leonard Bernstone.” It was that episode of The Flintstones that made Bernstein’s own children realize just how famous their father was.
Bernstein was closely associated with Carnegie Hall his whole life. Between his triumphant 1943 debut and his death, he appeared at that venue almost 450 times—as conductor, composer, pianist, and lecturer; and there have been over 700 performances of his music there. He was also closely associated with the New York Philharmonic with whom he worked for 47 years and with whom he made more than 200 of his 400 or so recordings.
Over the course of his life, Bernstein received a swag of honorary degrees, Grammys, Emmys, and many, many other acknowledgements for his music, writing, and humanitarian work. He was widely admired and respected, musicians as varied as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Miles Davis singing his praises as loudly as anyone in the classical music world. His own compositional skills ranged from complex symphonic and orchestral work to memorable Broadway melodies. And as one of the most eminent conductors of the last century, he inspired others to find the truth in the works they conducted.
When he died in 1990 at the age of 72, America lost one of its trailblazers, a musician whose hard work and dedication to his craft continues to be a model for so many; an all-round musician, a man of exuberance and joie de vivre. Here he is conducting his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. And with that we say, happy centenary, Lenny!