Leonard Bernstein 1918 -1990)
Composer, conductor and pianist, Leonard Berstein marked the 20th century by his talent and left some of the most famous pages of American music, thanks, in particular, the score of the musical West Side Story. For eleven years, he was also the charismatic director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, to a Jewish family of Russian origin, Leonard Louis Bernstein came relatively late to music and began his piano studies in Boston with Helen Coates and Heinrich Gebhard while playing in an orchestra of jazz, music that inspired him throughout his life. In 1935, he entered Harvard University, where he worked with Edward A. Ballantine, A. Tillman Merritt, Walter Piston, and Edward B. Hill.
In 1937, he met the great American composer, author of Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland, whose influence was decisive. He was admitted to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1939-1941), where he took Fritz Reiner's conducting courses. He worked in composition with Nadia Boulanger and attended the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, where he studied with Serge Koussevitzky (summers from 1940 and 1941). Throughout his career, he will follow this dual path of conducting and composing.
New York Philharmonic Orchestra debuts
Koussevitzky gave him the opportunity to conduct his first concerts in Boston in 1942, and a year later he was hired as an assistant to Artur Rodzinski at the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, he made his debut by replacing, at short notice, the great Bruno Walter, who was ill. His career developed very quickly: he was appointed permanent conductor of the New York City Center Orchestra (1945-1948), gave concerts in Europe (Prague, 1946), directed the American premiere of Peter Grimes Benjamin Britten (1946), became a musical advisor to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (1947-1949), creates the Turangalîla-Symphony by Olivier Messiaen (at the head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, December 2, 1949). He finally succeeded Koussevitzky, on his death, as professor of conducting at Tanglewood (1951-1955), and also taught at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts (1951-1956).
A tireless pedagogue
Between 1954 and 1962, the television programs that he hosts on C.B.S. had an immense pedagogical impact and inspired generations of musicians. He is the first American conductor invited to work at La Scala in Milan (Medea de Cherubini, with Maria Callas and Fedora Barbieri, 1953). After a season in which he conducts concerts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra alternately with Dimitri Mitropoulos, he became the musical director of this orchestra (1958-1969). This is the consecration: he is the first American born to know such a distinction.
Full time composer
From 1969, he left the direction of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to dedicate himself to composition and a career as a guest conductor worldwide. He thus forges very close links with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (with which he records his second complete Beethoven symphonies), the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchester National de France, the London Symphony Orchestra (of which he becomes president at the death of Karl Böhm) and that of the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. He taught at Harvard (1972-1973) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1974).
The composer as eclectic as the performer: Bernstein refused to adhere to any school, and will distinguish himself in diverse genres including film music, musical comedy, melody or classical great forms. Author of several symphonies, works of chamber music, religious music, he entered the music hall of fame with West Side Story which he composed in 1957.
Defender of freedoms
Constant defender of individual liberties, Leonard Bernstein does not hesitate to give concerts in favour of the Black Panthers or to compose a "political opening", in tribute to Mstislav Rostropovitch, when this one is deprived of the Soviet citizenship (Slava!, A Political Overture, 1977). It was him who directs one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, December 25, 1989, bringing together for the occasion instrumentalists and singers of both Germany and the occupying powers.