Who Was Leonard Bernstein? Originally published December 28-29, 2018.

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein was August 25, 2018.  We think him worthy of mention.

Mr. Bernstein was a composer, conductor, pianist, writer, teacher, ambassador, and humanitarian – all with a genuine passion, boundless talent, and skills rare throughout history.  He was born in Lawrence, Mass., and we lost him on October 14, 1990, in New York City (at The Dakota, a place where we seem to lose musicians.)

There are worldwide celebrations running from August 25, 2017, through August 25, 2019.   Information about the celebrations is available at www.LeonardBernstein.com.

Bernstein began studying piano at the New England Conservatory of Music at 13, and within the year publicly performed Paderewski and Brahms.  By 1940 he was studying with conductor Serge Koussevitzky at then-new Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute, and later became Maestro Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant.  In 1943 he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and after filling in for Conductor Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall in a live broadcast concert, he was in high demand.  And he could conduct from behind the piano keys! 

Meanwhile, Bernstein’s Jewish roots came through in his first large-scale composition, Symphony No. 1: “Jeremiah” (1943).  Having completed Symphony No. 2: “The Age of Anxiety” (1949), he followed up with Symphony No. 3: “Kaddish” (1963), which was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and is dedicated “To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy.”  And he composed Chichester Psalms (Hebrew choral) in 1965. Many know him also as the composer of musicals – for instance, West Side Story (1957), On the Town (1944), Candide (1956), and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976).  He composed Dybbuk (1975) for the New York City Ballet, the score for the movie On the Waterfront (1954), and incidental music for Broadway’s Peter Pan (1950) and The Lark (1955).

His performances of Gershwin, Copland, Britten, and Shostakovich were phenomenal.

The Israel Philharmonic dubbed him lifetime Laureat Conductor in 1988.  The London Symphony Orchestra named him Honorary President in 1987.  He was granted a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1985.  And he taught:  in classrooms at Brandeis, for young people’s orchestras and concerts, and on television, and in books.

His honors were many, and he often spoke in particular about the need for worldwide peace and amnesty.

Bernstein’s is a life well worth celebrating, a clearly Jewish and American voice of modern times and of humanity.