Leonard Bernstein – composer, conductor, pianist, prolific author and successful music educator in one person – was one of the best-known musicians in public life of his time. He conducted at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala, Robert Kennedy’s funeral, and President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. In his compositional work, he experimented with a wide variety of styles – from classical and avant-garde to Broadway and jazz – in keeping with his motto “For me every kind of music is serious”.
Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the child of Jewish immigrants. He studied at Harvard University under Walter Piston from 1935 before moving to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to continue his training under Randall Thompson and Fritz Reiner. The versatile musician received further instruction from Serge Koussevitzky, who became one of his principal mentors. The career of Bernstein, who had conducted almost all the major orchestras in the USA in the mid-1940s, quickly took off: in 1958, he became head of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and in the following decades he conducted almost all the top international orchestras, appeared as a soloist conducting from the piano, and accompanied stars such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig in recitals. After the premiere of his First Symphony “Jeremiah” in Pittsburgh and the premieres of the ballet [Fancy Free] and the Broadway musical [On the Town] (all 1944), Bernstein also gained increasing recognition as a composer. His second symphony “The Age of Anxiety” (1949) and his opera [Trouble in Tahiti] (1950) were followed by the musical [On the Town] (1953), the film score for [On the Waterfront], which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954, and his most successful music theatre work [West Side Story] (1957). On 17 May 1969, Bernstein made his last appearance as head of the New York Philharmonic. He had performed with the orchestra in 939 concerts, more often than any other conductor. Afterwards, the composer devoted more time to his creative work. In the last decade of his life, Bernstein received honorary doctorates from more than a dozen universities, among many other awards. After a series of health problems, he died in New York in 1990 at the age of 72.