LEONARD BERNSTEIN Biography - Writers


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Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990) was an American composer and orchestra conductor. He was probably the first conductor born in the United States of America to receive world-wide acclaim.




Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts to a Jewish family from Rovno, Russia and studied at Harvard (including composition with Walter Piston) and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his teacher of conducting was Fritz Reiner.


He was highly regarded as a conductor, composer, pianist, and educator. He is probably best known to the public as long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for conducting concerts by many of the world’s leading orchestras, and for writing the music for the musical West Side Story. All told, he wrote three symphonies, two operas, five musicals, and numerous other pieces. Bernstein’s politics were decidedly left wing, but unlike some of his contemporaries, he was not blacklisted in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he actively supported groups such as the Black Panthers and publicly opposed the Vietnam War.


In November 1943, he made his debut as a conductor when Bruno Walter was ill, and was an immediate success. In 1949, he conducted the world premiere of the Turangalila-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv; he subsequently made many recordings there. During the 1960s, he became a well-known figure in the US through his series of “Young People’s Concerts” for US public television.


His compositions were heavily influenced by Jewish liturgical music (notably his symphonies 1 and 3 and the Chichester Psalms) and by Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin and his friend Aaron Copland.


On Christmas Day, December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concert was broadcast live in more than twenty countries to an estimated audience of 100 million people. For the occasion, Bernstein reworded Friedrich Schiller’s text of Ode to Joy, substituting the word “freedom” (Freiheit) for “joy” (Freude). “I’m sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing", said Bernstein.


Bernstein was a highly-regarded conductor among many musicians, in particular the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was a regular guest conductor. He was considered especially good in the works of Mahler, Copland, Johannes Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich and of course his own.


However, some people found his conducting style to be histrionic, irritating and distracting; he danced and went into fits of exultation as he conducted. Bernstein’s personal life was marked by anguish over the trade-off between a conductor’s glory and a composer’s productivity, and the criticism invited by his impassioned political activism. It has been alleged that Bernstein also felt a conflict between his devotion to his family and his bisexuality, but Arthur Laurents (Bernstein’s collaborator in West Side Story), told Charles Kaiser (author of The Gay Metropolis) that Bernstein was simply “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay. “Another friend of Bernstein, Shelly Rhoades Perle, told Bernstein’s biographer, Meryl Secrest, that she thought “he required men sexually and women emotionally.” Bernstein suffered bouts of depression in his later years.


Bernstein married Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, in 1951 and with her had three children. Although a loving father, Bernstein was notorious in the musical world for his promiscuity. The couple separated in the mid-1970s when she discovered that Bernstein had had several homosexual relationships. After the separation with his wife, Bernstein lived with Tom Cochran, his partner since 1971. He returned to care for his wife when she became terminally ill.


Samuel Byck, a psychopath who attempted to assassinate President Nixon, had sent details of his plan to Bernstein whom he admired both as a person and as a composer.
Leonard Bernstein is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.