Music Leonard Bernstein
Katherine Baber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0050


Leonard Bernstein (b. 1918–d. 1990) was a Renaissance man of the 20th century: composer, conductor, educator, performer, and public personality in nearly equal parts, none of which he was willing to give up for the others. In 1943 he made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic; he was the first American-born conductor to be appointed its musical director (1958–1976). He also served as a frequent guest conductor for several European orchestras and maintained a close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. As a composer, Bernstein worked in a wide range of genres, including orchestral and vocal works (or, more frequently, combinations of the two), ballet, opera, musical theater, and chamber works. Following his Symphony no. 1: Jeremiah (1942), he turned to collaborative works with the ballet Fancy Free (1944) and the musical comedy On the Town (1944). This unfettered attitude toward genre continued throughout his career, resulting in a number of hybrid works, such as the Symphony no. 2: The Age of Anxiety (both piano concerto and symphony), the Symphony no. 3: Kaddish (a blend of symphony and oratorio), Candide (not fully an opera, operetta, or musical), and the “theater piece” Mass. In addition to blurring boundaries, Bernstein’s compositional style featured an ecumenical approach to classical and vernacular styles, often identified as eclecticism. Not only did he challenge the distinction between “high” and “low” musical styles, but he often did so within the confines of a single composition. As a music educator, Bernstein also reached across the gap between the regular audience at the symphony or opera and the general public, as well as across generations with his televised Young People’s Concerts and Omnibus programs. Bernstein remained a skilled pianist, frequently performing the piano parts for his own works and for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He was also an advocate for Israel and its musical culture, maintained an internationalist perspective despite his interest in American musical identity, and was a passionate activist for a variety of progressive causes, including civil rights and funding for the arts and AIDS research. Bernstein could not be confined to any one genre, style, or profession, and the single quality that distinguishes his musical life as a whole is the crossing, blurring, or disintegration of boundaries.

Reference Works

The field of Bernstein studies is rapidly expanding, and the newest articles, dissertations, and monographs are among the most relevant and discerning. Since Bernstein was active throughout the 1980s, relatively few authoritative bibliographies, catalogues, or discographies have yet to be produced. The article by David Schiff (“Bernstein, Leonard [Lewis]”) is an authoritative overview of Bernstein’s life and works. Gottlieb 1988 is similarly thorough; however, the Leonard Bernstein official website (see Archival Resources) provides this information as well. The author’s own essays in Laird and Lin 2015 are perceptive and as useful as the bibliography itself, especially for researchers new to the field.

  • Gottlieb, Jack. Leonard Bernstein: A Complete Catalog of His Works, Celebrating his 70th Birthday, August 25, 1988. New York: Jalni, 1988.

    Complete except for a handful of pieces from 1989 and 1990, and the posthumous arrangement of his “Suite” from A Quiet Place by Sid Ramin and Michael Tilson Thomas (1991). Includes Rorem 1990 (see Festschriften, Special Issues, and Essays or Interviews), a speech delivered in 1987 as a preface. Useful as an introductory guide to the compositions, as well as for sorting out Bernstein’s recordings of his own works from his extensive discography.

  • Laird, Paul R., and Hsun Lin. Leonard Bernstein: A Research and Information Guide. 2d ed. Routledge Music Bibliographies. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    A welcome update to an impeccably organized guide to Bernstein research. Also offers a concise but thorough overview of Bernstein’s musical style and works that remains a touchstone in more recent style studies, informed by an interview of Bernstein by Laird.

  • Schiff, David. “Bernstein, Leonard [Louis].” Grove Music Online.

    The logical starting place for any undergraduate, graduate, or professional research on Bernstein. The bibliography is not as useful as Laird’s guide, but the index of Bernstein’s compositions and Schiff’s assessment of Bernstein’s career as conductor and compositional style are authoritative.

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