Leonard Bernstein Biography

(Composer Whose Best-Known Work is the Broadway Musical 'West Side Story')

Birthday: August 25, 1918 (Virgo)

Born In: Lawrence, Massachusetts, United States

Leonard Bernstein, the legendary musician, who inspired an entire generation with his music ensembles and symphony orchestras, was one of the most influential classical musicians of the last century. An influential teacher, a brilliant conductor, a fine composer, and an accomplished pianist, Leonard Bernstein was a musician of rare talent who wowed his young fans with his flamboyant style and pedagogic flair. In fact, he was the most dominant classical musician of his times who influenced the musical scene of his day more than his peers did. As said by one of the veterans, “When he gets up on the podium, he makes me remember why I wanted to become a musician.” No 20th century musician had as towering yet controversial career as Leonard Bernstein. His contribution to the realms of music is indeed unsurpassable. His music was deeply inspired by the people of America. No other musician succeeded in arresting the attention of entire America as much as Bernstein did with his television shows. His musical concerts were not only appeasing to the ears, but were an inspiration for every mind. Even after he passed away after a long battle with emphysema, at the age of 72, his works still continue to remain popular and are performed all over the world.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Louis Bernstein

Died At Age: 72


Spouse/Ex-: Felicia Cohn Montealegre

father: Samuel Joseph Bernstein

mother: Jennie Resnick

siblings: Burton Bernstein, Shirley Anne Bernstein

children: Alexander Bernstein, Alexander Serge Leonard Bernstein, Jamie Anne Maria Bernstein, Nina Maria Felicia Bernstein

Born Country: United States

Pianists Composers

Died on: October 14, 1990

place of death: The Dakota, New York, United States

Grouping of People: Jewish Musician

Ancestry: Ukrainian American, Russian American

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

education: Harvard University

  • 1

    What were Leonard Bernstein's major compositions?

    Some of Leonard Bernstein's major compositions include "West Side Story," "Candide," "On the Town," "Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety," and "Chichester Psalms."

  • 2

    What was Leonard Bernstein's role with the New York Philharmonic?

    Leonard Bernstein served as the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, making him one of the most influential conductors in the orchestra's history.

  • 3

    Did Leonard Bernstein have a significant impact on music education?

    Yes, Leonard Bernstein was a strong advocate for music education and was known for his work in presenting classical music to a broader audience through programs such as the Young People's Concerts.

  • 4

    What was Leonard Bernstein's connection to the Tanglewood Music Center?

    Leonard Bernstein had a long-standing relationship with the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, where he served as a faculty member and conductor, mentoring many aspiring musicians.

  • 5

    How did Leonard Bernstein contribute to the cultural landscape of America?

    Leonard Bernstein was a prolific composer, conductor, and educator who played a significant role in shaping American music and culture through his innovative compositions and passionate advocacy for the arts.

Childhood & Early Life
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on 25 August 1918 to Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. His birth name was Louis though it was renamed to Leonard at the age of 16.
Most of his childhood was spent doing odd jobs like mopping floors and stocking wigs for a dealer. Still from an early age, he went to orchestral concerts and piano performances which immensely captivated him. When his family acquired his cousin’s unwanted piano, he started learning the piano more seriously. Slowly, he began playing entire operas or Beethoven symphonies along with his younger sister, Shirley.
He graduated from Boston Latin School in 1935, after which he attended Harvard University. There he graduated by majoring in music. His final year thesis was titled ‘The Absorption of the Race Elements into American Music.’
At the university, David Wight Prall, who was a philosopher of art, heavily influenced him with his multidisciplinary outlook on arts, which Bernstein remembered for the rest of his life. He was also influenced by Marc Blitzstein, with whom he later became friends.
In 1939, after completing his graduation, he went to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, which was situated in Philadelphia. Here, he started studying and practicing with prominent conductors like Fritz Reiner and pianists like Isabelle Vengerova. Over the time he spent here, he is said to have greatly enjoyed the environment in this Institute.
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After completing his training Leonard Bernstein left Curtis and settled in New York. The New York Philharmonic offered him a position of assistant conductor in 1943. Once when the symphony’s guest conductor fell ill, Bernstein had to step up and take his place, which he did with great success, amazing the crowd and the players. This made him a successful conductor overnight.
From 1945, he started conducting the New York orchestra and appearing as well, as a guest conductor across the United States. During the next few years, his career started to blossom, and he went on several international tours in order to perform. His overseas debut started with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague.
In 1949, he conducted the world premiere of the famous Turangalila-Symphonie, which was composed by Oliver Messiaen, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1954, Bernstein started the television show ‘Omnibus’. It allowed him to speak to his audience and music lovers more easily. He gave lectures on Omnibus for several years, which were made into a DVD set in 2010.
Later, though he stepped down from the New York Philharmonic, he still continued to appear with them for many years till his death. He also toured with them for many years to places like Europe and Asia.
He also joined hands with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducted nine complete Mahler symphonies with them between the years 1967 and 1976. He also performed with the famous London Symphony Orchestra in Fly Cathedral in 1973, and just a few years later, he was named an Honorary President.
In 1973, Bernstein was appointed to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair as Professor of Poetry, in Harvard University. He also delivered six lectures on music, with musical examples played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. These lectures were televised three years later in 1976.
In 1979, Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time, in two charity concerts for Amnesty International. They became quite popular later on, and were later released on CD, as well as broadcast on radio.
The Israel Philharmonic sponsored a festival in 1978, which commemorated his several years of dedication to Israel, and they bestowed upon him the title of Laureate Conductor in 1988.
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He was quite fond of teaching young musicians as well, and was always looking for opportunities to do so. In 1982, he co-founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, and a few years later he co-founded the Pacific Music Festival in Japan to help young musicians grow.
Later, during the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, in East Berlin. This concert was broadcast in more than twenty countries to an audience of around 100 million people.
His final performance, two months before announcing his retirement, was as a conductor at Tanglewood in August 1990, where he played the ‘Four Sea Interludes’ of Benjamin Britten, with the Boston Symphony.
Major Works
His musical theater work ‘MASS’ which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. is one of his best known works. The work, though intended to be staged theatrically, has also been performed in a standard concert setting.
His writings were published in several books and journals like ‘The Joy of Music’ (1959) and ‘The Infinite Variety of Music’ (1966). The lectures he gave at Harvard University were also published and televised as ‘The Unanswered Question.’
Awards & Achievements
Leonard Bernstein received many honors during and after his lifetime. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1981 where he was also awarded with a gold medal. He also received medals from the Beethoven Society, and from several colleges and universities.
For his humanitarian efforts, he received the National Fellowship Award in 1985.
In 1990, he received the Praemium Imperiale, an international prize which was given by the Japan Arts Association. He used the prize money to establish an organization ‘The Bernstein Education Through the Arts’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Though there were rumors about his bisexuality, Leonard Bernstein married a Chilean-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on 10 September 1951. He had three children- Jamie, Alexander and Nina.
Though there were rumors about his bisexuality, Leonard Bernstein married a Chilean-born American actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre on 10 September 1951. He had three children- Jamie, Alexander and Nina.
Facts About Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was an accomplished pianist and conductor, but he also had a passion for composing music for Broadway musicals. His most famous work in this genre is "West Side Story."

Bernstein was a strong advocate for music education and believed that everyone should have access to music regardless of their background. He founded the New York City High School of the Performing Arts to provide opportunities for young musicians.

Bernstein was known for his charismatic personality and engaging conducting style, often described as energetic and passionate. He had a unique ability to connect with audiences and bring out the best in his musicians.

In addition to his classical and Broadway music compositions, Bernstein also wrote scores for films, including "On the Waterfront" and "On the Town." His versatility as a composer allowed him to excel in various genres.


Primetime Emmy Awards
1987 Outstanding Individual Achievement - Classical Music/Dance Programming - Performing Carnegie Hall: The Grand Reopening (1987)
1976 Outstanding Classical Music Program Great Performances (1971)
1972 Outstanding Single Program - Variety or Musical - Classical Music Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna with Leonard Bernstein (1970)
1965 Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Actors and Performers New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts (1958)
1961 Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Music for Television Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Berlin (1960)
1958 Best Musical Contribution for Television Omnibus (1952)
1957 Best Musical Contribution for Television Omnibus (1952)
Grammy Awards
2018 Best Historical Album Winner
1993 Best Orchestral Performance Winner
1993 Best Classical Album Winner
1992 Best Engineered Recording, Classical Winner
1992 Best Classical Album Winner
1991 Best Classical Album Winner
1991 Best Contemporary Composition Winner
1991 Best Orchestral Performance Winner
1990 Best Orchestral Performance Winner
1985 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1978 Best Classical Album Winner
1974 Best Opera Recording Winner
1968 Album of the Year, Classical Winner
1968 Best Classical Choral Performance (Other Than Opera) Winner
1965 Album of the Year, Classical Winner
1964 Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist Winner
1964 Best Recording for Children Winner
1963 Best Recording for Children Winner
1962 Best Recording for Children Winner
1962 Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording (Other Than Comedy) Winner
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