Happy 100th Birthday, Leonard Bernstein

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  August 16, 2018

Leonard Bernstein, photographed in 1955 by Al Ravenna.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Universally beloved composer, pianist, conductor and music legend Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 on August 25, 2018. In the history of modern music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a figure more cherished. He was many things to many people: a critically and commercially successful composer for the concert hall, Broadway and the silver screen; an acclaimed conductor known for reinvigorating symphonic warhorses, bringing renewed attention to Mahler, and championing American composers; a charismatic teacher of both private students and the general public; a non-traditionally observant Jew whose Jewish heritage greatly inspired his work; a deeply committed humanitarian and social activist.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie described his polymath tendencies this way: “He just could not absorb enough information on the things that interested him: not just music but also Shakespeare, the Renaissance, world religions, Lewis Carroll, biology, Russian literature, the two World Wars, astrophysics, French drama — and any places where these topics overlap.”

Certainly, Bernstein’s wide-ranging interests are reflected in the exuberant, searching music that he composed throughout his life. From the rapturous melodies and syncopated, Latin-inflected rhythms of West Side Story, to the unconventional spoken word and 12-tone elements of his “Kaddish” Symphony No. 3; from his mastery of massive, full-blown orchestration the type of which propels his sole original film score, On the Waterfront, to his path-breaking and sensationally unorthodox MASS, which wrapped a traditional Catholic liturgical form in a thoroughly modern musical language and stage production. No matter the genre or the ensemble size, Bernstein’s music bursts with energy and curiosity in multiple directions at once, but it is unmistakably his.

Bernstein photographed by Paul de Hueck.
Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

The music that Leonard Bernstein wrote is a gift to humanity, but generations of music creators have also benefited from his passion for music education and career development. He introduced millions to classical music through his televised lectures and performances for the Omnibus and Young People's Concerts series. He laid out a refreshing, interdisciplinary approach to understanding music in his six recorded lectures as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He taught conducting for more than 40 years at the Tanglewood Institute, where he mentored dozens of the most respected orchestra leaders working today. In 1990, he used prize money from a lifetime achievement award granted by the Japan Arts Association to launch an arts-based learning program, called Artful Learning. Since 1988, The ASCAP Foundation has been fortunate enough to work with the Bernstein family to develop The ASCAP Foundation Leonard Bernstein Award, given to an emerging concert composer for career-related expenses such as travel to important performances or copying costs.

Bernstein’s lifelong commitment to education was about something more than just instilling a love of music. He believed that the act of creation was a pathway to peace. In November 1963, a night after Bernstein conducted the New York Phil in a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” in tribute to the slain President Kennedy, he spoke these words to the audience at a fundraising event: "This sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art....This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

More Bernstein at 100 resources

Official website: leonardbernstein.com/at100

Brash, Confident & Democratic: How Bernstein Symbolized America (NY Times)

Remembering Leonard Bernstein's career, from Broadway to Hollywood (YourClassical.org)

LA: Leonard Bernstein at 100 exhibit (at the Skirball until September 2, 2018)

List of Bernstein at 100 Festivals (NY Times)

7 Ways to Celebrate Leonard Bernstein's 100th (Observer)