Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein Biography (BBC)

Leonard Bernstein has been described as a 20th-century Renaissance man and it is true that he dared to be versatile in an age of specialisation. The first indigenous American to really challenge the global domination of musical life by Europeans, or quasi- Europeans, he came to symbolise the optimism and can-do attitude of the American way, while representing also the flip-side of the Dream, incurably restless and variously unfulfilled. At the time of his death, his own music, especially his concert music, was generally reckoned a disappointment: its rampant eclecticism did not chime well with what Western art music was supposed to be about. Today, however, even his supposed failures are coming in from the cold. Those generously inflected Bernstein realisations, so effective in promulgating the music of his American contemporaries and that of Gustav Mahler, no longer represent a barrier to the rediscovery of his own music by a new generation of performers.

There was much that was conventional in Bernstein’s upbringing and education. Born in 1918, he studied at both Harvard and the Curtis Institute and was at various times the protégé of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. Self-evidently gifted, he also had luck on his side. In 1943 he made his reputation as a conductor at a stroke when he replaced an indisposed Bruno Walter. Thereafter he was associated with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (from 1947), the Boston Symphony Orchestra and especially the New York Philharmonic (of which he was Music Director, 1958–69). Increasingly drawn to Europe, he forged a special relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic. A celebrated educator, writer, broadcaster and, in earlier years, a formidable pianist, he pursued an on-off career as a composer, like his idol Gustav Mahler, blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture in a personal mix of that composer with Copland, Stravinsky and elements drawn from Broadway and specifically Jewish traditions.

His works for commercial theatre, most notably the musicals Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957), are currently more highly prized than his ballet Dybbuk (1974) or his most personal operatic statement, A Quiet Place (1983). His other magnum opus, the unclassifiable evening-length piece for singers, players and dancers entitled Mass (1971), continues to divide opinion. There are three symphonies but casual listeners often find most to admire in more modest concert works such as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949), the Serenade (1954), a violin concerto in all but name, and the defiantly melodic Chichester Psalms (1965).

What distinguished Bernstein’s work as a composer is actually what distinguishes it from so many of the contemporary trends he latched on to, the better to throw his own meanings into relief. Whether pop, pap or post-Schoenbergian, it is the very contemporaneity of so much 20th century music that can make it seem anonymous. Trying everything as it does, reaching out for some ‘ebullient renewed will to survive the Apocalyptic’, Bernstein’s music is always cathartic and unmistakably his own.

Profile © David Gutman

Leonard Bernstein Biography (Wikipedia)

Leonard Bernstein ( BURN-styne; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the U.S. to receive worldwide acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history".

His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, Peter Pan, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town, On the Waterfront, his Mass, and a range of other compositions, including three symphonies and many shorter chamber and solo works.

Bernstein was the first conductor to give a series of television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard. He was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, a composer in whose music he was most passionately interested.

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Leonard Bernstein Performances & Interviews

Leonard Bernstein Tracks

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Past BBC Events

Proms 2018: Prom 59: Relaxed Prom
Royal Albert Hall
Proms 2018: Prom 59: Relaxed Prom

Proms 2018: Prom 59: Relaxed Prom

Royal Albert Hall
Proms 1988: Prom 04
Royal Albert Hall

Proms 1988: Prom 04

Royal Albert Hall
Proms 1987: Prom 63
Royal Albert Hall

Proms 1987: Prom 63

Royal Albert Hall

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