Leonard Bernstein

American Born 25 Aug 1918 Died 14 Oct 1990

Born in Lawrence, Massachussetts, Leonard Bernstein studied piano and composition at Harvard University before enroling at the Curtis Institute in 1939.  However it was at Tanglewood summer school that he was to meet one of his most significant influences, conductor Serge Koussevitsky.  From 1942 on he acted as Koussevitsky's assistant, and by this time conducting had become a focus for his driving ambition.  After replacing an indisposed Bruno Walter at short notice, Bernstein's conducting career took off, with engagements in Boston and Philadelphia leading to offers from around the world.

A parallel career as a composer was cemented by the performance of his First Symphony (Jeremiah) in 1944, along with the ballet Fancy Free, the first of many stage works.  Bernstein used the same scenario of sailors on shore leave for his first Broadway show, On the Town, which ran for 463 performances.  In 1957 Bernstein's West Side Story hit the stage, and the ensuing film made it his most popular work.  Its blending of new musical techniques with popular and jazz stylings mirrored both the efforts of "Third Stream" composers and jazz artists such as Miles Davis.

Bernstein was a great musical educator, giving many televised lectures structured to appeal to the younger generation, and promoting much work by new composers.  He also returned to Tanglewood summer school to encourage new talent.  In addition he was commited to reviving the music of Gustav Mahler, whose mix of sincerity and irony he was ideally suited to conducting. 

After the wild successes of the previous decades, Bernstein's later years provided fewer satisfying compositions.  However, his conducting career continued up to his death in 1990, giving concerts in Berlin the previous year to mark the fall of the Berlin wall. 

Related composers: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin

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