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Who is Leonard Bernstein?

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.

  1. His parents, Samuel Bernstein and Jennie Resnick, were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked in the barber and beauty supply business.
  2. He was born Louis, after a deceased grandfather, although his family always called him Leonard. He legally changed his name at 16.
  3. 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.
  4. Bernstein led a tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during the Israeli War for Independence, making him very popular in Israel.
  5. Bernstein was the youngest music director ever of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra when he was named to the position in 1958.
  6. While mostly too busy for academia, Bernstein did teach briefly at Brandeis University from 1951-1954, inspired by his mentor Serge Koussevitzky.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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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