Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an American composer, conductor, music lecturer, and pianist. His rare musical talent and flamboyant style made him one of the most influential musicians of the past century. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918, he attended Boston Latin School and later majored in music at Harvard. In 1943 he stepped in to conduct the New York Philharmonic in place of an ailing Bruno Walter. His debut, broadcast live over the radio to millions of Americans, attracted front-page headlines and propelled him overnight to the top ranks of American symphonic conductors. Over the next 14 years, his reputation grew as he promoted the works of other American conductors, such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. By the time he was named principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, Bernstein had written many of his own symphonic works, as well as the musical scores for Candide, On the Town, and West Side Story. He had achieved great popularity through his appearances on the CBS television series Omnibus, and later, the innovative Young People’s Concerts, broadcast from 1958 to 1972.
Bernstein flourished as an educator, bringing his lively and enthusiastic style to students at Brandeis, Harvard, and Tanglewood. In 1967 he resigned from the Philharmonic but continued to make frequent guest appearances as a conductor of major symphony orchestras in the U.S. and abroad. He completed his celebrated Mass at MacDowell, where he was in residence in 1962, 1970, and 1972, and he was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for his outstanding contribution to the realm of musical composition in 1987. Despite mounting health problems, Bernstein continued to tour the world, including conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the newly opened Berlin wall in 1989. His last performance was at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990. He died two months later in New York City.