Leonard Bernstein was an American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. He was probably best known to the public as the longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, for conducting concerts by many of the world’s leading orchestras, and for writing the music for West Side Story, Candide, Wonderful Town, and On the Town. Bernstein was the first classical music conductor to make numerous television appearances between 1954 and 1989. He had a formidable piano technique and as a composer also wrote symphonies and other concert music. According to The New York Times, he was “one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American history.”
Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hair-dressing supplies wholesaler originating from Rovno. He was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein. His family spent their summers at their vacation home in Sharon, Massachusetts. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, because they liked the name more. He had his name changed to Leonard officially when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother’s death.
His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman and owner of a bookstore in downtown Lawrence; it is standing today on the corners of Amesbury and Essex Streets. Sam initially opposed young Leonard’s interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein frequently took him to orchestra concerts. At a very young age, Bernstein listened to a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison School and Boston Latin School.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935, Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with Walter Piston, the author of many harmony and counterpoint textbooks, and was briefly associated with the Harvard Glee Club. One of his friends at Harvard was philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom he played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production Davidson mounted of Aristophanes’ play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein reused some of this music in the ballet Fancy Free.