Leonard Bernstein: A Professional Crescendo

Leonard Bernstein: A Musical Genius and a Humanitarian

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most influential figures in the musical world of the 20th century. He was a versatile and prolific composer, a charismatic and passionate conductor, a brilliant and inspiring educator, and a courageous and compassionate activist. His life and work reflect his love for music, humanity, and culture.

His impact on classical and popular music in the 20th century

Bernstein was a master of blending different musical genres and styles, from classical to jazz, from Broadway to opera, from symphony to ballet. He wrote music that appealed to both the critics and the masses, that challenged the boundaries of musical expression, and that celebrated the diversity and richness of American culture. He was also a pioneer of introducing classical music to a wider audience through television, radio, and recordings. He made classical music more accessible, enjoyable, and relevant to the modern world.

Achievements as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and other global orchestras

Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. He was the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, and continued to conduct them as a laureate conductor until his death. He also conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and many others. He was renowned for his expressive and energetic conducting style, his deep understanding and interpretation of the musical scores, and his rapport and communication with the musicians and the audience. He brought new life and vitality to the orchestral repertoire, especially the works of Mahler, Beethoven, Copland, and Stravinsky.

Notable musical works: West Side Story, Candide, Chichester Psalms, Mass

Bernstein composed many musical works that have become classics in their own right. Some of his most famous works include:

  • West Side Story (1957), a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the context of rival gangs in New York City. It features songs such as “Somewhere”, “Maria”, and “America”, and showcases Bernstein’s skill in fusing classical, jazz, and Latin elements.
  • Candide (1956), a comic operetta based on Voltaire’s satire, which mocks the optimism and hypocrisy of the Enlightenment era. It contains songs such as “Glitter and Be Gay”, “Make Our Garden Grow”, and “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, and demonstrates Bernstein’s wit and humor.
  • Chichester Psalms (1965), a choral work commissioned by the Cathedral of Chichester in England, which sets psalms from the Hebrew Bible to music. It expresses Bernstein’s faith and spirituality, as well as his hope for peace and harmony in the world.
  • Mass (1971), a theatrical work commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is a complex and controversial piece that combines elements of the Roman Catholic Mass, Hebrew prayers, rock music, and political protest. It reflects Bernstein’s social and political concerns, as well as his personal struggles and doubts.

Role as a teacher and lecturer in music, philosophy, and culture

Bernstein was not only a musician, but also a scholar and a teacher. He had a profound knowledge and curiosity about music, philosophy, and culture, and he shared his insights and enthusiasm with the public through various lectures and programs. He was especially famous for his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which introduced children and adults alike to the wonders and joys of classical music. He also gave the Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973, which explored the connections between music and linguistics, and the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1976, which examined the relationship between music and literature.

Social and political activism in areas such as human rights, world peace, and religious coexistence

Bernstein was not only a musical genius, but also a humanitarian. He used his fame and influence to support various causes and movements that aimed to improve the lives and rights of people around the world. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, a supporter of the civil rights movement, a champion of nuclear disarmament, a fundraiser for AIDS research and awareness, and an advocate for international cooperation and dialogue. He also promoted religious coexistence and tolerance, especially between Jews and Christians, and between Israelis and Palestinians. He believed that music could be a powerful force for social change and for bringing people together.


Leonard Bernstein was a remarkable and multifaceted person, who left a lasting legacy in the musical and cultural history of the 20th century. He was a composer, a conductor, an educator, and an activist, who dedicated his life and talent to music, humanity, and culture. He was a man of vision and of action, of passion and of compassion, of genius and of generosity. He was, in his own words, “a lover of music and of life”.