Leonard Bernstein was an American composer, conductor,
and pianist. His special gift of bridging the gap between the concert hall
and the world of Broadway made him one of the most glamorous and popular musical
figures of his day.
Thomas Hampson sings "Lonely Town":
As a composer Bernstein was a controversial figure.
His large works, including the symphonies
Age of Anxiety
(1963), are not considered masterpieces. Yet
they are skillfully shaped and show his sensitivity to small changes of
musical variety. He received more praise for his Broadway musicals. The
On the Town
(1952) were followed by
(1956), which, though not a box-office success, is considered by many
to be Bernstein's most original score.
West Side Story
(1957) received international praise. Bernstein's music, with
its strong contrasts of violence and tenderness, determines the feeling
of the show and contributes to its special place in the history of
American musical theater.
His role as an educator, in seminars at Brandeis University
(1952–1957) and in teaching duties at Tanglewood are legendary and still watched by students today. He found an even larger audience through television, where
his animation and distinguished simplicity had an immediate appeal. Two
books of essays,
Joy of Music
Infinite Variety of Music
(1966), were direct products of television presentations.
Thomas Hampson sings "Lucky to be me":
Bernstein had his greatest impact as a conductor. His appearances
overseas—with or without the New York Philharmonic—brought about an
excitement approaching frenzy. These responses were due in part to
Bernstein's energy and emotion. It is generally agreed that his
readings of twentieth-century American scores showed a dedication and
authority rarely approached by other conductors of his time. His
performances and recordings also ushered in a revival of interest in the
music of Gustav Mahler.
There was some surprise when, in 1967, Bernstein resigned
as music director of the Philharmonic. But it was in keeping with his
nature and the diversity of his activities that he sought new channels
of expression. After leaving the Philharmonic Bernstein traveled
extensively, serving as guest conductor for many of the major symphonies
of the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin
Philharmonic. He became something of a fixture in those cities in the
last few decades of his life.
Sherrill Milnes sings "Maria":
Bernstein also became caught up in the cultural
upheaval of the late 1960s. He angered many when he claimed all music,
other than pop, seemed old-fashioned. Politically, too, he drew
criticism. When his wife hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers in 1970, charges of
anti-Semitism were leveled against Bernstein
himself. Press reports caused severe damage to his reputation. Bernstein
also brought criticism with his stance against the Vietnam War. His activism ultimately led J.
Edgar Hoover and the FBI to monitor his activities and associations.
Jubilant Sykes sings Sanctus/Agnus Dei from "Mass"
Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers
premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was, according
to biographer Humphrey Burton, "the closest [Bernstein] ever came
to achieving a synthesis between Broadway and the
concert hall." The huge cast performed songs in styles ranging
rock to blues to gospel.
debuted on Broadway later that year.
He died in New York City, on
October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by emphysema and other complications.