Leonard Bernstein

1918–1990

20th Century

Leonard Bernstein was impossibly clever. A brilliant pianist, a terrifyingly good conductor, a wonderful teacher and supporter of younger composers, a media star, a critic, a fine writer and, of course, a composer.

You may have heard of ‘crossover music’, where pop and classical musicians make music together? Well, Leonard Bernstein, ‘Lennie’ to his friends, was a one-man crossover phenomenon. He mixed classical and pop music, creating things that appealed to lots of different people. His most famous composition is West Side Story (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), which was a successful Broadway musical and film. It combines classical, jazz and Latin sounds. There were other musicals (On the Town and Wonderful Town), jazz pieces, and long works which are ‘classical’ in character, including three symphonies. He never wanted to be pigeon-holed. His attitude was: if it’s good, it’s good – never mind the labels!

He was also the leading American conductor of his generation, conducting the famous New York Philharmonic for many years. A talented pianist as well, sometimes he would even play the piano and conduct the orchestra at the same time! He was a proper maestro – his style of conducting was sweeping and dramatic, with big gestures. Find a video of him performing online or on DVD and watch the way he moves. How do you think his style affects the music? How does the orchestra respond?

He was the first person to give classical music lectures on television. For many years he conducted a series of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic: these would be broadcast so that children all over the United States could watch them, and Bernstein would take the time to talk about the music in ways that kids could enjoy. For many Americans your grandparents’ age, these concerts were their introduction to classical music.

Bernstein radiated energy. It was as if he knew everyone and could do everything. He even got involved in politics, which didn’t always make him popular! But he had so many different musical skills that some have called him one of the most successful and talented musicians in all of American history.

Leonard Bernstein, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Find out what Bernstein’s music sounds like...

West Side Story: Act I: Maria

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this one is definitely Bernstein’s most famous and popular musical. Here is one of its best-known numbers, in which Tony sings of his love for Maria.

Performers: Mike Eldred, tenor; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn

Taken from Naxos 8.559126

Serenade: Phaedrus – Pausanias: Lento – Allegro

Bernstein wrote this concerto in 1954, inspired by the Symposium by Plato, a famous Greek philosopher. Each movement represents a different speaker – in this case, Phaedrus and Pausanias.

Performers: Philippe Quint, violin; Timothy Walden, cello; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559245

4 Anniversaries: III. For David Diamond

Bernstein had loads of prominent friends, and he wrote many pieces dedicated to them and depicting their lives. This one was for David Diamond.

Performers: Warren Lee, piano

Taken from Naxos 9.70252

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Who wrote the play that West Side Story is based on?

a. Christopher Marlowe
b. Voltaire
c. William Shakespeare

 What year did Bernstein start broadcasting his television lectures?

a. 1980
b. 1954
c. 1973

 Whom did Bernstein call ‘his only real composition teacher’?

a. Aaron Copland
b. J.S. Bach
c. Samuel Barber

 Which orchestral piece by Messiaen did Bernstein premiere in 1949?

a. Turangalîla-Symphonie
b. L’Ascension
c. La Transfiguration

 In 1945 Bernstein nearly ended up starring in a movie opposite Greta Garbo. Which character would he have played?

a. Glinka
b. Tchaikovsky
c. Mussorgsky


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Bernstein studied music at Harvard University in America.
  2. Political activism was very important to Bernstein, and he often used his prominent position to fight for good causes.
  3. Bernstein was a famous conductor, and taught many of the world’s best-known contemporary conductors, including Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas and Paavo Järvi.
  4. Bernstein’s works were so popular they were even performed for Pope John Paul II!
  5. Bernstein loved musicals – he wrote eight of them!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Stage and Screen


West Side Story (excerpts)

Based on Romeo and Juliet, this is Bernstein’s most famous and popular musical. He wrote the music, while Arthur Laurents wrote the ‘book’ (the story), Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics (the words), and Jerome Robbins designed the choreography (how, when and where people move on stage). The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City. Two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, have a problem: Tony, best friend of the Jets’ leader, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader.

Performers: Betsi Morrison, Maria; Mike Eldred, Tony; Marianne Cooke, Anita; Michael San Giovanni, Bernardo; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn

Taken from Naxos 8.559126


On the Town: Three Dance Episodes

First performed on Broadway in 1944, this musical was based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. It follows three sailors on shore leave in New York during wartime. Here are three ‘dance episodes’ from it. Listen to great jazzy solo given to the clarinet at the beginning of the third track before the orchestra comes in.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559177


Candide: Overture

Candide is an operetta (a little opera), and this fantastically energetic overture, introducing the whole thing, is often played as a piece on its own.

Performers: Florida Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559099


Facsimile

Bernstein wrote this orchestral piece as a short ballet with choreography by Jerome Robbins. It follows three characters, depicting the gloom and frustrations of America after the war.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559245

Symphonies and Concertos


Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’

This first symphony of Bernstein’s follows the biblical story of the prophet Jeremiah – known as the ‘weeping prophet’. There is a mezzo-soprano solo in the third movement, ‘Lamentation’ (passionate expression of sorrow). The most exciting part is in the rhythmic second movement, where the music keeps building to high fanfares from the trumpets. The first one is at 0:53 – see what you think!

Performers: Helen Medlyn, mezzo-soprano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559100


Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’

Bernstein based this symphony on a poem by W.H. Auden, also called The Age of Anxiety. It features a prominent role for solo piano, although it’s officially a symphony rather than a concerto. The structure is unusual for a symphony: it is in two parts, with Part I having a set of variations – where one tune or theme is disguised or dressed up in different ways.

Performers: Jean Louis Steuerman, piano; Florida Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559099


Symphony No. 3, ‘Kaddish’

‘Kaddish’ refers to a kind of Jewish prayer chanted at ceremonies for the dead. Bernstein dedicated this symphony to John F. Kennedy, who had recently been assassinated. As well as an orchestra it features two choirs, a narrator, and – in the fourth and eighth movements – a soprano.

Performers: Claire Bloom, narrator; Kelley Nassief, soprano; Maryland Boys Choir; Washington Chorus; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559742


Serenade

Bernstein wrote this concerto in 1954, inspired by the Symposium by Plato, a famous Greek philosopher. Each movement represents a different speaker.

Performers: Philippe Quint, violin; Timothy Walden, cello; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559245

Chamber and Instrumental Music


Piano Sonata

Bernstein was only a teenager when he wrote this amazing and unusual piano sonata. It shows a different side to the composer from the one we’re mostly familiar with.

Performers: Alexandre Dossin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559756


Violin Sonata

This is a very early work, but Bernstein liked some of the themes so much he used them later on: in his Second Symphony and in Facsimile.

Performers: Opus Two

Taken from Naxos 8.559643


Piano Trio

Another early work, the piano trio illustrates Bernstein’s sense of humour! He knew how to be witty in his music.

Performers: Bernard Charles, cello; Opus Two

Taken from Naxos 8.559643


4 Anniversaries

Bernstein had loads of friends that were quite significant or important people. He wrote many pieces dedicated to them and depicting their lives. These are the first four such ‘anniversaries’ he wrote.

Performers: Warren Lee, piano

Taken from Naxos 9.70252

Sacred Music


Missa brevis

This Missa brevis – a short Mass – has a countertenor soloist as well as a choir. A countertenor is a male alto voice. Usually the sound is noticeably different from a female alto – so a composer might choose specifically to have this sound. This was one of the last things Bernstein ever wrote.

Performers: Paulo Mestre, countertenor; Sao Paulo Symphony Chorus; Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559742


Chichester Psalms

This is quite a difficult piece to sing! Like his ‘Kaddish’ Symphony, it incorporates a chorus singing in Hebrew – but it’s a much more cheery work. Listen to the big solo for a boy treble in the second movement. This boy is only 13 years old.

Performers: Thomas Kelly, treble; Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen, soprano; Victoria Nayler, alto; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Paul Charrier, bass; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559177


Simchu Na

This is quite an unusual and rare piece for Bernstein, and shows him exploring his Jewish heritage by setting a well-known Hebrew song.

Performers: Barry Snyder, piano; Rochester Singers; Samuel Adler

Taken from Naxos 8.559407


Hashkiveinu

Bernstein was Jewish, and several of his works use Jewish religious texts, including this work for tenor, chorus and organ. It was first performed in 1945.

Performers: Hans Peter Blochwitz, tenor; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ; BBC Singers; Avner Ital

Taken from Naxos 8.559407