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Leonard Bernstein

Composer

Biography

American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918–90) was one of the most famous and successful figures in US classical music. He had a brilliant understanding of writing for dance, and with Jerome Robbins created several of the 20th century’s greatest music theatre works, including West Side Story.

Bernstein was born in Massachusetts to Russian immigrant parents. At Harvard he met the composer Aaron Copland, who would become a lifelong friend and influence. He met Serge Koussevitzky in 1940 at Tanglewood and became his assistant in 1942, later taking over at Tanglewood in 1951. In 1944 the combined acclaim of his First Symphony, the ballet Fancy Free and the musical On the Town secured his international fame. Over the next decade he continued a diverse conducting and composing career, conducting regularly with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and becoming the first American to conduct at La Scala, Milan. His compositions from this period include the theatre works Trouble in Tahiti, Candide and West Side Story and the film score On the Waterfront. In 1954 he made his first television appearance and went on to become a pioneering figure in the use of television for education. In 1958 he was appointed music director of New York Philharmonic Orchestra, retiring in 1969 to become conductor laureate of the orchestra. Though his compositions became more sporadic towards the end of his life (significant late works including Mass), he continued to conduct until his death, establishing a particularly strong relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Through his innovative pedagogy, championing of concert repertory including Mahler, and his own compositions, Bernstein played a key role in making classical music a central part of 20th-century American cultural life.

News and features

Recommended recordings: April 2015

Recommended recordings: April 2015

17 April 2015

This month the focus falls on a new album from Diana Damrau, a reissue from Leonard Bernstein and a must-hear, Orpheus-inspired Baroque compilation.

Auden, Bernstein and Scarlett's Age of Anxiety: Representing a war-torn world in dance

Auden, Bernstein and Scarlett's Age of Anxiety: Representing a war-torn world in dance

3 November 2014

The poem and symphony that inspired Liam Scarlett's new ballet depict the behaviours of four lonely people in a society teetering on the brink.

Ballet Essentials: Ceremony of Innocence / The Age of Anxiety / Aeternum

Ballet Essentials: Ceremony of Innocence / The Age of Anxiety / Aeternum

29 October 2014

Our quick guide to the world premiere from Liam Scarlett and two recent highly-acclaimed works from Kim Brandstrup and Christopher Wheeldon.

Photos