Here are the facts about the great composer – Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990).
Facts About Leonard Bernstein:
- As composers go, Leonard Bernstein probably attracted more divided opinion during his lifetime than any other. His music, his sexuality, his politics, his outspokenness; they all attracted comment. Despite this, was an amazing energetic man who remains a commanding figure in twentieth-century classical music.
- Leonard Bernstein was originally named Louis – but he changed his name when he was 16 years old. Shy and sickly as a child – probably why he was introduced to the piano at the age of five – he was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts to Russian/Jewish immigrants.
- He died only five days after retiring; the cause was emphysema (difficulty breathing) after a lifetime of heavy smoking.
- Famously quoted as saying, ‘I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer’. I guess, that was how ‘he’ thought the composer wanted it to sound?
- Bernstein was married in 1951, and his detractors have suggested that the marriage, to Brazilian actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre (after they’d originally been engaged, then split up before she had a long relationship with Broadway actor, Richard Hart – before getting back together again), was to dispel rumours about his sexuality. In the 1950’s the orchestral governing boards were famously conservative, and so it might have been a sensible move to protect his professional reputation. Whatever, they had three children and clearly loved each other before she died of lung cancer in 1978.
- Bernstein went public with his bi-sexuality in 1976 when he left his wife to move in with Tom Cotham, a radio station musical director. However, with the onset of his wife’s lung cancer, he returned home to care for her until she died.
- In 2013 the book, ‘The Leonard Bernstein Letters’, a letter written by his wife to him said the following; ‘you are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your whole nervous system depends on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?’ A close friend of his, Shirley Rhoades Perle once said about Bernstein, ‘he required men sexually and women emotionally’.
- In a concert of Brahms‘ Piano Concerto No. 1, where he famously argued with the pianist, Glenn Gould, in rehearsal – Gould wanted a slower tempo – Bernstein made an announcement to the audience before they began. ‘Don’t be frightened. Mr Gould is here….in a concerto, who is the boss….the soloist or the conductor? The answer is, of course, sometimes one and sometimes the other, depending on the people involved’. Ever the entertainer, who waited for the applause between each line of his address, Bernstein was later criticised for either attacking Gould (he could hardly reply!) or simply abdicating responsibility for the performance that was to ensue.
- Perhaps his best-known work is the Broadway musical, West Side Story; inspired by Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet and with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical explored rivalries between two 1950’s New York gangs (the Jets and the Sharks). The 1961 musical film version won ten academy awards. Originally it was going to be about an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the lower east side of Manhattan – but this idea was discarded for the Puerto Rican vs Whites story that we now know. Phew!
- Despite the controversies, Bernstein was one of the most acclaimed and ‘in demand’ conductors in the world; almost undoubtedly because of the energy and passion he gave to every performance.
- Bernstein was one of the first classical musicians to ‘master’ TV. The Young People’s Concerts have existed in the US since 1924, but Leonard Bernstein brought them to a new audience in 1958 with the first televised concert of its type. Then, in 1962, the Young People’s Concerts became a TV series and Bernstein conducted 53 of them with his usual brand of enthusiasm and energy.
- Politically, Bernstein and his wife seemed to do their best to put their toes in the hottest of waters; his wife, Felicia, help to found an anti-war effort to promote the education women against the war in Vietnam, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. This doesn’t now sound to be such a bad thing now, but in 1967 it was considered very ‘anti-American’. Likewise, Leonard and his wife hosting a party for the extreme African-American Group, the Black Panthers in the 1970’s didn’t go down too well.
- It was wasn’t because of these activities – because they occurred much later – but Leonard and his wife were named in the anti-communist report, Red Channels; the report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television written in 1950 by the right-wing group Counterattack. The fact that they were named with such luminaries as Aaron Copland, Lena Horne, Pete Seegar and Artie Shaw, certainly didn’t do them any harm in the long term. Leonard was also closely monitored by President Hoovers FBI as a potential ‘red’.
- Bernstein was a close friend of Aaron Copland – referred to as ‘The Dean of American Composers’ – and recorded all of his orchestral works; he also played the Copland ‘Piano Variations’ so regularly that they became his trademark piece.
- Leonard Bernstein was the first ever American to conduct an opera at Teatro all Scala in Milan – he conducted Cherubini’s Medea with none other than Maria Callas singing the lead.
- Bernstein’s rise to fame was rapid. He’d been unexpectedly named as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and with less than 24 hours notice was called upon to stand in for Bruno Walter for a difficult programme that he hardly knew. After a brilliant performance, he made the front page of the New York Times the following morning.
- Oddly, Bernstein never gave a solo piano recital and yet was always considered a conductor and pianist. He did, though, conduct/play in performances of Mozart Piano Concertos (and memorably in the Ravel Concerto in G).