Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, just north of Boston, on Sunday, August 25, 1918. Bernstein was named Louis at birth, after his mother’s grandfather, but at the age of sixteen he had it formally changed to Leonard, or Lenny.
As a child, Bernstein was sick very often with asthma and hay fever. Perhaps due to these and many other medical conditions, Bernstein preferred to be alone. He didn’t care to spend much time with his family or even with his peers. Most likely because of this self-isolation, Bernstein’s passion for music developed at a young age. At
the age of ten, Leonard’s family received a piano from an aunt who no longer needed it. She knew of Leonard’s love for music, but I doubt she knew what a great impact this gift would have, not only on Leonard, but also on the world of music.
After the young boy began to show an interest in the instrument, a neighbor offered to give him lessons, which lasted for about a year. After that year, Bernstein was no longer satisfied with his teacher, so he went out to find another one. He was referred to a teacher by the name of Miss Susan Williams and despite his father’s protest, this teaching relationship with Miss Williams lasted for two years.
When Bernstein decided that he needed a more professional teacher, he went under the education of Helen Coates, who would later become a life long friend and secretary. After four years of working under Helen, he was accepted as a student of Heinrid Gebhard, who was the best piano teacher in Boston.
At the age of seventeen, Bernstein was accepted at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was interested in many other things other than music. For example, philosophy and history were both subjects of great importance to him. After graduating from Harvard cum laude in 1939, Leonard spent a year in New York City. He met many influential people throughout the course of this year, including Aaron Copland.
Aaron Copland is regarded as being Bernstein’s composing mentor. In fact, Copland was probably the most important influence on All-American music at this time. Bernstein and Copland had many similarities that may have enabled them to create the very strong bond between them. They both came from Russian/Jewish families; both men were raised in urban areas; both became involved in left wing politics; and both were homosexual. (Later, it was said that Bernstein was bisexual and he did marry and have a typical heterosexual relationship.) The relationship began with Bernstein’s great admiration of Copland and from there they formed life long tie
In 1939, Bernstein began to attend the Curtis Institute for Music in Philadelphia, which was a school for both composers and those who wanted a career in performance arts. This is where the finishing touches were put on Bernstein’s training. He began to develop very close relationships with many of his instructors, which would later serve as contacts in the world of music. The first time that Bernstein conducted was at the end of his first year at Curtis when he led the Curtis Orchestra in Wagner’s Tannauser. His joy was obvious to all that saw him in action and he then knew for sure that he would receive great pleasure from performing.
From that moment on the hopes and dreams that Bernstein had as a boy began to become reality. He had many great success stories over his career, but there are two that he is most known for to all people, not just those involved heavily in the music world. They are his role as director of the New York Philharmonic and the production West Side Story.
West Side Story was an idea by Jerome Robbins of a modern, New York style, version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Arthur Laurents wrote the script, Bernstein was the composer and Stephen Sondheim was the lyrist. This tragic comedy premiered in August 1957. Apparently, this was another one of Bernstein’s works that was finished at just in the nick of time.
The songs in this production have been described by many as having magic like qualities. It seems that all Americans are able to relate to this in a very personal way. It is just like watching modern society being portrayed through art in the true, raw form in which it exists. West Side Story has been said to set new standards in musical theatre.
The piece "Somewhere" was a very well known piece taken from West Side Story. Bernstein had originally wanted this song to be the love music for the balcony scene in the musical, but it was instead the introduction for the second act of the play. Many people criticized Bernstein and his partners in this production and it was one of the biggest risks Bernstein took in his career.
On November 14, 1943, Bernstein debuted at Carnegie Hall as the director of the New York Philharmonic. It was a music history event to be remembered. He was only twenty-five years old and had been given only one-day notice that he was going to perform. It made headlines, including the front page of the New York Times.
After his enormous debut, his Young People’s Concerts became one of his greatest achievements. His first concert was conducted on January 1, 1958. He led these programs until 1972 and there were fifty-three concerts in all. During the course of all these shows, he dedicated certain performances to people who had influenced his career, such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. He wrote al of the scripts himself. The shows were so successful that for three years CBS put them in the best time slot, Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m.
Bernstein’s last concert was conducted at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990. He died at his home in New York on October 14, 1990. Emotion spread like wildfire as the news of his death was circulated. He had been such an accomplished man of music. He can be held responsible for making American music what it is today. He was the first American born and trained composer to ever gain the national recognition that Leonard Bernstein did.