100th Birthday of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 this August 25, 2018. People are celebrating around the world, remembering the life of one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th Century. NET is part of that commemoration and we’ll be shining a spotlight on Bernstein all this month. Listen to Morning Concert and Afternoon Concert each weekday from 9 to 4 Central to hear both favorites and new discoveries. And see below for specials we'll carry in August. Fred Child will also be paying homage to our cultural icon as his birthday approaches. Listen to Performance Today each weeknight from 7-9 Central.

Leonard Bernstein, 1945

What defined Leonard Bernstein was the breadth and depth of his talent. He was the ultimate representation of what we colloquially call a Renaissance Man, someone with far-reaching passion and knowledge. He traveled the world as a musician, a teacher and a moral activist. Looking back at his life this centenary birth year, we get a full picture of just how extraordinary a human being he was.

Bernstein was four masters rolled in to one – a composer, a conductor, a teacher and author, and a humanitarian. First, a quick look at how it all started back in 1918. Bernstein was born in Massachusetts, the son of two Ukrainian immigrants. He played piano duets with his sister as a youngster, and eventually ended up at Harvard where, not surprisingly, he majored in music.

While at Harvard he made friends with many great musicians of the day and worked with conductors such as Dmitri Mitropolous and Arthur Rodzinski. His big break came on November 14, 1943, when Bruno Walter, music director of the New York Philharmonic, fell ill and needed a last minute replacement. Rodzinksi suggested Bernstein. The concert received a great review, and because it was broadcast live on CBS he was an instant sensation. Conducting invitations rolled in and a great career was launched.

Bernstein the Composer

With so many natural gifts, Bernstein had to choose where to focus his energy. Through opportunity and, to some extent, choice, he ended up focusing most of his time on conducting. As much as he loved the baton, he was often frustrated at how little time he had left over to compose. He mused both publicly and privately about how much of a better and more influential composer he might have been had he put composing as his first priority.

Bernstein with Benny Goodman

None the less, he produced a sizeable number of important and much-loved works throughout his life. There are those for which he is best known – pieces such as West Side Story and On The Town, and there are his more serious works such as his three symphonies and a good amount of chamber and choral music. Many of his pieces straddled both worlds, like his opera Candide, whose Overture is so loved.

A line-up of great composers. From left to right: Randall Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Aaron Copland, photo by Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos, from the Met Collection.

Bernstein reflected later in his life that he wished he had written more ‘serious’ music, but he was quick to admit that his heart lay in in that optimistic American style epitomized by composers like Aaron Copland and Randall Thomson, both close friends.

Many styles of classical music were written in America during the 20th century, but the most popular was tinged with a folky accessibility that came easily to Bernstein. In many ways he was a serious classical composer, even if the style of his place and time didn’t carry the gravity of, for example, 19th century German music or 20th century Russian music. Bernstein may have put less of a priority on composing, but many of his pieces are masterpieces in the genre. His music was played more often during and after his lifetime than the more ‘academically respected’ symphonies and concertos of many of his contemporaries.

Bernstein, 1950s

Bernstein the Conductor

Bernstein was a showman, and when showmanship dresses up such preternatural talent, you have one of the greatest conductors of all time. It wasn’t just the grand gestures and intense emotions that seemed to pull the music from his musicians and magnetize his audiences. It was his profound love for – and understanding of – the composers whose music he conducted. His protégé Marin Alsop wrote of Bernstein: "This was a man whose primary and all-consuming commitment was to the creator, the composer. He was unrelenting in his dedication and doggedly devoted to uncovering the composer’s true intent.” No musical detail was too trivial.

Few composers have conjured the music from beyond and passed it in to his players as authentically and passionately as Bernstein did. Few have "owned a sound," so to speak. The New York Philharmonic was conducted by Gustav Mahler in its early years, and then by conductors such as Dmitri Mitropolous and Bruno Walter. But it was Bernstein who created the New York sound and who elevated the orchestra to an unmatched level of greatness. He spent 40 years with the New York Philharmonic, 31 with the Boston Symphony and 24 with the Vienna Philharmonic. He conducted countless others regularly.

He had a vast repertoire, recording more than 500 compositions and performing a great many more. On the podium he could be ecstatic, his contorted face and body wringing everything out of the music. He could also step back and let the music do the work with no more than lip curls and raised eyebrows.

Like many conductors Bernstein was an accomplished pianist. His performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto as both conductor and pianist is astonishing, bringing us as close as we can to what it music have been like to hear the composer play and conduct the piece himself, as he is reported to have done on several occasions.

Bernstein’s stage presence was magnetic, his knowledge encyclopedic, and his strength of emotion overwhelming. With this trifecta he has elevated conducting to hitherto unmet heights.

photo donated to Library of Congress by William Gottlieb

Bernstein the Educator

Bernstein had a passion for learning, and learners love teaching. The living art of music was bottled up inside and he yearned and felt a responsibility to share it. More than teaching and sharing, he could communicate. Students were captivated. The excitement, the knowledge, the charisma. His passion came through with each eloquent turn of phrase, his delivery friendly and engaging. He was equally comfortable with young children as with adults and professional musicians.

When Bernstein started at the New York Philharmonic he began a series of Young People’s Concerts almost immediately. These concerts, with Bernstein as guide, explored the basics of classical music and its composers and masterpieces. Between the first concert in 1958 and the last in 1972 he presented 53 of them. They were aired on CBS and ended up being broadcast in more than 40 countries. All of these concerts are available on a YouTube channel called ArtfulLearning. ArtfulLearning is not the work of a dedicated Bernstein fan though, it is a teaching philosophy and an educational framework thought up by Bernstein himself. The philosophy is simple yet profound: that the use of the arts in teaching can facilitate and excite learning. This is no mere idealization, it is an approach that is active and thriving. As arts funding has been cut in school systems across the country, many outside arts organizations have stepped in, using music integrated in to the core curriculum as a vehicle to teach reading, science, history and a host of other subjects.

photo by Allen Warren

Bernstein’s love of teaching extended beyond children. He lectured to college students as well, and his series of Norton Lectures at Harvard is to music what Richard Feynman’s lectures are to physics. Exemplifying his holistic approach to understanding and learning, Bernstein’s Harvard lectures center around the subject of linguistics, making the case that music is – and has developed – like a language. A brief excerpt from the more than 13 hours than make up the lecture series has been called the greatest five minutes in music education.

photo by Jack Mitchell

He also wrote a seminal book called The Joy of Music that tells the story of music through a series of imaginary interviews with musical characters. The book, published in 1959, is still in print. He also made several television programs directed at adults that explored and demonstrated musical creativity through masterpieces such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and he teamed up with musicians like Stravinsky and Glenn Gould on some of these productions.

Last, but not least, Bernstein was a mentor to many upcoming conductors and performers. Two of his most famous students are Marin Alsop and John Mauceri. In tribute this centenary year, Alsop recently released a comprehensive collection of all of her Bernstein recordings.

Bernstein the Humanitarian and Activist

Bernstein had an innate sense of justice and fairness, and he used his position of influence to spread that message wherever he could. He was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, which got him on to the FBI’s watch list. They surveilled him for 4 years. Throughout his life he donated time and money to causes he believed in – causes that he felt sought to create a better world, and which countered hate, intolerance and greed. For this he was labelled with anti-semitic, homophobic and other slurs. His daughter Jamie has written: ‘Through it all, my father clung hard to the belief that by creating beauty, and  by sharing it with as many people as possible, artists had the power to tip the earthly balance in favor of brotherhood and peace. After all, he reasoned, if humans could create and appreciate musical harmony, then surely they were capable of replicating that very same harmony in the world they lived in.”

Bernstein, 1971

Bernstein put his money where is his mouth was at every available occasion. He introduced a young Chinese immigrant named Yo-Yo Ma at a televised performance with President Kennedy in the audience, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 he conducted an international orchestra at the Brandenburg Gate. In the final movement he replaced the word ‘Freude’ – joy -- with ‘Freiheit’ – freedom.


Leonard Bernstein, ‘Lenny’ to his friends, was a unique genius. Music has never had a greater advocate. Without him millions would never have developed a love for classical music. Some of the greatest records would never have been made. There have been great composers, conductors and teachers. But never has a single person carried within them each of these skills in equal measure, and at such a level of perfection. Bernstein, a citizen of the world, is America’s greatest musical creation, and a point of pride for us all.


To learn more about Bernstein, listen during Morning Concert and Afternoon Concert for the history and story behind the music. Specials this month will include:

Friday evening, August 10 at 7:30pm

America’s Music Teacher” special from APM

Host Andrea Blain celebrates Leonard Bernstein's eclectic style, and features guests inspired by his devotion to music education. Musical works explore Bernstein's approach, and the enthusiasm and creativity with which he presented it.

Friday morning, August 17 at 10am,

America’s Music Teacher” special from APM

(second broadcast)

Wednesday, August 22 at noon,

From Broadway to Hollywood” special from APM

Lynne Warfel hosts this musical celebration of Bernstein's works for stage and screen including Candide, On the Town, and West Side Story.

Sunday, August 27, 7:00pm

“The Verge: Bernstein Centenary”

Host Genevieve Randall will highlight Bernstein’s work as a unique 20th Century composer and that of those performers and composers paying homage to him with new work

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