From an early age, Bernstein showed a fascination with the piano, on which he became an extremely accomplished player before beginning his studies at Harvard University. It was during his college years that a serendipitous meeting with celebrated composer Aaron Copland led to a lifelong friendship and collaborative work relationship. In 1943, Bernstein was selected as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His debut as conductor came about very suddenly when the NY Philharmonic’s conductor became ill before a concert. Without even the time for a rehearsal, Bernstein took to the stage and led one of the country’s most prestigious orchestras for the first time – a role that he would remain tied to for the remaining 40+ years of his career. From 1945 to 1947, Bernstein was chosen as Music Director for the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein became a household name all across America with a CBS-televised live lecture series on Omnibus and the related Young People’s Concerts that followed. Bernstein’s lectures were very well received by the public, especially his analytical deconstruction of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony accompanied by a live symphony orchestra.
While Bernstein continued to foster relationships with the premier orchestral institutions all over the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras, perhaps Bernstein’s greatest career success came with his composition of the score for the musical and film adaptation of West Side Story. The play continues to run in playhouses all over the world today, largely due to the universally beloved music behind the story. Bernstein also achieved great success with the scores for On the Town, Candide, and Wonderful Town. Some other career highlights include Bernstein’s conducting at President John F. Kennedy’s pre-inaugural gala, as well as leading a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1989 to celebrate the fall of Berlin Wall.
In his career, there seems to have been no one in music with whom Bernstein was unfamiliar. He earned honorary memberships in and served as guest conductor for orchestras all over the world. His passion and vast knowledge inspired players in each of these institutions and breathed new life into performance of classical music. Even so, Bernstein’s legacy expands so much further from the organizations he worked for and the musicians he collaborated with: Bernstein was also beloved as an educator, social activist, and philanthropist. In 1982, he co-founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and taught there for several years. After winning the Japan Arts Association’s lifetime achievement award, he donated the $100,000 prize to build a school for music in Nashville. He participated in dozens of performances for numerous charity and activist organizations, notably Amnesty International, and publicly championed social causes for social equality, pacifism, homosexuality, and nuclear disarmament.
Leonard Bernstein’s life and legacy make him one of the true American success stories and one of the most influential musical composers in American antiquity. His vast knowledge and passion for classical music and jazz was coupled with the need to connect with and inspire others. His original works prominently contribute to the soundtrack of American heritage, while the institutions he founded and fostered will continue to carry the torch for orchestral music through the years to come.