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A prodigiously talented composer, pianist, conductor and teacher, Leonard Bernstein did more to validate America’s position in the musical world than virtually any other musician in history. More importantly, he contributed a galaxy of superlative compositions and recorded performances to our culture, and redefined the boundaries between classical music and other recently-derived popular styles. He was the leading light of 20th century American music, and no contemporary musician of any instrument or specialty pursues his craft without first acknowledging a debt to Bernstein. As a charismatic ambassador of music, he remains without peer.
He was born Louis Bernstein into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Mass. in 1918; he changed his name to Leonard to avoid confusion with a relative named Louis. He studied piano in Boston as a child, and entered Harvard at the age of seventeen, where his composition teachers included Walter Piston and A. Tillman Merritt. After graduating in 1939, he arrived at the Curtus Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting with the legendary maestro Fritz Reiner. During the summers of 1940 and 1941, he went to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and studied with his most important musical mentor, conductor/bassist Serge Koussevitzky. Even at this relatively young age, Bernstein was considered a major talent, both on the podium and at the piano.
By 1943, Bernstein had attained a position as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic; in November of that year, he had his famous musical epiphany. On November 14, he was called upon to substitute-conduct a demanding Philharmonic concert; his flair and virtuosity captivated the audience, and critics sang his praises. From this moment on, he was the darling of the classical music world, particularly in America, where he was proclaimed the greatest young musician of the age. For the next fifteen years, he conducted the greatest orchestras of the world, both in concerts and in a blistering schedule of recordings, and won the highest stature as a pianist. In 1958, he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic; in the same year, he began his legendary series of televised concerts for children, which are still regarded as definitive ground-breaking educational events. Over the course of his career as a podium celebrity, he led countless concerts of repertoire from the Baroque to contemporary music, winning particular notice for his interpretations of Beethoven and Mahler.
Bernstein was also a composer of great ability and verve. He wrote several classics for orchestra, including three symphonies, Facsimile, Fancy Free, Kaddish, and the Serenade for Violin and Orchestra; his musical theater credits include West Side Story, Candide, and Wonderful Town; he was the composer of many songs, chamber pieces, and incidental works. An accomplished author, he penned several books on music-making and music education. For two generations of students, he was a demi-god; making Tanglewood his second home, he conducted legendary classes in conducting and music appreciation. He was conducting and creating music until his death in 1990.
Summarizing Bernstein’s musical accomplishments - and the effect of his ebullient and headstrong personality on the world’s musical landscape - is a task best left to professional biographers, and several have produced high-profile studies of his life and art. As famed for his mercurial lifestyle as his musicianship, he will be forever regarded as an enigmatic and extraordinary blessing to music.