Leonard Bernstein
An American Life

WFMT Special Features

Leonard Bernstein - An American Life

Episode Guide

Choose an episode below for more information:

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-7 | 8 | 9-10 | 11


Leonard Bernstein—The Early Years (1917-1939)
The series begins with an overview and introduction to the career of Leonard Bernstein. We then go back to the beginning, to the sub-culture of Eastern European immigrant American Jews in the first decades of this century; especially as reflected in the life and worldview of Bernstein's father, Sam. We look at the hopes, the ethos, the ambitions--the culture and the music of the immigrant Jews--and their resonance with, and influence on, the young Leonard Bernstein.

The hour follows Bernstein through his early years, through his Harvard years and finally to his meeting with Aaron Copland, and Copland's key influence on Bernstein’s development.


12 Gates to the City—Meeting the Mentors (1939—1943)
This episode sees Bernstein through his years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia under Fritz Reiner, his first summer at Tanglewood, his friendship with the great conductor Dmitri Mitropolous, and the beginning of his life-changing apprenticeship with Boston Symphony Orchestra Maestro, Serge Koussevitsky. After Curtis, Lenny moves to New York where we meet his show business friends, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Judy Holliday, then performing as the Revuers, with Bernstein as an occasional accompanist.

While working as a transcriber and arranger for Harms Music Publishing, Bernstein gets his first miraculous break, an appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The assistantship—and the hour—culminates with Bernstein filling in for the sick Bruno Walter and becoming, in 1943, the first American born conductor to lead a New York Philharmonic subscription concert. The Sunday afternoon concert is on national radio and the 25-year-old Bernstein is suddenly a star.


New York, New York (1944-1951)
A look at the peripatetic world of the young Leonard Bernstein as he establishes himself as the wunderkind of American culture. We follow him from the creation of the groundbreaking musical comedy On The Town with Jerome Robbins, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, to his emergence as a force in the world of "serious music" with the composition of his first two symphonies, Jeremiah and Age of Anxiety.

We look at some of the other personalities that were key in Bernstein's development, including the composer Mark Blitzstein and we follow Bernstein as he takes the baton of The New York City Center Orchestra. We also discuss Bernstein’s role in the Israeli War of Independence, the establishment of the Israel Philharmonic and generally examine Bernstein's role as both agent and representative of the change in American culture during the immediate post war era.

The hour ends with Bernstein's marriage to the Chilean actress, the former Felicia Montealegre.


Tonight (1951-1958)
In hour four we explore Lenny's role in the development of Tanglewood, with newly established Brandeis University, his first opera, Trouble in Tahiti, the death of Serge Koussevitsky and the birth of Bernstein's first two children, Jamie and Alexander. We follow his triumphant conducting debut with Maria Callas at La Scala in Milan, his return to Broadway with the show Wonderful Town, his film scoring (On the Waterfront) and his compositional work of the period (Serenade).

The mid-'50s find Bernstein at the height of his public reputation. We look at his TV music specials for Robert Saudek and the CBS series Omnibus, and finally Bernstein's landmark works in the musical theatre, Candide and West Side Story.


A New Frontier-The Philharmonic Years (1959-68)
Three months after Bernstein's triumph with West Side Story, he takes over as conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, arguably America’s flagship orchestra. This hour finds Bernstein, enthroned as "star conductor", heir to the tradition of Koussevitsky, Stokowski and Toscanini and the living embodiment of the Television Age in serious music.

We examine Bernstein as a key cultural component of the ideology and mythos of the Kennedy Years. In this era, Bernstein also composes and performs his third and fourth symphonies Kaddish and Chichester Psalms. We hear the music and examine the mixed critical response to Bernstein's compositional work in these years. Finally, we examine the influence of televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.


Bernstein: The Conductor
In these two hours, we discuss Bernstein's evolution as a conductor, including his apprenticeship with Serge Koussevitsky, Fritz Reiner, and Dmitri Mitropoulos, his Philharmonic debut and his subsequent career leading the Philharmonic. We touch on his early work with the Israel Philharmonic and his guest-conducting career in Europe and in Israel, especially in the latter part of his life. We’ll also explore Bernstein's historic role as the first important American-born conductor, as well as examining the conductor's role in general. What does a conductor do and how does he/she do it? What is the relationship between a conductor's interpretation of a work and the score itself?

We also examine Bernstein's role as a teacher, which was both central to his idea of himself, and perhaps also central to the development of a generation of American conductors.

Finally, we cover how Bernstein's interpretations of the classics differ from those of other great conductors. We will hear many examples of what music Bernstein best liked to conduct and discuss his role in the introduction of 20th Century works into the classical repertoire. We also examine Bernstein's central role in the revival of interest in the work of composer and conductor, Gustav Mahler.


Crossroads (1968-1978)
We follow Bernstein as he leaves the Philharmonic in 1968 to concentrate more on composition. This hour covers the creation of Bernstein's Mass in 1971, his Norton lectures on music and language at Harvard in 1973, and his signing of a new record contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 1972, ending his 25-year relationship with Columbia Records. This move to the German-based record company was accompanied by a steady tilt of Bernstein away from his American base and toward Europe where he now did most of his conducting.

This hour will also touch on Bernstein's Songfest of 1977, his collaboration on the ballet Dybbuk with Jerome Robbins in 1974, and the colossal failure of his 1976 Bicentennial musical collaboration with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1976, Bernstein publicly separated from his wife Felicia and moved in with his longtime lover, Tommy Cochran. Four months later, Bernstein moved back in with Felicia, just before she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1978 and Bernstein blamed himself for her death. He never completely recovered--either from her loss or his sense of guilt.


Bernstein: The Composer
Bernstein's role as a composer is often overshadowed by his roles as conductor and teacher. These two hours will feature an examination of Bernstein's body of composed music. We will discuss both popular and obscure works, and will attempt a re-evaluation of Bernstein's work as a composer. We begin this process by reviewing Bernstein’s musical theatre work and his concert composition as part of a whole.

This program will trace the evolution of Bernstein's own works, including his three Symphonies: Jeremiah, Age of Anxiety and Kaddish; and many of his other works, including Facsimile, Fancy Free, Chichester Psalms, Mass, On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story, On The Waterfront, Trouble in Tahiti, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Songfest, A Quiet Place, Candide, Dybbuk, Halil, Jubilee Games, Arias and Barcarolles, and other piano, vocal and symphonic works.


A Candle Burned At Both Ends (1979-1990)
Bernstein continues his moves toward Europe in the '80s. His work in this period includes the opera A Quiet Place, and the film Love of 3 Orchestras, which documents Bernstein's work with the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. We examine Bernstein's role in the launching of the Mahler mania of the last 20 years as well as his last compositional work, Concerto for Orchestra. We follow Bernstein to his heroic Freedom Concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall, to his last performance at Tanglewood, to the events surrounding his death in 1990.

Finally, we look at the legacy. Bernstein's last period sees him racing against the clock to finish major compositional works that he hopes will help gain him the reputation as a major composer--the one attainment he feels has somehow eluded him. While his major compositions of his last period, the opera A Quiet Place, and his Concerto for Orchestra do not bring him this kind of acclaim, Bernstein remains the most celebrated conductor in the world right up to his death.

His final days are colored by his own sense of failure. Only after his passing does it become clear the immensity of Bernstein's place in the music of the 20th century.