Leonard Bernstein was a towering figure of 20th century music and culture, known the world over as the composer of West Side Story , Candide , On the Town and other stage and orchestral works; as the celebrated conductor of the New York Philharmonic and other leading orchestras, with whom he created a trove of acclaimed recordings; as an educator whose televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Phi lharmonic created more than one generation of music lovers; and as a lifelong humanitarian who spoke out whenever he witnessed injustice.
Bernstein was born into a Russian immigrant family in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918. At age 10, Leonard approached the upright piano left at his house by an aunt. As Bernstein tells it, he touched the keys, and his life was transformed.
Bernstein attended the Boston Latin School and later graduated cum laude from Harvard College. After Harvard, Bernstein enrolled in the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner. In the summers, he attended the newly formed Tanglewood Music Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer music institute, where he studied with the Russian conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who became his beloved mentor.
After Curtis, Bernstein moved to New York. There he befriended Adolph Green and Betty Comden, a sketch comedy duo with whom he soon teamed up, along with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, to write their first hit musical, On the Town .
As Bernstein’s composing career took off, so did his conducting career. On November 14th, 1943, the New York Philharmonic substituted 25-year-old Bernstein at the last minute after conductor Bruno Walter fell ill. The concert was broadcast live on national radio and made the young American-born conductor an overnight sensation. He was soon in demand as a guest conductor with leading orchestras around the world.
In 1958, Bernstein became the first native-born Music Director of a major American orchestra – the New York Philharmonic.
Simultaneously, Bernstein became one of the busiest composers of the postwar era. In addition to three symphonies, an opera, several ballets and his Broadway shows, Bernstein also wrote the score for Elia Kazan’s film On T he Waterfront . His 1957 musical West Side Story made a particularly large impact; the modern-day Romeo and Juliet retelling, with music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and choreography by Jerome Robbins, became a smash hit on Broadway, and its 1961 film adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture.