Renowned as a composer, conductor, pianist, and academic.
Bernstein was one of the century's greatest musical all-rounders.
Born m Lawrence, Massachusetts, he learnt the piano from the age
often. He studied theory at Harvard University and conducting with
Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. After three
summers under Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, from 1940 to 1942.
Bernstein became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic
Orchestra. His career was launched in 1943 with a sensational
debut as an eleventh-hour replacement for Bruno Walter.
Bernstein was principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic
from 1958 until 1969, when he was appointed conductor laureate for
life. During his career he conducted the major orchestras of the
world, enjoying particularly close relationships with the Israel
Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic, which collaborated m
his series of live releases of the 1980s, issued as part of his
protest against over-engineered recordings.
Bernstein the composer developed an eclectic style that drew on
anything from big-band jazz in the Prelude, fugue and riffs (1949) to
12-notc techniques in the later Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) of
1963. His Symphony So. 1 (Jeremiah) of 1944 was named "Best
New American Orchestral Work" by the New York Music Critics
Circle. However, he soon made an even greater impact on the
music-theatre world with his musicals. His first, On the town
(1944), was based on the exploits of three sailors with a
day's shore leave in New York, and ran for 463 performances.
In the 1950s he composed mainly for stage and screen, including
West Side story (1957), regarded by many as the best
musical ever. It was typical of Bernstein's consistent defiance of
musical categories that this extrovertly popular work, with its
Latin American dances, "cool jive", and melting ballads, should
also include music of the highest quality and compositional skill,
just as his more "serious" works frequently used "popular" idioms.
Compositional activity slackened m the 1960s as he toured the
world with the New York Philharmonic, but resumed with the theatre
piece Mass in 1971. Two years later he delivered the
Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, published in 1976 as
The Inanswered Question, which confirmed his position as an outstanding communicator and
ambassador for the cause of music. He also received a number of
Emmy awards for his educational broadcasts for children.
But "Lenny" the consummate popularist was also a complicated
and controversial figure. He admitted homosexual promiscuity,
while remaining devoted to his wife. Felicia, until her death in
1978. His candour in later life, and campaigns on behalf of those
suffering from HIV and AIDS, may have been his own kind of penance
for concealing his libertarian impulses and bisexuality during the
Bernstein continued to conduct and compose throughout the
1980s, until his lifetime of chain-smoking eventually caught up
with him. After suffering for years with emphysema and eventually
lung cancer, he died from cardiac arrest following lung failure,
just five days after announcing his retirement. He was mourned the
world over like few others in the history of music.