The Life of Leonard Bernstein: Music as Grace and Inspiration

By Megan Diehl

He was drawn to music even as a toddler, and his first instrument was a humble windowsill. His mother often referred to him as her “windowsill pianist”— he joyfully listened to their Victrola, tapping rhythmically and watching the passers-by, as if he was seated at a grand keyboard.


Leonard Bernstein, legendary composer, conductor, educator, and arts advocate, is best known to some as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American orchestral leaders of all time. To others he is the creator of musical masterpieces such as West Side StoryCandide, and Wonderful Town, to name a few. He earned a host of international conducting prizes as well as multiple Grammy and Tony Awards throughout his prolific career. But even more than all this he is remembered as a charismatic, brilliant, and passionate artist with the true soul of a teacher. He preached love and peace in a time of great turmoil, and recognized the power of artistic expression to help build community in the face of great social upheaval.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Jewish immigrant parents Jennie and Samuel Bernstein, Leonard found refuge in music. The household dynamic was contentious at times, but after struggling to make a life for his family in America, Sam Bernstein opened his own business just outside of Boston in wig and beauty supply sales, an industry he would eventually encourage his ambitious, albeit artistic, son to join.

Bernstein grew up a shy and sickly boy, whose introduction to music came from the family radio and weekly services at the synagogue.  His Aunt Clara moved out of town when he was ten and left the Bernstein household with her upright piano. With an instrument at hand, his health gradually improved and he slowly gained more confidence. “There was no question in my mind that my life was to be about music.”

Leonard was disciplined, quick-witted, and articulate, making him an excellent student and qualifying him for some of the best educational opportunities. After Boston Latin Boys School, he enrolled at Harvard University in the fall of 1935, a great privilege in a time when only about 20 percent of American families were able to afford a college education for their children. Still, anti-Semitic attitudes were not uncommon, even at Harvard, and Bernstein was excluded from the most elite clubs. Nevertheless, he became involved where he could, joining political groups, writing manifestos, and giving concerts to raise funds for countries in crisis. He enjoyed the company of artistic, interesting people and would graduate from Harvard acquainted with two of his greatest influences, conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and composer Aaron Copland.
After Harvard, and subsequent training at Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein quickly emerged as a great American conductor and composer, marked in early 1944 by conducting the premiere of his own Jeremiah Symphony at the age of 26. A few short months later, he scored a ballet, Fancy Free, for a young choreographer named Jerome Robbins, which would eventually gain lyrics by the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green and premiere on Broadway by the end of the year under the title On the Town. By this time, Bernstein was successfully serving as assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic and gaining prestige not only in America, but around the world. So when Jerome Robbins approached him again in 1949 to collaborate, this time on a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he agreed, but continued to traverse between the worlds of conductor and composer.

The musical would undergo many iterations before it become West Side Story, and in the meantime Bernstein continued to conduct internationally while composing two new Broadway creations, Wonderful Town and Candide. After the drama of losing producer’s commitments and delaying production, West Side Story would eventually open in 1957, the culmination of a tempestuous but rewarding collaboration between Bernstein, Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The next day, Walter Kerr famously reviewed the production in the Herald Tribune saying, “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” A project many in the industry deemed impossible, would contribute to the beginning of a new era in musical theater.

Critics credited Bernstein’s music as one of the many triumphant characteristics of this largely unconventional show. The story of two rival gangs on the West Side of New York City inherently centered on violence and social disruption but blended with the lofty emotions of a passionate love story in Bernstein’s majestic score, which was arguably neither strictly opera nor musical theater in style. A musical prologue took the place of a standard overture tuned with sharp dissonances and the piercing snaps of young boys roaming the dangerous city streets.

Bernstein’s score was hot, edgy, and intense, but transformed seamlessly into a soaring, almost hypnotic expression of young love at first sight, leaving critics and audiences alike without a word to classify it. Bernstein credited much of the piece’s success to the dynamic collaboration between him, Robbins, Laurents, and Sondheim, each of them with a pitch-perfect understanding of how to express a moment through song or movement or words, all the while capturing a distinct time and place in American musical theater history.

Much like in his college years, Bernstein continued his dedication to peace, politics, and activism throughout his life, and like many artists in the 1950s he was labeled “subversive” and blacklisted by the State Department, although never formally required to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the coming years, Bernstein would go on to continue a prolific career, becoming one of the world’s most revered conductors. He composed a variety of choral pieces, orchestral arrangements, ballets, and operas, along with penning a number of books including “The Joy of Music,” hosting the beloved Young People’s Concerts on television, and joining the faculty of his alma mater, Harvard University.
Bernstein announced his official retirement from conducting in October of 1990, and five days later died of a heart attack in his home, a result of a life of heavy smoking and battling for decades with emphysema. Even in his last days, he remained a staunch advocate for the arts and their ability to positively impact the human spirit and address social issues. He embraced music completely, believing not only in its restorative power, but also in its value as a shared human experience. Years earlier, on the night he conducted a tribute to the recently slain President Kennedy, Bernstein addressed a country angry and afraid at the current state of affairs; “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Megan Diehl is a freelance writer, director, and dramaturg in the Philadelphia area, as well as being a graduate of DeSales University, Villanova University and serving as Development Assistant for PSF.