The beginning of Leonard Bernstein’s career as one of the 20th-century’s most remarkable figures in the world of serious music is usually dated as 1943 when, at the age of 25, he was called to substitute for the indisposed conductor of the New York Philharmonic. At this time, Bernstein had studied composition and conducting at Harvard, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts; he had become involved with a circle of popular entertainers who performed at the Village Vanguard in New York City; and he had been employed as an arranger and transcriber of popular songs and jazz. His conducting of the nationally broadcast concert of the New York Philharmonic was praised in rave reviews on the front page of the New York Times and in other newspapers. This critical acclaim thrust him into public spotlight, a position he was to retain for the rest of his life.
Over the next decades, Bernstein conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic, of which he served as the first American-born music director from 1958 to 1969. His warm personality, engaging public manner, and dynamic style at the podium drew large and devoted audiences to his concerts. Millions also learned about music, from standard repertory to experimental styles and jazz, through his radio broadcasts, televised lectures, young people’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and from his books on music. He was a particularly effective spokesman for music by American composers, which he programmed frequently. Like John Kennedy, a friend with whom he shared liberal political views, Bernstein embodied a particular image of the American character through his energetic enthusiasm, engaging freshness, photogenic good looks, and ability to communicate with all kinds of people.
Bernstein’s creative output was wide-ranging, from major concert-hall, chamber, vocal music and opera to scores for film, dance and Broadway musicals. He drew upon many musical styles, fusing elements from popular music and jazz with traditional art music practices. His own Jewish heritage finds voice in the thematic material of several important works, including the two symphonies subtitled Jeremiah and Kaddish. But he believed music was an international language and strove to transcend boundaries and reconcile differences through his work as a musician. In his own words, “I count the artist to be a citizen, a politic contributor to the art of living together in this lovely land and on this trembling planet.”
Among Bernstein’s best-known works are Mass, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1971; the film score for On the Waterfront; the comic opera Candide; and the musicals Wonderful Town and West Side Story. The latter opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theater and was Bernstein’s greatest Broadway success.