The names of great American composers are few, but in any list along with Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, and John Williams is the name Leonard Bernstein. And for all his accomplishments as a composer, Bernstein was even better known for his talent for conducting. He is possibly the most well-known conductor of all-time. But, Bernstein could have just as easily ended up selling hair care products if not for a gift from his aunt.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918 to Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. They were both Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who had come to America in search of a better life for their families. Leonard was the first child born to the couple and the first of both of their families to be born in America. During his formative years, Leonard (or Lenny as they called him at home) suffered from ill-health. He usually avoided outdoor activities because he was never very athletic and as a young Jewish boy in 1920’s Massachusetts he faced a tremendous amount of anti-Semitic taunting.
It was during this time that Leonard came home from school one day to find a piano in the living room. His aunt was moving to New York and had no room for it in the city. Lenny had found the place where he longer had to face the teasing of other boys; a place where his frail body did not inhibit him from participating and that place was in front the eighty-eight ebony and ivory keys on that piano’s keyboard. In this universe he could be whoever he wanted to be.
Soon the boy was showing signs of real talent, but Samuel was not pleased. The older Bernstein felt that Lenny was spending entirely too much time at the piano and not on his studies. This would not go well with Samuel’s plan for his son’s future. Samuel had just opened the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company and it was doing extremely well despite the beginning of the Great Depression looming.
Leonard pressed on despite his father’s objections and by the time Leonard turned fourteen, his father had grudgingly relented. Bernstein was now free to pursue his dreams. He graduated from the acclaimed Boston Public Latin School in 1934 and was accepted at Harvard University the next year. It was here that Leonard changed the focus of his musical talent from piano performance to conducting. He made his debut as a conductor for a student production of The Birds, a play he also composed the music for. Bernstein graduated from Harvard and soon he was on to New York to take the town, but after one summer there he had to swallow his pride and return to Lawrence.
Bernstein did not let this setback hold him down. With a little help from a conductor friend he had met while attending Harvard, he was able to get into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Upon graduation from Curtis in 1941, he was appointed assistant to the director of the Berkshire Music Festival. While directing the orchestra during a benefit concert, he met Artur Rodzinski, the new conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Rodzinski was so impressed with the 25 year-old Bernstein, that he offered him the position of assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic on the spot.
On November 14, 1943, Bernstein’s big break came in the form of a serendipitous situation. The illustrious Bruno Walter was to be guest conducting the Philharmonic because Rodzinski was out of town. But, on the morning of the 14th, Walter found himself so ill that he could not get out of bed. It would be up to Bernstein to conduct the orchestra in front of the audience at Carnegie Hall and for the hundreds of thousands listening to the live broadcast on the radio across the nation. Bernstein seized the opportunity and conducted a masterful performance that won him acclaim across the land.
During the next few years, Bernstein became a bona fide American music superstar. Offers came from all over to do projects and eventually Bernstein had to resign his station if he were to take advantage of them. He wrote his first major piece, Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah”, and collaborated on a play called Fancy Free which was later adapted for Broadway as On the Town. After World War II had ended, he spent some time in the Jewish area of Palestine and later in the new Israel. It was an important time for him spiritually.
Upon returning from Europe and the Middle East, Bernstein was asked to do the score for On the Waterfront. Although the movie won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Bernstein’s work was not specifically recognized. After this, Bernstein’s schedule freed up enough for him to do a project that he and Jerome Robbins had been working on together since 1949. It was to be an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in a modern New York setting. West Side Story premiered in 1957 and was performed 732 times in its initial run on Broadway before going on the road for two years. The movie adaptation garnered ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Bernstein’s collaboration is still considered one of the best Broadway musicals of all-time.
Bernstein was offered the directorship of New York Philharmonic in 1958 and he spent the entirety of the 1960’s dedicated to that orchestra before retiring in 1969. During his retirement, Bernstein became a controversial person with his vehement opposition the war in Vietnam and his dedication to the civil rights movement. He continued to compose and guest conduct over his final years. It became one of the hottest tickets in town when Leonard Bernstein would come back to conduct the Philharmonic. But, sadly during his last time to conduct the orchestra he loved so much, he wasn’t able to finish because of severe coughing. Leonard Bernstein would die three months later on October 14, 1990 from a heart attack.
When Samuel and Jennie Bernstein came to America, there is no doubt that their hopes and dreams were set high. But, even in their wildest imagination, could they have ever believed that their child could become the greatest American conductor ever? Their oldest son would dream it and he would follow it through. This sickly, little Jewish boy from a suburb of Boston lived his dream and it was a dream that can only happen in America.