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Leonard Bernstein (//; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. According to Donal Henahan, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history."
His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, as well as Peter Pan, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town and his own Mass.
Bernstein was also the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.
As a composer he wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano. Many of his works are regularly performed around the world, although none has matched the tremendous popular and commercial success of West Side Story.
He was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie (née Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hair-dressing supplies wholesaler originating from Rovno (now Ukraine). He was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein, but the two men were friends, and even shared a certain physical similarity. Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard).
His family spent their summers at their vacation home in Sharon, Massachusetts. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, which they preferred. He officially changed his name to Leonard when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother's death. To his friends and many others he was simply known as "Lenny."
His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman and owner of a bookstore in downtown Lawrence; it is standing today on the corners of Amesbury and Essex Streets. Sam initially opposed young Leonard's interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein took him to orchestra concerts in his teenage years and eventually supported his music education. At a very young age, Bernstein listened to a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano seriously when the family acquired his cousin Lillian Goldman's unwanted piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison Grammar School and Boston Latin School. As a child he was very close to his younger sister Shirley, and would often play entire operas or Beethoven symphonies with her at the piano. He had a variety of piano teachers in his youth, including Helen Coates, who later became his secretary.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935, Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with, amongst others, Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. Although he majored in music with a final year thesis (1939) entitled "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music" (reproduced in his book Findings), Bernstein's main intellectual influence at Harvard was probably the aesthetics Professor David Prall, whose multidisciplinary outlook on the arts Bernstein shared for the rest of his life. One of his friends at Harvard was philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom he played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein reused some of this music in the ballet Fancy Free. During his time at Harvard he was briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club. Bernstein also mounted a student production of The Cradle Will Rock, directing its action from the piano as the composer Marc Blitzstein had done at the premiere. Blitzstein, who heard about the production, subsequently became a friend and influence (both musically and politically) on Bernstein.
Bernstein also met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the time. Although he never taught Bernstein, Mitropoulos's charisma and power as a musician was a major influence on Bernstein's eventual decision to take up conducting. Mitropoulos was not stylistically that similar to Bernstein, but he probably influenced some of Bernstein's later habits such as his conducting from the keyboard, his initial practice of conducting without a baton and perhaps his interest in Mahler. The other important influence that Bernstein first met during his Harvard years was composer Aaron Copland, whom he met at a concert and then at a party afterwards on Copland's birthday in 1938. At the party Bernstein played Copland's Piano Variations, a thorny work Bernstein loved without knowing anything about its composer until that evening. Although he was not formally Copland's student as such, Bernstein would regularly seek advice from Copland in the following years about his own compositions and would often cite him as "his only real composition teacher".
After completing his studies at Harvard in 1939 (graduating with a B.A. cum laude), he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein studied conducting with Fritz Reiner (who anecdotally is said to have given Bernstein the only "A grade" he ever awarded), piano with Isabelle Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr, and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle. Unlike his years at Harvard, Bernstein appears not to have greatly enjoyed the formal training environment of Curtis, although often in his later life he would mention Reiner when discussing important mentors.
After he left Curtis, Bernstein lived in New York. He shared a flat with his friend Adolph Green and often accompanied Green, Betty Comden and Judy Holliday in a comedy troupe called The Revuers who performed in Greenwich Village. He took jobs with a music publisher, transcribing music or producing arrangements under the pseudonym Lenny Amber (the German meaning of his name in English). During this period in New York City, Bernstein enjoyed an exuberant social life that included relationships with both men and women. In 1940, Bernstein began his study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer institute, Tanglewood, in the conducting class of the orchestra's conductor, Serge Koussevitzky.
Bernstein's friendships with Copland (who was very close to Koussevitsky) and Mitropoulos were important in him being recommended for a place in the class. Other students in the class included Lukas Foss, who also became a lifelong friend. Koussevitsky perhaps did not teach Bernstein much basic conducting technique (which he had already developed under Reiner) but instead became a sort of father figure to him and was perhaps the major influence on Bernstein's emotional way of interpreting music. Bernstein later became Koussevitzky's conducting assistant and would later dedicate his Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, to him.
On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his major conducting debut at sudden notice—and without any rehearsal—after Bruno Walter came down with the flu. The next day, The New York Times carried the story on their front page and their editorial remarked, "It's a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves." He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and afterwards started to appear as a guest conductor with many U.S. orchestras. The program included works by Schumann, Miklos Rozsa, Wagner and Richard Strauss's Don Quixote with soloist Joseph Schuster, solo cellist of the orchestra. Before the concert Bernstein briefly spoke to Bruno Walter, who discussed particular difficulties in the works he was to perform. It is possible to hear this concert (apart from the Wagner work) on a recording of the CBS radio broadcast that has been issued on CD by the orchestra.
From 1945 to 1947 Bernstein was the Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, which had been founded the previous year by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. The orchestra (with support from the Mayor) was aimed at a different audience with more modern programs and cheaper tickets than the New York Philharmonic.
Also in regard to a different audience, in 1945 Bernstein discussed the possibility of acting in a film with Greta Garbo—playing Tchaikovsky opposite her starring role as the composer's patron Nadezhda von Meck.
In addition to becoming known as a conductor, Bernstein also emerged as a composer in the same period. In January 1944 he conducted the premiere of his Jeremiah Symphony in Pittsburgh. His score to the ballet Fancy Free choreographed by Jerome Robbins opened in New York in April 1944 and this was later developed into the musical On the Town with lyrics by Comden and Green that opened on Broadway in December 1944.
After World War II, Bernstein's career on the international stage began to flourish. In 1946 he made his first trip to Europe conducting various orchestras and recorded Ravel's Piano Concerto in G as soloist and conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In 1946, he conducted opera for the first time, with the American première at Tanglewood of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which had been a Koussevitzky commission. That same year, Arturo Toscanini invited Bernstein to guest conduct two concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, one of which again featured Bernstein as soloist in the Ravel concerto.
In 1947, Bernstein conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, beginning a lifelong association with Israel. The next year he conducted an open air concert for troops at Beersheba in the middle of the desert during the Arab-Israeli war. In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv; he subsequently made many recordings there. In 1967, he conducted a concert on Mt. Scopus to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem. During the 1970s, Bernstein recorded his symphonies and other works with the Israel Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon.
In 1949, he conducted the world première of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Part of the rehearsal for the concert was released on CD by the orchestra. When Koussevitzky died two years later, Bernstein became head of the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood, holding this position for many years.
After much personal struggle and a turbulent on-off engagement, he married the Costa Rican-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on September 10, 1951. One suggestion is that he chose to marry partly to dispel rumors about his private life to help secure a major conducting appointment, following advice from his mentor Dimitri Mitropoulos about the conservative nature of orchestra boards. Bernstein's sexuality has been a matter of speculation and debate. Arthur Laurents (Bernstein's collaborator in West Side Story) said that Bernstein was "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay." Shirley Rhoades Perle, another friend of Bernstein, said that she thought "he required men sexually and women emotionally." But the early years of his marriage seem to have been happy, and no one has suggested Bernstein and his wife didn't love each other. They had three children, Jamie, Alexander, and later Nina. There are reports, though, that Bernstein did sometimes have brief extramarital liaisons with young men, which several family friends have said his wife knew about.
In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the world première of the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives, which was written around half a century earlier but had never been performed. Throughout his career, Bernstein often talked about the music of Ives, who died in 1954. The composer, old and frail, was unable (some reports say unwilling) to attend the concert, but his wife did. He reportedly listened to a radio broadcast of it on a radio in his kitchen some days later. A recording of the "premiere" was released in a 10-CD box set Bernstein LIVE by the orchestra, but the notes indicate it was a repeat performance from three days later, and this is perhaps what Ives heard. In any case, reports also differ on Ives's exact reaction, but some suggest he was thrilled and danced a little jig. Bernstein recorded the 2nd symphony with the orchestra in 1958 for Columbia and 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon. There is also a 1987 performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra available on DVD.
Bernstein was a visiting music professor from 1951 to 1956 at Brandeis University, and he founded the Creative Arts Festival there in 1952. He conducted various productions at the first festival, including the premiere of his opera Trouble in Tahiti and Blitzstein's English version of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. The festival was named after him in 2005, becoming the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts. In 1953 he was the first American conductor to appear at La Scala in Milan, conducting Maria Callas in Cherubini's Medea. That same year, he produced his score to the musical Wonderful Town at very short notice, working again with his old friends Comden and Green, who wrote the lyrics.
In 1954 Bernstein made the first of his television lectures for the CBS arts program Omnibus. The live lecture, entitled "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony", involved Bernstein explaining the work with the aid of musicians from the former NBC Symphony Orchestra (recently renamed the "Symphony of the Air") and a giant page of the score covering the floor. Bernstein subsequently performed concerts with the orchestra and recorded his Serenade for Violin with Isaac Stern. Further Omnibus lectures followed from 1955 to 1958 (later on ABC and then NBC) covering jazz, conducting, American musical comedy, modern music, J.S. Bach, and grand opera. These programs were made available in the U.S. in a DVD set in 2010.
In late 1956, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in concerts that were to have been conducted by Guido Cantelli, who had died in an air crash in Paris. This was the first time Bernstein had conducted the orchestra in subscription concerts since 1951. Partly due to these appearances, Bernstein was named the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, replacing Dimitri Mitropoulos. He began his tenure in that position in 1958, having held the post jointly with Mitropoulos from 1957 to 1958. In 1958, Bernstein and Mitropoulos took the New York Philharmonic on tour to South America. In his first season in sole charge, Bernstein included a season-long survey of American classical music. Themed programming of this sort was fairly novel at that time compared to the present day. Bernstein held the music directorship until 1969 (with a sabbatical in 1965) although he continued to conduct and make recordings with the orchestra for the rest of his life and was appointed "laureate conductor".
He became a well-known figure in the United States through his series of fifty-three televised Young People's Concerts for CBS, which grew out of his Omnibus programs. His first Young People's Concert was televised a few weeks after his tenure began as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He became as famous for his educational work in those concerts as for his conducting. The Bernstein Young People's Concerts were the first and probably the most influential series of music appreciation programs ever produced on television, and they were highly acclaimed by critics. Some of Bernstein's music lectures were released on records, with at least one[which?] winning a Grammy award. The programs were shown in many countries around the world, often with Bernstein dubbed into other languages. All of them were released on DVD by Kultur Video (half of them in 2013).
Prior to taking over the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein composed the music for two shows. The first was for the operetta Candide, which was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman based on Voltaire's novel. The second was Bernstein's collaboration with the choreographer Jerome Robbins, the writer Arthur Laurents, and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim to produce the musical West Side Story. The first three had worked on it intermittently since Robbins first suggested the idea in 1949. Finally, with the addition of Sondheim to the team and a period of concentrated effort, it received its Broadway premiere in 1957 and has since proven to be Bernstein's most popular and enduring score.
In 1959, he took the New York Philharmonic on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, portions of which were filmed by CBS. A highlight of the tour was Bernstein's performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, in the presence of the composer, who came on stage at the end to congratulate Bernstein and the musicians. In October, when Bernstein and the orchestra returned to the U.S., they recorded the symphony for Columbia. He recorded it for a second time with the orchestra on tour in Japan in 1979. Bernstein seems to have limited himself to only conducting certain Shostakovich symphonies, namely the numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 14. He made two recordings of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, one with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s and another one recorded live in 1988 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the few recordings he made with them including Symphony No. 1.
In 1960 Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic held a Mahler Festival to mark the centenary of the composer's birth. Bernstein, Walter and Mitropoulos conducted performances. The composer's widow, Alma, attended some of Bernstein's rehearsals. In 1960 Bernstein also made his first commercial recording of a Mahler symphony (the fourth) and over the next seven years he made the first complete cycle of recordings of all nine of Mahler's completed symphonies. (All featured the New York Philharmonic except the 8th Symphony which was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra following a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1966.) The success of these recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances and television talks, was an important part of the revival of interest in Mahler in the 1960s, especially in the U.S.
Other non-U.S. composers that Bernstein championed to some extent at the time include the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (who was then only little known in the U.S.) and Jean Sibelius, whose popularity had by then started to fade. Bernstein eventually recorded a complete cycle in New York of Sibelius's symphonies and three of Nielsen's symphonies (Nos. 2, 4, and 5), as well as conducting recordings of his violin, clarinet and flute concertos. He also recorded Nielsen's 3rd Symphony with the Royal Danish Orchestra after a critically acclaimed public performance in Denmark. Bernstein championed U.S. composers, especially those that he was close to like Aaron Copland, William Schuman and David Diamond. He also started to more extensively record his own compositions for Columbia Records. This included his three symphonies, his ballets, and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with the New York Philharmonic. He also conducted an LP of his 1944 musical On The Town, the first (almost) complete recording of the original featuring several members of the original Broadway cast, including Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (The 1949 film version only contains four of Bernstein's original numbers.) Bernstein also collaborated with the experimental jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck resulting in the recording "Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein" (1961).
In one oft-reported incident, in April 1962 Bernstein appeared on stage before a performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the pianist Glenn Gould. During rehearsals, Gould had argued for tempi much broader than normal, which did not reflect Bernstein's concept of the music. Bernstein gave a brief address to the audience starting with "Don't be frightened; Mr Gould is here..." and going on to "In a concerto, who is the boss (audience laughter)—the soloist or the conductor?" (Audience laughter grows louder). The answer is, of course, sometimes the one and sometimes the other, depending on the people involved." This speech was subsequently interpreted by Harold C. Schonberg, music critic for The New York Times, as abdication of personal responsibility and an attack on Gould, whose performance Schonberg went on to criticize heavily. Bernstein always denied that this had been his intent and has stated that he made these remarks with Gould's blessing. In the book Dinner with Lenny, published in October 2013, author Jonathan Cott provided a thorough debunking, in the conductor's own words, of the legend which Bernstein himself described in the book as "one ... that won't go away". Throughout his life, he professed admiration and friendship for Gould. Schonberg was often (though not always) harshly critical of Bernstein as a conductor during his tenure as Music Director. However, his views were not shared by the audiences (with many full houses) and probably not by the musicians themselves (who had greater financial security arising from Bernstein's many TV and recording activities amongst other things).
In 1962 the New York Philharmonic moved from Carnegie Hall to Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in the new Lincoln Center. The move was not without controversy because of acoustic problems with the new hall. Bernstein conducted the gala opening concert featuring vocal works by Mahler, Beethoven and Vaughan Williams, and the premiere of Aaron Copland's Connotations, a serial-work that was merely politely received. During the intermission Bernstein kissed the cheek of the President's wife Jacqueline Kennedy, a break with protocol that was commented on at the time. In 1961 Bernstein had conducted at President John F. Kennedy's pre-inaugural gala, and he was an occasional guest in the Kennedy White House. He also conducted at the funeral mass in 1968 for the late President Kennedy's brother Robert Kennedy.
In 1964 Bernstein conducted Franco Zeffirelli's production of Verdi's Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1966 he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera conducting Luchino Visconti's production of the same opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff. During his time in Vienna he also recorded the opera for Columbia Records and conducted his first subscription concert with the Vienna Philharmonic (which is made up of players from the Vienna State Opera) featuring Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Fischer-Dieskau and James King. He returned to the State Opera in 1968 for a production of Der Rosenkavalier and in 1970 for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's Fidelio. Sixteen years later, at the State Opera, Bernstein conducted his sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place. with the ORF orchestra. Bernstein's final farewell to the State Opera happened accidentally in 1989: following a performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, he unexpectedly entered the stage and embraced conductor Claudio Abbado in front of a cheering audience.
With his commitment to the New York Philharmonic and his many other activities, Bernstein had little time for composition during the 1960s. The two major works he produced at this time were his Kaddish Symphony dedicated to the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy and the Chichester Psalms which he produced during a sabbatical year he took from the Philharmonic in 1965 to concentrate on composition. To try to have more time for composition was probably a major factor in his decision to step down as Music Director of the Philharmonic in 1969, and to never accept such a position anywhere again.
After stepping down from the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein continued to appear with them in most years until his death, and he toured with them to Europe in 1976 and to Asia in 1979. He also strengthened his relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – he conducted all nine completed Mahler symphonies with them (plus the adagio from the 10th) in the period from 1967 to 1976. All of these were filmed for Unitel with the exception of the 1967 Mahler 2nd, which instead Bernstein filmed with the London Symphony Orchestra in Ely Cathedral in 1973. In the late 1970s Bernstein conducted a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic, and cycles of Brahms and Schumann were to follow in the 1980s. Other orchestras he conducted on numerous occasions in the 1970s include the Israel Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de France, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1970 Bernstein wrote and narrated a ninety-minute program filmed on location in and around Vienna as a celebration of Beethoven's 200th birthday. It featured parts of Bernstein's rehearsals and performance for the Otto Schenk production of Fidelio, Bernstein playing the 1st piano concerto and the Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic and the young Plácido Domingo amongst the soloists. The program was first telecast in 1970 on Austrian and British television, and then on CBS in the U.S. on Christmas Eve 1971. The show, originally entitled Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, won an Emmy and was issued on DVD in 2005. In the summer of 1970, during the Festival of London, he conducted Verdi's Requiem Mass in St. Paul's Cathedral, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Like many of his friends and colleagues, Bernstein had been involved in various left wing causes and organizations since the 1940s. He was blacklisted by the US State Department and CBS in the early 1950s, but unlike others his career was not greatly affected, and he was never required to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His political life received substantial press coverage though in 1970, due to a gathering hosted at his Manhattan apartment on January 14, 1970. Bernstein and his wife held the event seeking to raise awareness and money for the defense of several members of the Black Panther Party against a variety of charges. The New York Times initially covered the gathering as a lifestyle item, but later posted an editorial harshly unfavorable to Bernstein following generally negative reaction to the widely publicized story. This reaction culminated in June 1970 with the appearance of "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's", an essay by satirist Tom Wolfe featured on the cover of New York Magazine. The article contrasted the Bernsteins' comfortable lifestyle in one of the world's most expensive neighborhoods with the anti-establishment politics of the Black Panthers. It led to the popularization of "radical chic" as a critical term. Both Bernstein and his wife Felicia responded to the criticism, arguing that they were motivated not by a shallow desire to express fashionable sympathy but by their concern for civil liberties.
Bernstein's major compositions during the 1970s were probably his MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers; his score for the ballet Dybbuk; his orchestral vocal work Songfest; and his U.S. bicentenary musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue written with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner which was his first real theatrical flop, and last original Broadway show. The world premiere of Bernstein's MASS took place on September 8, 1971. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., it was partly intended as an anti-war statement. Hastily written in places, the work represented a fusion not only of different religious traditions (Latin liturgy, Hebrew prayer, and plenty of contemporary English lyrics) but also of different musical styles, including classical and rock music. It was originally a target of criticism from the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and contemporary music critics who objected to its Broadway/populist elements on the other. In the present day, it is perhaps seen as less blasphemous and more a piece of its era: in 2000 it was even performed in the Vatican.
In 1972 Bernstein recorded Bizet's Carmen, with Marilyn Horne in the title role and James McCracken as Don Jose, after leading several stage performances of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera. The recording was one of the first in stereo to use the original spoken dialogue between the sung portions of the opera, rather than the musical recitatives that were composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet's death. The recording was Bernstein's first for Deutsche Grammophon and won a Grammy.
Bernstein was appointed in 1973 to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, Harvard University, and delivered a series of six televised lectures on music with musical examples played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, these lectures were not televised until 1976. Taking the title from a Charles Ives work, he called the series "The Unanswered Question"; it was a set of interdisciplinary lectures in which he borrowed terminology from contemporary linguistics to analyze and compare musical construction to language. The lectures are presently available in both book and DVD form. The DVD video was not taken directly from the lectures at Harvard, rather they were recreated again at the WGBH studios for filming. This appears to be the only surviving Norton lectures series available to the general public in video format. Noam Chomsky wrote in 2007 on the Znet forums about the linguistic aspects of the lecture: "I spent some time with Bernstein during the preparation and performance of the lectures. My feeling was that he was onto something, but I couldn't really judge how significant it was."
A major period of upheaval in Bernstein's personal life began in 1976 when he decided that he could no longer conceal his homosexuality and he left his wife Felicia for a period to live with the writer Tom Cothran. The next year she was diagnosed with lung cancer and eventually Bernstein moved back in with her and cared for her until she died on June 16, 1978. Cothran himself died of AIDS in 1981. Bernstein is reported to have often spoken of his terrible guilt over his wife's death. Most biographies of Bernstein state that his lifestyle became more excessive and his personal behavior sometimes cruder after her death. However, his public standing and many of his close friendships appear to have remained unaffected, and he resumed his busy schedule of musical activity.
In 1978, Bernstein returned to the Vienna State Opera to conduct a revival of the Otto Schenk production of Fidelio, now featuring Gundula Janowitz and Rene Kollo in the lead roles. At the same time, Bernstein made a studio recording of the opera for Deutsche Grammophon and the opera itself was filmed by Unitel and released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon in late 2006. In May 1978, the Israel Philharmonic played two U.S. concerts under his direction to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Orchestra under that name. On consecutive nights, the Orchestra, with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In 1979, Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first and only time, in two charity concerts for Amnesty International involving performances of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The invitation for the concerts had come from the orchestra and not from its principal conductor Herbert von Karajan. There has been speculation about why Karajan never invited Bernstein to conduct his orchestra. (Karajan did conduct the New York Philharmonic during Bernstein's tenure.) The full reasons will probably never be known – reports suggest they were on friendly terms when they met, but sometimes practiced a little mutual one-upmanship. One of the concerts was broadcast on radio and was posthumously released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.
Bernstein received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1980. For the rest of the 1980s he continued to conduct, teach, compose, and produce the occasional TV documentary. His most significant compositions of the decade were probably his opera A Quiet Place, which he wrote with Stephen Wadsworth and which premiered (in its original version) in Houston in 1983; his Divertimento for Orchestra; his Halil for flute and orchestra; his Concerto for Orchestra "Jubilee Games"; and his song cycle Arias and Barcarolles, which was named after a comment President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made to him in 1960.
In 1982 in the U.S., PBS aired an 11-part series of Bernstein's late 1970s films for Unitel of the Vienna Philharmonic playing all nine Beethoven symphonies and various other Beethoven works. Bernstein gave spoken introduction and actor Maximilian Schell was also featured on the programs, reading from Beethoven's letters. The original films have since been released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon. In addition to conducting in New York, Vienna and Israel, Bernstein was a regular guest conductor of other orchestras in the 1980s. These included the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, with whom he recorded Mahler's First, Fourth, and Ninth Symphonies amongst other works; the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, with whom he recorded Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; Haydn's Creation; Mozart's Requiem and Great Mass in C minor; and the orchestra of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, with whom he recorded some Debussy and Puccini's La bohème.
In 1982, he and Ernest Fleischmann founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute as a summer training academy along the lines of Tanglewood. Bernstein served as artistic director and taught conducting there until 1984. Around the same time, he performed and recorded some of his own works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. Bernstein was also at the time a committed supporter of nuclear disarmament. In 1985 he took the European Community Youth Orchestra in a "Journey for Peace" tour around Europe and to Japan.
In 1985, he conducted a recording of West Side Story, the first time he had conducted the entire work. The recording, featuring what some critics felt were miscast opera singers such as Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos in the leading roles, was nevertheless an international bestseller. A TV documentary showing the making of the recording was made at the same time and is available on DVD. Bernstein also continued to make his own TV documentaries during the 1980s, including The Little Drummer Boy, in which he discussed the music of Gustav Mahler, perhaps the composer he was most passionately interested in, and The Love of Three Orchestras, in which he discussed his work in New York, Vienna, and Israel.
In his later years, Bernstein's life and work was celebrated around the world (as it has been since his death). The Israel Philharmonic celebrated his involvement with them at Festivals in Israel and Austria in 1977. In 1986 the London Symphony Orchestra mounted a Bernstein Festival in London with one concert that Bernstein himself conducted attended by the Queen. In 1988 Bernstein's 70th birthday was celebrated by a lavish televised gala at Tanglewood featuring many performers who had worked with him over the years.
In December 1989, Bernstein conducted live performances and recorded in the studio his operetta Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra. The recording starred Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Adolph Green, and Christa Ludwig in the leading roles. The use of opera singers in some roles perhaps fitted the style of operetta better than some critics had thought was the case for West Side Story, and the recording (released posthumously in 1991) was universally praised. One of the live concerts from the Barbican Centre in London is available on DVD. Candide had had a troubled history, with many rewrites and writers involved. Bernstein's concert and recording were based on a "final" version that had been first performed by Scottish Opera in 1988. The opening night (which Bernstein attended in Glasgow) was conducted by Bernstein's former student John Mauceri.
On December 25, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin's Schauspielhaus (Playhouse) as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had conducted the same work in West Berlin the previous day. 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 the Ode to Joy, substituting the word Freude (joy) for Freiheit (freedom). Bernstein, in his spoken introduction, said that they had "taken the liberty" of doing this because of a "most likely phony" story, apparently believed in some quarters, that Schiller wrote an "Ode to Freedom" that is now presumed lost. Bernstein added, "I'm sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing."
In the summer of 1990, Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Like his earlier activity in Los Angeles, this was a summer training school for musicians modeled on Tanglewood, and is still in existence. Bernstein was already at this time suffering from the lung disease that would lead to his death. In his opening address Bernstein said that he had decided to devote what time he had left to education. A video showing Bernstein speaking and rehearsing at the first Festival is available on DVD in Japan.
Bernstein made his final performance as a conductor at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven performance which almost caused the concert to break down. The concert was later issued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.
He announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and died of a heart attack five days later. He was 72 years old. A longtime heavy smoker, he had battled emphysema from his mid-50s. On the day of his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, yelling "Goodbye, Lenny." Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, next to his wife and with a copy of Mahler's Fifth lying across his heart.
While Bernstein is very well known for his music compositions and conducting, he is also known for his outspoken political views and his strong desire to further social change. His first aspirations for social change were made apparent in his producing (as a student) a recently banned opera, The Cradle Will Rock, about the disparity between the working and upper class. As he went on in his career Bernstein would go on to fight for everything from the influences of "American Music" to the disarming of western nuclear weapons.
Among the many awards Bernstein earned throughout his life one allowed him to make one of his philanthropic dreams a reality. He had for a long time wanted to develop an international school to help promote the integration of arts into education. When he won the Japan Arts Association award for lifetime achievement, he used the $100,000 that came with the award to build such a school in Nashville, that would strive to teach teachers how to better integrate music, dance, and theater into the school system which was "not working". Unfortunately, the school was not able to open until shortly after Bernstein's death.
I and a musician friend named Aaron Stern have conceived of an institution called the Academy for the Love of Learning. We haven't done too much with the idea yet, but it's registered as a nonprofit corporation, and besides the obvious attempts to get music and kids together, there will be the overriding goal of teaching teachers to discover their own love of learning.
The Academy for the Love of Learning was completed in 1998 and is located in Santa Fe New Mexico where it continues to explore Bernstein's dream of integrated arts in education by offering courses in transformational learning.
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Bernstein was one of the major figures in orchestral conducting in the second half of the 20th century. He was held in high regard amongst many musicians, including the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, evidenced by his honorary membership; the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was President; and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he appeared regularly as guest conductor. He was probably the main conductor from the 1960s onwards who acquired a sort of superstar status similar to that of Herbert von Karajan, although unlike Karajan he conducted relatively little opera and part of Bernstein's fame was based on his role as a composer. As the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic, his rise to prominence was a factor in overcoming the perception of the time that the top conductors were necessarily trained in Europe.
Bernstein's conducting was characterized by extremes of emotion with the rhythmic pulse of the music conveyed visually through his balletic podium manner. Musicians often reported that his manner in rehearsal was the same as in concert. As he got older his performances tended to be overlaid to a greater extent with a personal expressiveness which often divided critical opinion. Extreme examples of this style can be found in his Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations (1982), the end of Mahler's 9th Symphony (1985), and the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony (1986), where in each case the tempos are well below those typically chosen.
Bernstein performed a wide repertoire from the baroque era to the 20th century, although perhaps from the 1970s onwards he tended to focus more on music from the romantic era. He was considered especially accomplished with the works of Gustav Mahler and with American composers in general, including George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman, and of course himself. Some of his recordings of works by these composers would likely appear on many music critics' lists of recommended recordings. A list of his other well-thought-of recordings would probably include individual works from Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, Nielsen, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Shostakovich, among others. His recordings of Rhapsody in Blue (full-orchestra version) and An American in Paris for Columbia Records, released in 1959, are considered definitive by many, although Bernstein cut the Rhapsody slightly, and his more 'symphonic' approach with slower tempi is quite far from Gershwin's own conception of the piece, evident from his two recordings. (Oscar Levant, Earl Wild, and others come closer to Gershwin's own style.) Bernstein never conducted Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, or more than a few excerpts from Porgy and Bess, although he did discuss the latter in his article Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?, originally published in The New York Times and later reprinted in his 1959 book The Joy of Music.
In addition to being an active conductor, Bernstein was a very influential teacher of conducting. During his many years of teaching at Tanglewood and elsewhere, he directly taught or mentored many conductors who are performing now, such as John Mauceri, Marin Alsop, Herbert Blomstedt, Edo de Waart, Alexander Frey, Paavo Järvi, Eiji Oue, Seiji Ozawa (who made his American TV debut as the guest conductor on one of the Young People's Concerts), Carl St.Clair, Helmuth Rilling, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Jaap van Zweden. He also undoubtedly influenced the career choices of many American musicians who grew up watching his television programmes in the 1950s and 60s.
Bernstein recorded extensively from the mid-1940s until just a few months before his death. Aside from those 1940's recordings, which were made for RCA Victor, Bernstein recorded primarily for Columbia Masterworks Records, especially when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1971. His typical pattern of recording at that time was to record major works in the studio immediately after they were presented in the orchestra's subscription concerts or on one of the Young People's Concerts, with any spare time used to record short orchestral showpieces and similar works. Many of these performances were digitally remastered and reissued by Sony as part of their 100 Volume, 125 CDs "Royal Edition" and their later "Bernstein Century" series. In 2010 many of these recordings were repackaged in a 60 CD "Bernstein Symphony Edition".
His later recordings (starting with Bizet's Carmen in 1972) were mostly made for Deutsche Grammophon, though he would occasionally return to the Columbia Masterworks label. Notable exceptions include recordings of Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earth and Mozart's 15th piano concerto and "Linz" symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for Decca Records (1966); Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy (1976) for EMI; and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1981) for Philips Records, a label that like Deutsche Grammophon was part of PolyGram at that time. Unlike his studio recordings for Columbia Masterworks, most of his later Deutsche Grammophon recordings were taken from live concerts (or edited together from several concerts with additional sessions to correct errors). Many replicate repertoire that he recorded in the 1950s and 60s.
In addition to his audio recordings, many of Bernstein's concerts from the 1970s onwards were recorded on motion picture film by the German film company Unitel. This included a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies (with the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra), as well as complete cycles of the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies recorded at the same series of concerts as the audio recordings by Deutsche Grammophon. Many of these films appeared on Laserdisc and are now on DVD.
In total Bernstein was awarded 16 Grammys for his recordings in various categories, including several for recordings released after his death. He was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1985.
Bernstein was an eclectic composer whose music fused elements of jazz, Jewish music, theatre music and the work of older composers like Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, George Gershwin, and Marc Blitzstein. Some of his works, especially his score for West Side Story, helped bridge the gap between classical and popular music. His music was rooted in tonality but in some works like his Kaddish Symphony and the opera A Quiet Place he mixed in 12-tone elements. Bernstein himself said his main motivation for composing was "to communicate" and that all his pieces, including his symphonies and concert works, "could in some sense be thought of as 'theatre' pieces." According to the League of American orchestras, he was the second most frequently performed American composer by U.S. orchestras in 2008-9 behind Copland, and he was the 16th most frequently performed composer overall by U.S. orchestras. (Some performances were probably due to the 90th anniversary of his birth in 2008.) His most popular pieces were the Overture to Candide, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion and the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. His shows West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town and Candide are regularly performed, and his symphonies and concert works are programmed from time to time by orchestras around the world. Since his death many of his works have been commercially recorded by artists other than himself. The Serenade, which has been recorded more than 10 times, is probably his most recorded work not taken from an actual theatre piece.
Despite the fact that he was a popular success as a composer, Bernstein himself is reported to have been disillusioned that some of his more serious works were not rated more highly by critics, and that he himself had not been able to devote more time to composing because of his conducting and other activities. Professional criticism of Bernstein's music often involves discussing the degree to which he created something new as art versus simply skillfully borrowing and fusing together elements from others. In the late 1960s, Bernstein himself reflected that his eclecticism was in part due to his lack of lengthy periods devoted to composition, and that he was still seeking to enrich his own personal musical language in the manner of the great composers of the past, all of whom had borrowed elements from others. Perhaps the harshest criticism he received from some critics in his lifetime though was directed at works like his Kaddish Symphony, his MASS and the opera A Quiet Place, where they found the underlying message of the piece or the text as either mildly embarrassing, clichéd or offensive. Despite this, all these pieces have been performed, discussed and reconsidered since his death.
Bernstein's works were performed several times for Pope John Paul II, including at World Youth Day in Denver on August 14, 1993 (excerpts from "MASS"), and at the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah on April 7, 1994, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ("Chichester Psalms" and Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish” [excerpt]) in the Sala Nervi at the Vatican. Both performances were conducted by Gilbert Levine.
Although he taught conducting, Bernstein was not a teacher of composition as such, and he has no direct composing heirs. Perhaps the closest are composers like John Adams, who from the 1970s onwards indirectly adopted elements of his eclectic, theatrical style.
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