Who is Leonard Bernstein?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2019
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Composer, pianist, and conductor Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 to Russian immigrants. He took piano lessons as a child, and studied music at Harvard University, where he met Aaron Copland, most of whose works he performed and conducted and by whose style he was deeply influenced. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1939, Bernstein went to study at the Curtis Institute, and during the following two summers, Serge Koussevitzky—then conductor of the Boston Symphony—instructed him in conducting at Tanglewood.

In 1942, Leonard Bernstein became Koussevitzky’s assistant, and in 1943, he was chosen to be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Taking the podium at short notice when the scheduled conductor was ill in November of that same year, Bernstein became instantly famous. Just three months later, his first symphony was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and it went on to win Best American Work of the Year from the New York Music Critics’ Circle.

Leonard Bernstein is remembered today for his music for dance, musicals, and theater, and his work in this area includes the 1944 ballet Fancy Free and musical On the Town. He also composed music for the chamber opera Trouble in Tahiti, the musical West Side Story, and the film On the Waterfront. He became a professor of music at Brandeis University, and succeeded Koussevitzky as head of the conducting and orchestra departments at Tanglewood after Koussevitzky’s death in 1951.


In 1958, Leonard Bernstein became the first American-born conductor to be named music director of the New York Philharmonic. In that post, he introduced the thematically organized Young People’s Concerts, which were televised, and inaugurated Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, now called Avery Fisher Hall. He remained in the post until 1969, at which time he was named laureate conductor for life. In later years, he conducted elsewhere, particularly with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and led a memorable rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Bernstein won many honors and awards, including 11 Emmy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, the Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture Through the Performing Arts, and many other honors. He died in 1990.


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