Name originally Louis Bernstein; name legally changed to Leonard at age 16; born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass.; son of Samuel Joseph (owner of a barber supply company) and Jennie (a factory worker; maiden name, Resnick) Bernstein; married Felicia Montealegre Cohn (a pianist and actress), September 9, 1951 (died, June 1978); children: Jamie Anne Maria, Alexander Serge, Nina Marie Felicia. Addresses: Office --c/o Amberson Enterprises, 24 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

Leonard Bernstein is an immensely talented American conductor, composer, pianist, and educator who has made significant contributions to the realms of both classical and popular music through numerous concerts, compositions, recordings, television appearances, and classes. He is one of the best-known American composers and the first American-born conductor to regularly conduct European orchestras.

Born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein is the eldest of three children born to Samuel and Jennie Resnick Bernstein, Russian-Jewish immigrants. Though he was named Louis by his parents, at age sixteen Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard to distinguish himself from other Louis Bernsteins in the family. Bernstein attended Boston's highly competitive Latin School and, despite his father's wish that he work for the family cosmetic business, studied piano, beginning at the rather late age of ten, with Helen Coates and later Heinrich Gebhard. In 1935 Bernstein enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied music with Edward Ballantine, Edward Brulingame Hill, A. Tillman Merritt, and Walter Piston, as well as philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and philology. After earning a B.A. in 1939, Bernstein studied with a number of renowned musicians at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia: Isabella Bengerova, Renee Longy, Randall Thompson, and Fritz Reiner. During the summers of 1940 and 1941 Bernstein studied conducting with the celebrated conductor Sergei Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Koussevitzky recognized Bernstein's talent and in 1942 appointed him his assistant.

At this time Bernstein worked for a music publisher, arranging popular songs, transcribing band pieces, and notating jazz improvizations, which were published under the pseudonym Lenny Amber. He ocassionally conducted Boston ensembles and became the assistant conductor under Arthur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, when Bruno Walter, who was scheduled to conduct the orchestra's nationally broadcast concert, suddenly became ill, Bernstein substituted for him with such success that his career was launched.

From 1944 to 1950 Bernstein served as guest conductor to seven major orchestras and replaced Leopold Stokowski as music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, a position Bernstein held from 1945 to 1948. During his tenure with the orchestra, Bernstein conducted primarily twentieth-century works by European and American composers and proved to be an effective proponent of American music, which was largely ignored until his intervention. Bernstein's compositions of this period include his Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," which premiered in 1944 under his own direction and the ballet Fancy Free, which later became the basis for the critically acclaimed Broadway musical "On the Town." Bernstein was also active as a pianist, and in 1949 performed the solo part in his own Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety."

In 1951 Bernstein married his longtime friend, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn. That same year Koussevitzy died, and Bernstein replaced him as director of the orchestra and conducting departments at the Berkshire Music Center. He was also appointed professor of music at Brandeis University, a position he held until 1955. While at Brandeis and in the late 1950s Bernstein continued to compose works for the stage, including the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, the Broadway musical "Wonderful Town," the comic operetta Candide, and the monumentally sucessful Broadway musical "West Side Story." He also composed the film score for On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bernstein achieved international stature as a conductor. He was the first American to conduct at the famous opera venue Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, Italy, when in 1953 he directed the celebrated soprano Maria Callas in Cherubini's Medea. After a year as co-director under Dimitri Mitropoulos, in 1958 Bernstein acceded to the directorship of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein adapted a thematic approach to organizing concert programs and premiered works by American composers. With the orchestra, he produced many recordings and toured widely, including the Near East, Japan, Alaska, and Canada. The orchestra attracted record crowds. Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," premiered in 1963, and the following year Bernstein took a sabbatical leave to experiment with composing using twelve-tone serial techniques. He did not find this popular technique to his liking and the product of this period, the Chichester Pslams, is a re-affirmation of his belief in tonality. At this time Bernstein also considered writing another musical, but was unable to settle on an appropriate project. To devote more time to composing, in 1969 Bernstein resigned as the permanent conductor, though he was given the permanent title "laureate conductor" and thus allowed to conduct ocassionally.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein often guest-conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he has made recordings and television appearances. His Mass, a work commissioned by the John F. Kennedy family for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was premiered in 1971, and his ballet based on a classic Jewish legend, The Dybbuk, was first performed in 1974 with choreography by Jerome Robbins, who had choreographed West Side Story. After many months of work on a musical about life in the White House, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," which was lambasted by critics, Bernstein gave up composing musicals. In 1977 tragedy struck when his wife Felicia died from cancer.

In 1980 Bernstein began the challenging project of concert performances, and television and record recordings of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde. After a busy concert season in 1982, Bernstein focused his attention on the opera A Quiet Place (Tahiti II), which premiered in 1983. After visiting Europe again in late 1983 for concerts and recordings, Bernstein opened a concert tour with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted in a series of guest appearances. He then went to Milan, where a revised version of A Quiet Place became the first American opera to be performed at Teatro alla Scala. Bernstein continued to revise this work for some time afterward, and for the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic he composed Jubilee Games.

Approaching music intellectually, but with passion, Bernstein believes that as a conductor, he must intimately understand the intent of the composer and the culture in which he or she lived in order to "recompose" the work on stage. Sometimes his interpretations have been considered self-indulgent, and commentators have long criticized what they consider to be overly exuberant conducting gestures, but by and large he is acclaimed wherever he appears. Bernstein has become especially well known for his interpretations of the works of Mahler and Wagner, which include recordings of the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. Since he first took to the podium, Bernstein has made over four hundred recordings, for which he has received many Grammy nominations and awards.

Bernstein has also been the recipient of numerous awards for his work as a composer and educator. In the 1970s and 1980s music festivals were held in his honor, and the arrival of his seventieth birthday was feted with numerous performances of his works. Bernstein calls himself both a compulsive composer and educator. In 1954 he produced a series of television lectures about music that were published a year later as The Joy of Music. Subsequent television shows were regularly shown on network television, among them fifty-two talks for young listeners (published as Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts for Reading and Listening ) and a series of Harvard lectures (published as The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard ). Bernstein has published a number of other informative books and regularly conducts workshops at Tangelwood for promising conducting students.

Though Bernstein refuses to be associated with any single orchestra in his later years, he has spent more time conducting than composing--yet composing is never far from his mind. His 1988 composition, Arias and Barcarolles, is only one of several songs cycles he plans to compose, which he has hinted may evolve into an opera. At a press conference a week before his seventieth birthday, Bernstein expressed his thankfulness for the opportunities he has enjoyed throughout his career and his desire for more years during which to use the talents with which he has been so abundantly blessed.

by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Leonard Bernstein's Career

Assistant conductor of the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York (name later changed to the New York Philharmonic), 1943--, music co-director, 1957, director, 1958-61; director of the New York City Symphony, 1945-48; head of the orchestra and conducting departments at the Berkshire Music Center, 1951-55; has worked with countless other musicians and musicial organizations.

Leonard Bernstein's Awards

Winner of nine Grammy Awards, 1961-77, and of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1985; winner of 11 Emmy Awards; recipient of George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in television; chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, 1968; awarded the Motion Picture Academy's Gold Medal for Music, 1985; recipient of Edwin MacDowell Medal, 1987; named musician of the year by Musical America, 1988.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

March 10, 2005: Bernstein's opera Candide was revived by the City Opera at the New York State Theater. Source: New York Times,, March 10, 2005.

May 5, 2005: Score, a one-man show about Bernstein, opened at the New York Theater Workshop. The play was adapted from Bernstein's writings by Jocelyn Clarke and starred Tom Nelis. Source: New York Times,, May 5, 2005.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 15 years ago

WOW he had a lot of things going on in his life . he must of bin rich