Leonard Bernstein: An American Life










Distributed by The WFMT Fine Arts Network, Manager Steve Robinson

World Premiere, 2004

Winner of The Peabody Award, 2005


At the beginning of “Leonard Bernstein: an American Life”, Bernstein’s youngest daughter, Nina, points to the guiding star of the eleven hour series, “This story is as much about a time and place as it is about a man”.


Leonard Bernstein was arguably America’s great musician. He was the first major orchestral conductor born and trained in America. The first to grow up with radio and commercial jingles, with cowboy movies and baseball games, the first to grow up with Jazz. Bernstein was a theatre composer, a concert composer, a compulsive teacher and publicist for the cause of music. In many ways he embodied the marriage of high and popular culture in the post war years and was a constant and public advocate for its highest, democratic applications.


For Bernstein the teaching of music, its performance and composition, even the nature of the culture and society, were inextricably linked.


Bernstein came upon his social advocacy and teaching avocation as second nature. His parents were both Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine and from them Bernstein inherited the traditional Jewish idea of the “lifelong student”. But like many Jews of his generation, Bernstein adapted this idea to the new American circumstances. In the Old World, the study of the Talmud and the Torah were the center of Jewish life. In the New World, the study of the Talmud Torah was replaced by the study of the world itself.


The central dramas of Bernstein career take place against the backdrop of the greater American Story. The first is the birth of American Composition, in which Aaron Copland, “Bernstein’s one and only begetter”, as Copland calls himself in an early letter to Bernstein, played such a key role. In the beginning, American Music was a pastiche of European classical music and jazz, cutting edge experimentalism and American popular song. In the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, it was the promise of the young Leonard Bernstein that through his undeniable genius he would forge something coherent, American, and ultimately transcendent, out of this agglomeration of influences.


The second story line of Bernstein’s career addresses one the key cultural questions of the 2nd half of the 20th century, “what happens to the artist under the pressure of celebrity, when the public self threatens to overwhelms the private”. It was the struggle against his own, and the culture’s expectations that consumed Leonard Bernstein and his talent in the second half of his career.


With it all, Bernstein’s is a life both extraordinary and emblematic of the struggles of a generation. As his friend, composer Ned Rorem says of him early in the series, “Lenny was like everybody else, but nobody else was like Lenny”.



“Leonard Bernstein: An American Life”

An 11-hour audio documentary.


Produced by Steve Rowland &Larry Abrams

at CultureWorks, Ltd.

in cooperation with

The Estate of Leonard Bernstein

and The Library of Congress, Music Division


11 Hours

1—“Bernstein: the early Years”

2—“Twelve Gates to the City(Meeting the Mentors)”                 

3-“New York, New York”

4 – “Tonight”           

5- “A New Frontier/The Philharmonic Years”

6&7-“Bernstein: the Conductor”

8- “Crossroads”

9&10-“Bernstein: the Composer”

11-“A candle burned at both ends”                       






Hour 1 “Leonard Bernstein—the early years” (1917-1939)

The series begins with an overview and introduction to the career of Leonard Bernstein. We then go back to the beginning, to the sub-culture of Eastern European immigrant American Jews in the first decades of this century; especially as reflected in the life and worldview of Bernstein’s father Sam. We look at the hopes, the ethos, the ambitions–the culture and the music of the immigrant Jews– and their resonance with, and influence on, the young Leonard Bernstein.

The hour follows Bernstein through his early years, through his Harvard years and finally to his meeting with Aaron Copland, and Copland’s key influence on Bernstein’s development.




Hour 2 “12 Gates to the City—Meeting the Mentors” (1939—1943)

Show 2 sees Bernstein through his years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia under Fritz Reiner, his first summer at Tanglewood, his friendship with the great conductor Dmitri Mitropolous and the beginning of his life changing apprenticeship with Boston Symphony Orchestra Maestro, Serge Koussevitsky. After Curtis, Lenny moves to New York where we meet his show business friends, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Judy Holliday, then performing as the Revuers, with Bernstein as an occasional accompanist. While working as a transcriber and arranger for Harms Music Publishing, Bernstein gets his first miraculous break, an appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The assistantship—and the hour– culminates with Bernstein filling in for the sick Bruno Walter and becoming, in 1943, the first American born conductor to lead a NY Philharmonic subscription concert. The Sunday afternoon concert is on national radio and the 25 year old Bernstein is suddenly a star.



Hour 3  “New York, New York” (1944-1951)

A look at the peripatetic world of the young Leonard Bernstein as he establishes himself as the wunderkind of American culture. We follow him from the creation of the groundbreaking Musical Comedy “On The Town” with Jerome Robbins, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, to his emergence as a force in the world “serious music” with the composition of his first two symphonies, “Jeremiah” and “Age of Anxiety”. We look at some of the other personalities that were key in Bernstein’s development, including the composer Mark Blitzstein and we follow Bernstein as he takes the baton of The New York City Center Orchestra. We also discuss Bernstein’s role in the Israeli War of Independence, the establishment of the Israel Philharmonic and generally examine Bernstein’s role as both agent and representative of the change in American culture during the immediate post war era. The hour ends with Bernstein’s marriage to the Chilean actress, the former Felicia Montealegre.





Hour 4 “Tonight” (1951-1958)

In hour 4 we look at Lenny’s role in the development of Tanglewood, with newly established Brandeis University, his first opera, “Trouble in Tahiti”, the death of Serge Koussevitsky and the birth of Bernstein’s first two children Jamie and Alexander. We follow his triumphant conducting debut with Maria Callas at La Scala in Milan, his return to Broadway with the show “Wonderful Town”, his film scoring (On the Waterfront) and his compositional work of the period (Serenade).

The mid-50’s find Bernstein at the height of his public reputation. We look at his TV music specials for Robert Saudek and CBS’ Omnibus series, and finally Bernstein’s landmark works in the musical theatre, “Candide” and “West Side Story”.




Hour 5 “A New Frontier -The Philharmonic Years” (1959-68)

Three months after Bernstein’s triumph with West Side Story, he takes over as conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, arguably America’s flagship orchestra. This hour finds Bernstein, enthroned as “star conductor”, heir to the tradition of Koussevitsky, Stokowski and Toscanini and the living embodiment of the Television age in serious music.

We view Bernstein as a key cultural component of the ideology and mythos of the Kennedy Years. In this era Bernstein also composes and performs his 3rd and 4th symphonies “Kaddish” and “Chichester psalms”. We hear the music and examine the mixed critical response to Bernstein’s compositional work in these years.  Finally we examine the influence of televised “Young People’s concerts” with the New York Philharmonic.






Hours 6&7

“Bernstein, The Conductor”          

In these two hours, we discuss Bernstein’s evolution as a conductor. We discuss his apprenticeship with Serge Koussevitsky, Fritz Reiner, and Dmitri Mitropoulos, his Philharmonic debut and his subsequent career leading the Philharmonic. We look at his early work with the Israel Philharmonic and his guest-conducting career in Europe and in Israel, especially in the latter part of his life.

We look at Bernstein’s historic role as the first important American born conductor, as well as examining the conductor’s role in general. What does a conductor do and how does he/she do it? What is the relationship between a conductor’s interpretation of a work and the score itself?

We also examine Bernstein’s role as a teacher, which was both to central to his idea of himself, and perhaps also central to the development of a generation of American conductors.

We discuss some of Bernstein’s stunning international successes, including

his Freedom Concert in Berlin, the 1989 Warsaw concert marking the 50th Anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, his concert on Mt. Scopus after the 6 Day War in Israel, and his role helping the nation mourn after the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy.

Finally we examine how Bernstein’s interpretations of the classics differ from those of other great conductors. We will hear many examples of what music Bernstein best liked to conduct and discuss his role in the introduction of 20th Century works into the classical repertoire. We also examine Bernstein’s central role in the revival of interest in the work of composer and conductor, Gustav Mahler.




Hour 8 “Crossroads” (1968-1978)

We follow Bernstein as he leaves the Philharmonic in 1968 to concentrate more on composition. This hour covers the creation of Bernstein’s “Mass” in 1971, his Norton lectures on music and language at Harvard in 1973, and his signing of a new record contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 1972, ending his 25 year relationship with Columbia records. This move to the German based record company was accompanied by a steady tilt of Bernstein away from his American base and toward Europe where he now did most of his conducting.

This hour will also touch on Bernstein’s “Songfest” of 1977, his collaboration on the ballet the “Dybbuk” with Jerome Robbins in 1974, and the colossal failure of his 1976 Bicentennial musical collaboration with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner on the ill fated musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”.

In 1976 Bernstein publicly separated with Felicia and moved in with his longtime lover, Tommy Cochran. Four months later Bernstein moved back in with Felicia, however several months after that, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1978 and Bernstein blamed himself for her death. He never completely recovered– either from her loss or his sense of guilt.




Hours 9&10

Bernstein, The Composer”

Bernstein’s role as a composer is often overshadowed by his roles as conductor and teacher.  These two hours will feature an examination of Bernstein’s body of composed music. We will discuss both popular and obscure works, and will attempt a re-evaluation of Bernstein’s work as a composer. We begin this process by viewing Bernstein’s musical theatre work and his concert composition as part of a whole.

This program will trace the evolution of Bernstein’s own works, including his three Symphonies: “Jeremiah”, “Age of Anxiety” and “Kaddish”; and many of his other works, including: “Facsimile”, “Fancy Free”, ”Chichester Psalms”, “Mass”,  “On the Town”, “Wonderful Town”, “West Side Story”,  “On The Waterfront”,  “Trouble in Tahiti”, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”, “Songfest”, “A Quiet Place”, “Candide”, “Dybbuk”, “Halil”, “Jubilee Games”, “Arias and Barcarolles”, and other piano, vocal and symphonic works.

Some of the issues we will examine include:

What is Bernstein’s achievement as a composer?

Did working in different genres help or hinder his creativity and achievement?

How did Bernstein view the evolution of his composition?

Why did he conduct works that he would not have written?



Hour 11 “ A Candle Burned at both ends”  (1979-1990)

  Bernstein continues his moves toward Europe in the 80’s. His work in this period includes the opera “A Quiet Place”, and the film  “Love of 3 Orchestras” which documents Bernstein’s work with the Vienna Philharmonic, The New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. We examine Bernstein’s role in the launching of the Mahler mania of the last 20 years as well as his last compositional work “Concerto for Orchestra”. We follow Bernstein to his heroic Freedom Concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall, to his last performance in Tanglewood, to the events surrounding his death in 1990.

Finally we look at the legacy.

Bernstein’s last period sees him racing against the clock to finish major compositional works that he hopes will help gain him the reputation as a major composer; the one attainment he feels has somehow eluded him. While his major compositions of his last period, the opera “A Quiet Place”, and his “Concerto for Orchestra” do not bring him this kind of acclaim, Bernstein remains the most celebrated conductor in the world right up to his death.

His final days are colored by his own sense of failure. Only after his passing does it become clear the immensity of Bernstein’s place in the music of the 20th century.






Interview list


Adams, John, composer

Adler, Ellen, longtime family friend

Alsop, Marin, conductor

Ardoin,John, critic

Barrett, Michael, conductor

Alexander Bernstein, son

Burton Bernstein, brother

Jamie Bernstein, daughter

Nina Bernstein, daughter

Bernier, Rosamond, art historian, longtime family friend

Blumenfeld, Aaron, composer

Bornstein, Charles, conductor, pianist

Burrell, Dave, pianist

Burton, Humphrey, TV producer, collaborator, biographer

Carno, Zita, pianist,

Chan, Donald, conductor

Chapin, Schuyler, Cultural Affairs commissioner of NYC, former personal manager

Chaplin, Saul, songwriter, movie producer

Comden, Betty, actress, Theatre composer, collaborator

Corigliano, John, composer

DePriest,James, conductor

Drucker, Stanley, New York Philharmonic clarinetist

Dyer, Richard, Boston Globe music critic

Endler, Franz, Viennese music critic

Eschenbach, Christoph, conductor Philadelphia Orchestra

Fanto,Clarence, music critic

Feinstein, Michael, singer, pianist

Fleischer, Leon, teacher, pianist

Foss, Lukas, composer, conductor, longtime friend

Frantz, Justus, German conductor and music personality

Frederic, Jerold, musicologist

Gebbert, Constantin, Polish Jewish community Activist

Gloyd, Russell, musician, music manager

Gottlieb, Jack, longtime Bernstein assistant, composer, musicologist

Gould, Mark, trumpeter, Metropolitan Opera Company

Green, Adolph, actor, Theatre composer, collaborator

Greenberg, Bob, composer, music historian

Grunwald, Henry, former editor Time magazine

Gustin, Dan, General Manager, Tanglewood Music festival

Laderman, Ezra, composer, former Dean, Yale University school of Music

Lancaster, Byard, saxophonist

Leon, Ruth, British radio and TV producer

Magdoff, Harry, historian, activist, co-founder, The Monthly Review magazine

Magee, Jeffrey, musicologist

Mauceri, John, conductor, producer

McFerrin, Bobby, singer, conductor

McPartland, Marian, pianist

Mindlin, Mike, producer, family friend

Morgan,Michael, conductor

Myrow, Fred, composer

Nagano, Kent, conductor

Nassief, Kelly, singer

Newman, Phyllis, actress, family friend

O’Neal, Cynthia, family friend

Oppenheim, David, musician, producer, longtime friend

Orleans, Jim, bassist, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Pack, David, record producer

Perle, George, composer, music theoretician

Perle, Shirley, pianist, long time friend

Pietkiewicz, Janucz, Polish Radio Producer

Plimpton, George, Journalist

Prince, Harold, Producer

Pulliam, Patti, cook, friend

Raksin, David, film composer

Ramin, Sid, arranger-orchestrator, longtime friend

Robinson, Steve, radio producer

Rockwell, John, music journalist

Rodgers, Mary, writer, collaborator, friend

Rorem, Ned, composer, friend

Rosenman, Leonard, film composer, friend

Rostropovich, Mstislav, cellist, conductor

Schneider, Hannah, music enthusiast, longtime denizen of Tanglewood

Shapiro, Harry, musician, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Sondheim, Stephen, theatre composer, collaborator, friend

Spano, Robert, conductor

Sternberg, Jonathan, conductor

Tiboris, Peter, conductor

Urquhart, Craig, former Bernstein personal assistant

Voison, Roger, musician, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Wadsworth, Steven, librettist, collaborator

Webb, Charles, Dean, Indiana University School of Music

Zirato, Bruno, friend and associate