Best known as the composer of Candide and West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein had an immensely versatile career. Born on August 25, 1918, Bernstein’s career spanned decades, leaving a lasting impression through his work as a conductor, composer, and music educator.
Here are some facts you may not know about this legendary conductor.
- His parents, Samuel Bernstein and Jennie Resnick, were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked in the barber and beauty supply business.
- He was born Louis, after a deceased grandfather, although his family always called him Leonard. He legally changed his name at 16.
- Although hired as only an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he substituted at the last moment for a concert that was broadcast nationally and became famous within 18 months of being hired.
- Bernstein led a tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during the Israeli War for Independence, making him very popular in Israel.
- Bernstein was the youngest music director ever of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra when he was named to the position in 1958.
- While mostly too busy for academia, Bernstein did teach briefly at Brandeis University from 1951-1954, inspired by his mentor Serge Koussevitzky.
- As a composer, Bernstein is perhaps most known for his theatrical works, which include five Broadway scores, three ballets, two operas, incidental music for two plays, the “theater piece” Mass, and a film score.
- Bernstein worked on the scores of Candide and West Side Story—two of his crowning achievements—simultaneously, with the shows opening about nine months apart.
- Mass (1971) was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. A young lyricist Stephen Schwartz, a client of Bernstein’s sister, helped write the English texts and devise the work’s plot.
- Bernstein was interested in politics, lending his name to many left-wing groups early in his career, causing the FBI to amass a huge file on him over the decades.
Featured image credit: Leonard Bernstein and Maximilian Schell by Unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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