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Leonard Bernstein


American composer and conductor. Born 25 August, 1918: Died 14 October 1990

The son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant. who had worked himself up from nothing to become a successful businessman. Leonard Bernstein was horn in Massachusetts. in 1918. From the fast. his father discouraged him from taking music seriously. Where Sam Bernstein came from musicians were 'the lowest of the low'. He sent his son to Boston Latin. One of the most academically demanding schools in America. where the boy excelled at everything, effortlessly. Harvard followed and Lenny had the same success. musically and socially.

Breaking New Ground

1943 marked a turning point in Bernstein's life. Only three years out of Harvard. he was made assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The appointment was amazing as it was unheard of for the orchestra to have an American conductor, and Bernstein was only 27.

By the time West Side Story, was first produced in 1957, Bernstein was at the peak Of his career. Though not yet 40. he had already composed two full-length symphonies, a ballet and scores for three Broadway musicals. For the nest 20 years, feeling he had paid his theatre dues, he abandoned the stage and pursued a hectic career of conducting, recording. lecturing and composing for the concert Fall. In 1978, he became music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His response was characteristically nonchalant. His old friend Sid Ramin describes tram ride he took with Bernstein at the time. He followed him to the back of the tram where Bernstein lay down and then told him of the new job. Ramin says, 'All I Could think of was this is the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Lying down in a Philadelphia streetcar.'

Conductor and soloist

Bernstein toured widely, sometimes as Conductor, sometimes as soil pianist and, on occasion. as both. In 1961, he conducted Verdi's Falstaff with Zeffirelli as director at the Metropolitan Opera House. Over a 10-year period, he recorded all the symphonies of Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven and several operas. In 1963, he conducted the world premiere in Tel Aviv of his symphony. Kaddish More an oratorio than a symphony, it involved massed voices. a narrator and elaborate jazz effects. The dramatic choral fugue from this work was much praised when played in Boston the following year. Two years later he also produced his Chichester Psalms, an altogether simpler, more tuneful work: Bernstein's slow music at its best. Bernstein worked equally well in popular theatre and classical music. He was influenced both by 20th-century, classical composers. Such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler and Copland, and by jazz. which he felt was the single most important musical phenomenon of the 20th century'. Manhattan, where he lived for most of his life, formed the setting for three of his five musicals (On the Town, 1944, Wonderful Town, 1953, West Side Story, 1957). The result is aggressive music, which excites and inspires.

Private Life

Bernstein charmed almost everyone he met with his ready wit and theatricality. He was notoriously promiscuous with both sexes but decided to settle down to a serious life when he married Felicia Montealegre in 1951. They had three children. but the marriage ended in 1976.

All his life Bernstein was determined to prove that an American musician, taught entirely within America, could he acclaimed and respected throughout the world of classical music. Two years before his death in 1990 he received Germany's highest music award, the Siemens Prize, something which must have made him feel he had achieved this.