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Leonard Bernstein


Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrenceville, Massachusettes on
August 25, 1918. He was the first born child of Samuel and Jennie Bernstein,
who lived in Boston, but had gone to Lawrenceville to visit some relatives.
Bernstein's parents had little knowledge of, or interest in
classical music. The only records Leonard remembers hearing on his family
phonograph when he was a child were the popular hit songs of the day, such as "
Barney Google" and "Oh by Jingo."
For the most part, Leonard Bernstein was an unhappy child. He said, "
I was a miserable, terrified little child" (Musicians p.64). His family moved
from town to town, during Bernstein's school days, not giving him a chance to
make close friends or feel at home. Sadly, Bernstein's peers would make fun of
and tease Bernstein. He was a very sickly child as he suffered from chronic
asthma, rose fever, and hay fever. This pathetic child grew to be a very shy
person.
Leonard always had a heart for music, even as a young boy. As
an eight year old, one morning, when he was sitting in the synagogue, the
religious music of the choir and organ overwhelmed him by it's beauty and caused
him to burst into tears. When Leonard and his family would visit their friends,
Leonard would sneak over to the piano and experiment. When he was eleven, his
aunt sent her piano to his house for his family to keep for storage. "I made
love to it right away" he recalled (Musicians p. 65). He could escape from all
his frustrations and sadness by playing the piano. His parents didn't like the
fact that he was always at the piano, they wanted him to concentrate on his
school work. They thought of piano playing as a waste of time because it stood
in the way of Leonard's learning his father's business, which they planned for
him to eventually take over.
At the age of ten, Leonard found a piano teacher who would give
him lessons for a dollar a lesson. But that teacher soon moved away and Leonard
found himself paying another piano teacher three dollars a lesson out of his
allowance. After more than a year of piano lessons that just weren't teaching
him much, Leonard found a new, and this time excellent piano teacher named Helen
Coates. She was sensitive to Leonard's shyness and knew what it took to teach
him. She had him study symphonies and operas from the printed page and
encouraged him to compose. She also encouraged him to go to concerts. After
watching Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, he
became aware not only of symphonic music, but specifically of twentieth century
music. Until then, he never realized that music had a future. He had always
thought of it as something that had already been written. Bernsteins desire for
music became greater and greater. He began attending the public concerts of the
Boston Symphony.

'He was frighteningly gifted,' Miss Coates recalled in later years. "He could
read, sing and memorize anything. He absorbed in one lesson an arrangement that
took most of my pupils five or six lessons to learn.'1

As an eleven year old, he entered The Boston Latin School and
graduated with honors in 1935. He was an outstanding student- in the top ten
percent of his class, but didn't seem to exist without music. It was, by now, a
part of him.
Soon, after he turned thirteen, he and his dad went on a cruise
through the Panama Canal. He entertained everyone on the cruise with his piano
playing. Everyone loved him so much that the ship's director offered him a
permanent job with the ships staff.
Music really changed Leonard's shy personality for the better,
along with his poor health.
From Boston Latin School Bernstein went on to Harvard College.
He wrote for and performed in college productions, played the piano for the glee
club and provided the background music for silent motion pictures.
In 1939 Bernstein graduated from Harvard with the degree of
Bachelor of Arts and a cum laude in music. By this time Dimitri Mitropoulos,
the director, had become interested in him. He encouraged Bernstein to join him
at the Boston Symphony's rehearsals. He also encouraged him to consider
becoming a conductor. Bernstein felt he must get away from his fathers
persistent nagging to join his business, so he left home and found a place for
himself in music in New York City.
Bernstein attended the Curtis Institute for two years, where his
main interest was in conducting. For the summers of 1940 and 1941 he studied at
Tanglewood with Koussevitzky. It only took those two summers for Koussevitzky
to become impressed enough to want to have Bernstein as his assistant. In 1942
he was invited by Rodzinski to act as assistant conductor of the New York PO.
November 13, 1944 was the day that Bernsteins career skyrocketed. The Sunday
afternoon concert of the New York Philharmonic, which was broadcast on a
national hookup of the Columbia Broadcasting System, was to be conducted by
Bruno Walter, guest conductor. The evening before that concert Walter became
too ill to perform, and Bernstein was chosen for a last minute substitute. He
had no opportunity to rehearse the orchestra and only a few hours to prepare
himself for a long and complicated program that included the world premiere of
Miklo`s Ro`zsa's Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song. Bernstein appeared
wearing a gray business suit, which was the first time a conductor had worn
everyday clothes at a Philharmonic concert.
Soon after, he appeared with the Pittsburg and Boston orchestras
and became conductor of the New York City Orchestra (1945-1948). The first
concert he conducted with his new orchestra was the Israel PO in 1947. "He
served as its music advisor in 1948-1949, and was co-conductor with Koussevitzky
for the orchestra's American tour in 1951" (Grove p. 631).
On September 9, 1951, he married Felicia Montealegre in Boston.
She was a young actress, born in Costa Rica, who had come to the United States
trying to make appearances on the stage and on Television. They lived in a nine
room duplex on Fifty-seventh Street, diagonally across to Carnegie Hall. There
they raised their first two children. Their household included Helen Coates,
who had been Bernstein's piano teacher from long ago.
In 1957 Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New York
Philharmonic, appointed Bernstein co-director for the 1957-1958 season. When
that season ended, Mitropoulos withdrew to leave Bernstein as full music
director. He was both the youngest man and the only American-born musician to
be in that position. He held it for eleven years, longer than any director in
the history of the organization.
Leonard Bernstein became a teacher and a commentator on music
with classes at the Berkshire Music Center, Brandeis University, Harvard
University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In October 1976 , the Bernsteins announced that they had
decided upon a legal separation. Although their marriage lasted twenty-five
years, Bernstein said that his marriage was holding him back from being the best
artist he could be. When Mrs. Bernstein became seriously ill, though, they
were reconciled.
Bernstein has received such awards as the Albert Einstein
Commemorative Award in the Arts from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine;
the John H. Finley Medal for service to New York City; the Golden European
trophy, an annual award given to an outstanding figure in popular music; the
Datsun Award for "outstanding service to American music"; the Institute of
International Education Award presented by President Nixon; and the George
Foster Peabody Awards for his television programs.
Bernstein provided the music for four famous Broadway musicals
with a superior amount of sophistication and technique. Often times, he would
produce music with great humour and sentiment. Bernstein's great talents led
him to author a few books in the 1960's. One of his most recent, famous
collections of his music is used in the ever popular film West Side Story.
Leonard Bernstein was the "Renaissance man of twentieth century
music." Over the decades, Bernstein has been called one of the most charismatic
and gifted personalities in the music of our times.

 

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It is regularly judged one of the best musicals of all time, yet West Side Story, with its famous Leonard Bernstein score, came close to being abandoned before it reached an audience.

A new, comprehensive collection of Bernstein's letters, most of which have never been made public before, will reveal next month that the extent of bad feeling between the composer and playwright Arthur Laurents put the whole production in serious jeopardy.

The correspondence, to be published by Yale University Press and edited by British musicologist Nigel Simeone, contains a 1949 letter from Laurents to Bernstein that clearly refers to a recent threat by the composer to pull out of the project. "I'm sorry you've decided not to do the show," writes Laurents, who goes on to observe that "hostility had popped up" between them.

West Side Story, which contains the hit songs America and Maria and is now credited with changing the shape of musical theatre, was dropped until friends persuaded the composer to return to it years later.

The British composer Matthew Taylor, who studied with Bernstein, believes there are many reasons to be grateful that the composer changed his mind. "The show is perhaps the culmination of the talents of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. It transcends genres and, amazingly, although it is based on Shakespeare and set in the 1950s, the music fires up children from all sorts of difficult backgrounds, even today," he said.

Taylor recalls Bernstein enjoying the 30th anniversary of the show in the late 1980s, saying he found it "as fresh as Mozart". "Although this was quite a thing for anyone to say, we had to agree," said Taylor.

The idea for West Side Story dated from 1947 when choreographer Jerome Robbins approached both Bernstein and Laurents about a modern musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The plot would centre on conflict between the Irish Catholic community and the Jews living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Laurents's first draft was called East Side Story, but Bernstein is thought to have been disappointed by a lack of originality in the themes and to have disagreed with Laurents about whether it should be a piece of lyric theatre, or an operetta, as Bernstein would have preferred. Simeone's book shows that by 1955, however, Bernstein had again committed himself to the musical.

Mediation by Robbins, his great theatrical collaborator, now appears to have been the key to mending the relationship with Laurents, who was later to write the musical Gypsy with composer Jule Styne. The involvement of the young lyricist Stephen Sondheim cemented plans for a story about rival Puerto Rican and Polish-Irish gangs.

Around a third of the correspondence comes from the composer's archive held at the Library of Congress in Washington DC and made available only three years ago. After Bernstein's death in 1990, the family sealed many of his personal documents, but now details of his complex personal and political life, as well as his musical career, will be made public.

The letters show that, although a devoted parent, Bernstein had love affairs with men and attracted the attention of the FBI, while enjoying the celebrity lifestyle of a renowned composer and conductor. His emotional life is laid bare in the letters he exchanged with the musicians to whom he was closest, including fellow composer Aaron Copland. His courtship of the Chilean-American actress Felicia Montealegre was slow, not only because of her acting ambitions, but because of her clear understanding of his sexuality. "You are a homosexual and may never change," she wrote to him in 1952, the year after their wedding. "I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the LB altar."

"He was a very complicated man," Simeone has said. "That's one of the really intriguing things to emerge from the letters in general are the contradictions, the self doubt – things you don't associate with the public persona of Bernstein."

The composer was not summoned to give evidence to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, but when he tried to renew his passport in the early 1950s obstacles were repeatedly put in his path. Letters to friends and his brother Burton show how upset he was to find his status as a US citizen officially questioned. In the summer of 1953 he had to send a sworn affidavit to the state department to prove his loyalty to the United States of America. He had to list all the organisations to which he had belonged at any time. Other additions to the history of 20th century musical theatre in Bernstein's letters include details of his interest in making a show about the life of the Argentinian first lady Eva Perón, 25 years before Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had their success with Evita.

Marin Alsop, conductor of this year's Last Night of the Proms and a former pupil of Bernstein's, said this weekend that she did not know about the creative differences that put the show at risk: "Bernstein elevated musical theatre to a very sophisticated art form and clearly influenced composers like Stephen Sondheim, giving them courage to bridge the ground between it and opera."

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