Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? We’re kicking off our #Bernstein100 week celebrating the birth, a century ago, of one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century: Leonard Bernstein…
Louis Bernstein was probably not the only American child born to Russian Jewish immigrants on August 25, 1918. Some two million Jews moved from Russia and Eastern Europe to the USA between 1880 and 1924, before a harsh new immigration law came into effect. The Bernstein family’s story was much like thousands of others.
Samuel Bernstein, born Smuel Yosef, was born in a northwestern Ukrainian ghetto in 1892; Jennie Resnik was born in the same area six years later. Though younger, it was she who made the month-long journey across the world first, taken by her mother at the age of seven. Shmuel, by contrast, spent 16 years in Ukraine before his journey west.
The two of them met in 1916. Samuel was an up-and-coming beauty supplies salesman, and Jennie, newly 18, was encouraged into the relationship by her mother. They were married in October 1917, Samuel having been spared service in World War I on account of his poor eyesight. Louis, born 11 months later, was named after a recently deceased uncle, but from the very start of his life he was known by another name: Leonard.
Humphrey Burton’s brilliant biography of America’s most famous musician begins with a quotation from Samuel that sums up Leonard’s childhood. “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?” he said.
In fact, though Samuel was long skeptical of Leonard’s musical ambitions, he played his part in the young musician’s development nonetheless. Samuel’s considerable success in business ensured that Leonard never had the threat of poverty to worry about, and when the teenager went out to earn money, it was by teaching piano, in order to pay for his own piano lessons. Samuel also took the 13-year-old Leonard to hear the Boston Pops, and father and son alike were stunned by the final item on the program: Ravel’s Boléro.
There was nothing that was going to stop Leonard Bernstein from a musical career. After study at Harvard and the Curtis Institute, he was appointed assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic in August 1943 – an appointment that lasted barely any time at all, because his famous debut in November of that year, stepping in for the legendary Bruno Walter, turned him almost immediately into a superstar. As a composer, his First Symphony “Jeremiah” was a critical success as early as 1944. His most famous composition, West Side Story, followed a giddy 13 years later.
Bernstein’s conducting was as influential as his composing. As a conductor, he was particularly well known for his championing of Gustav Mahler, but his advocacy was also crucial for any number of other composers, including Charles Ives, and his passion for Igor Stravinsky’s music—The Rite of Spring above all—was legendary.
It’s unusual for great musicians to emerge from non-musical backgrounds—although another, Birgit Nilsson, also celebrates her centenary this year. Perhaps his own musical schooling was one reason Bernstein was so passionate about music education. He lectured on music throughout his career, in the concert hall and on television, on subjects from Bach and Beethoven to modern music, the art of conducting to the world of jazz. This extraordinary musician’s multifaceted legacy is still something to celebrate.