Composer’s Corner: The Story of Leonard Bernstein

Composer’s Corner: The Story of Leonard Bernstein

He was a pianist, composer, educator, humanitarian, and one of the first conductors to be featured on television.

Leonard Bernstein was a man with a mission!

In this series, we’re discovering the stories of the best composers in Western music history and why their work matters to us today.

This is Leonard’s story.


Leonard Bernstein.

He was named Louis at birth, but Leonard became a nickname that stuck.

He changed it legally when he was in his teens.


A gifted pianist, famed conductor, gifted composer, and dedicated humanitarian with a passion for educating young people about music.

Leonard was a busy guy!


August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990.

Leonard Bernstein lived in the Modern period of music history.

He was a contemporary of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Gloria Coates, Olivier Messiaen, Julia Perry, John Cage, John Williams, and many more.


Lawrence Massachusetts, where he was born.

He was educated in Boston and Philadelphia.

After becoming a conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he lived most of his adult life in New York City.

He traveled the world with the orchestra.

Why It Matters

Bernstein was a lover of both classical and popular music.

He endeavored to infect young people with that same passion as a teacher through his writing, music festivals, and even teaching over television! He was a very respected music educator in the twentieth century.

His ability as a conductor was renowned around the world.

And so were his compositions! He wrote many orchestral and vocal pieces, ranging from classical opera to a little bit of jazz.

His most famous works were his musicals, especially West Side Story, which remains a popular Broadway show to this day.

Other Interesting Facts

Bernstein, who was of Russian Jewish descent, made use of many Jewish themes in his compositions.

Despite his great talent at the piano, Leonard never gave a solo recital. He preferred to play with the orchestra.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack to the film On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando.

He also composed the scores for three ballets.

Leonard became a famous conductor quite by accident: he was the assistant of Bruno Walter, the lead conductor of the New York Philharmonic, when Walter became ill and had Bernstein fill in for him at the last minute. His performance was so fantastic that it earned him a standing ovation and a story on the front page of the New York Times!

He was also known for his humanitarian views and was outspoken against violence and oppression.

After the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, he famously said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

This is a recording of “Maria”, one of the most famous songs from Bernstein’s West Side Story.

And that is the story of Leonard Bernstein. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

Other Composers Featured in the Composer’s Corner Series:

Kassia of Constantinople, Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, George F. Handel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, Lili Boulanger, Dmitri Shostakovich

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