Table of Contents
2. Childhood and Education
3. Early Career
4. Further Compositions
5. International Career as Conductor
6. Leonard Bernstein – The Educator
7. Leonard Bernstein’s New York
7.1 On The Town
7.2. West Side Story
7.2.1. A Brief History of the Musical
7.2.2. A Modern Version of Romeo and Juliet
7.2.3. The Musical’s Style
Leonard Bernstein was one of the most talented and successful musicians in American history. He was a not only a composer but also a conductor, pianist, author and lecturer. His diversity is also reflected in his music: He wrote jazzy as well as classical music; he composed very successful Broadway-musicals as well as symphonic works, ballets, songs and piano works. This paper will first give an overview of Bernstein’s life, career and music and will then present him in his cultural context. Although Bernstein was a versatile musician, he is mainly remembered for his popular musicals such as On the Town and West Side Story. In the second part of this paper the focus will particularly be on West Side Story, because with this work Leonard Bernstein added a new dimension to the Broadway musical by integrating a serious subject and by collaborating in an operatic type of musical in which drama, singing and dancing are of equal importance.
2) Childhood and Education
Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as the first child of Sam and Jennie Bernstein. Sam Bernstein was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, who ran a barber-and-beauty supplies business in Boston. The composer’s Russian-Jewish roots were often reflected in his works such as in the symphonies Jeremiah and Kaddish. Leonard was a shy and weakly child, frequently plagued by asthma attacks and hay fever, but nevertheless he was always the best in school. His introduction to music came quite late, considering his great talent and career. When he was ten, his Aunt Clara, who was in the middle of divorce proceedings, stored her piano at the Bernstein home. Leonard was immediately drawn to the piano, and played it even late at night. Bernsteins described this important event as follows:
I was unhappy until I discovered music at the age of ten... suddenly I found my world; I became very strong inside and strangely enough around the same period I grew up very tall and I became athletic and was very strong... the secret of it is I found a universe where I was secure, where I was safe – that’s music. (Gradenwitz 22)
Moreover, Bernstein did not hear a live symphony orchestra until he was sixteen. This is a late start for any musician, especially for a future music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. At the age of ten Leonard began piano lessons with a neighbour, despite his father’s objection, who wanted him to join his barber business. Later he went on to study with Helen Coates and Heinrich Gebhard, Boston’s foremost piano teacher. In 1935 Bernstein entered Harvard University, studying music, philosophy and asthetics, literary history, philology and linguistics. While still an undergraduate he wrote incidental music for a production of the comedy The Birds and staged and played the piano for the musical The Cradle will Rock by Marc Blitzstein. However, the latter was not his first experience as a producer, because at the age of sixteen he had staged Bizet’s Carmen at a summer camp, playing the title role.
While a student at Harvard, Leonard met conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and composer Aaron Copland, who both were impressed by his talents and profoundly influenced his musical life. Between Bernstein and Copland an intense friendship developed over the years, which had a powerful impact on musical culture in the US for almost half a century. Bernstein`s style was clearly influenced by the American style of Copland’s music. After graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1939, Leonard studied piano, score reading, orchestration and conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music for two years. Furthermore, he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center, a summer school at Tanglewood. Meanwhile, he had also become involved with The Revuers, a group of popular entertainers who composed and sang sophisticated songs.
3) Early Career
In 1942 Leonard Bernstein moved to New York with the intention to work as piano teacher, but with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor times were not favourable for that profession. Eventually, he began working for Harms-Remick, a music publisher, where he had to get jazz improvisations down on paper. He also wrote dance-band arrangements under the pseudonym of Lenny Amber (= Bernstein in English). In the same year was the premiere of the composer’s first published work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, and he composed his first symphony Jeremiah, which is founded on the Old Testament and won the N.Y. Music Critics Circle Award as the best American work of the year 1944.
In 1943 Bernstein became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and destiny wanted him to make his sensational concert debut at Carnegie Hall already at the age of twenty-five. On November 14 1943 Bruno Walter fell ill and could not conduct the Philharmonic, and thus the young assistant stepped in. This concert debut launched Bernstein’s conducting career, and he became an overnight success, because the concert was broadcast allover the United States and a review appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Suddenly he became a public figure, and throughout his whole life he was very much observed by the media. Then he composed his first theater works, namely a score for the ballet Fancy Free, which he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the Broadway hit, On the Town. Between 1945 and 1948 he conducted symphony orchestras at home and abroad. Thus, his first European concerts took place in Prague and London with programs devoted to American music (Copland, Barber, Gershwin and music by himself). Bernstein was the first really famous conductor who introduced American compositions in Europe. In 1947 he also conducted the first series of concerts with the Palestine PO in Tel Aviv.