American composer, conductor, pianist and writer. He wrote in virtually all genres, often merging popular and classical styles.
Leonard Bernstein was something of a musical polymath. In the world of Western art music he enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a conductor and a composer. He was also a great communicator, and perhaps more than anybody else he was able to explain music (especially Western art music) to a wide audience. At the same time, he created music for the Broadway stage, and successfully integrated popular styles (especially jazz) into his musical vocabulary.
For all this, Bernstein began his musical study rather late. His family bought a piano when he was ten years old, and he began study without real encouragement from his family. He progressed, studying with various teachers, and attended the prestigious Boston Latin School. He went from there to Harvard (1935-1939) and then to the Curtis Institute, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitsky. He also kept one foot in the more popular world, playing with the Revuers in New York (a musical theater group that included Betty Comden and Adolph Green). By 1943 he was assistant to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was here that he gained national and worldwide attention, substituting for an ill Bruno Walter in a broadcast concert.
His conducting career progressed rapidly, and he was closely associated with the New York Philharmonic (where he served as music director from 1958 to 1969), the Israel Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was in demand throughout the world and was the first American to conduct at Milan's La Scala opera house. Through most of his career he was a passionate supporter of contemporary music, though in his later years he also turned back to older styles, especially the late romantics such as Mahler. Bernstein also used the podium as a way to popularize the music he loved. In 1958, he began a series of televised Young People's Concerts that brought symphonic music into the homes of Americans.
During this time, Bernstein was also prolific as a composer. He is best remembered for his music for the stage and films. In 1944 he created the ballet Fancy Free for Jerome Robbins, and in the same year a musical based on a similar theme, On the Town. He also composed music for the film On the Waterfront. But his most spectacular success was the musical West Side Story, a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It has enjoyed both critical and popular success on stage, and was eventually made into a hit film. Bernstein also wrote a great deal of concert music, some of which was popularly influenced and some of which was more clearly oriented toward the mainstream classical style of the twentieth century. Although he was conversant in just about any approach (including the use of twelve-tone techniques), he concentrated on a modern tonal language, sparked by a dynamic rhythmic sense and his brilliant sense of orchestration. In all of his endeavors he promoted not only himself, but also the causes of music in America and American music. He was able, in the words of his biographer, Joan Peyser, "to proclaim that an American can be a remarkable and exciting musician."