June 18, 2011
Introduction to art, music and literature
Professor Terry Hammons
Leonard Bernstein was born as Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents who were Jennie and Samuel Joseph Bernstein; His father was a supplies wholesaler from Rovno, which is now Ukraine. Despite of his family name, he was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein. His family spent summers on vacation at their home in Sharon, Massachusetts. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always like Leonard, so that’s what they called him. He officially changed his name to Leonard when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother’s death.
His father was a businessman and owner of a bookstore in downtown Lawrence; it is standing today on the corners of Amesbury and Essex streets. His father initially opposed Leonard’s interest in music when his was young, but in spite of this, when Leonard was a teenager, his father took him to orchestra concerts and eventually began to support his music education. Bernstein was very young we he started listening to piano performances; he was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning piano seriously when the family acquired his cousin’s piano. When he was a child, he attended the Garrison Grammar School and Boston Latin School. He was very close to his sister when he was a child, and would often play entire operas or Beethoven symphonies with her at the piano. He had a variety of piano teachers when his was young including Helen Coates, who would later become his secretary.
He graduated in 1935 from Boston Latin School, and attended Harvard University, where he studied music. One of his friends at Harvard was philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom he played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote ad conducted the musical score for the production Davidson mounted of Aristophanes’ play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein used some of this music in Fancy Free. During his time at Harvard he was briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club. Bernstein also mounted a student production of The Cradle Will Rock directing its action from the piano as the composer Marc Blitzstein had done at the premiere. Blitzstein, who heard about the production, subsequently became a friend and influence on Bernstein.
After completing his studies with a B.A. cum laude in 1939, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein studied conducting. Unlike his years at Harvard, Bernstein appears to not have enjoyed the formal training environment of Curtis, although later in life he would mention an important teacher that taught him there name Fritz Reiner, who is said to have given Bernstein the only A he ever awarded.
After he left Curtis, Bernstein lived in New York where he shared a flat with one of his friends. He took jobs with a music publisher, transcribing music or producing arrangements under the pseudonym Lenny Amber. During this period in New York City, Bernstein enjoyed an elaborate social life that included relationships with both men and women. In 1940, Bernstein began his study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute, Tanglewood, in the conducting class of the orchestra’s conductor, Serge Koussevitzky.
On November 14, 1943, he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he made his major conducting debut at sudden notice, and without any rehearsal. The next day, The New York Times carried the story on the front page and their editorial remarked, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves.” He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and afterwards started to appear as a guest conductor with many US...