In 1986, Leonard Bernstein said, “God knows, I should be dead by now. I smoke, I drink, I stay up all night… I was diagnosed as having emphysema in my mid-20s. I was told that if II didn’t stop smoking, I’d be dead at 35. Well. I beat the rap.” But in recent months he canceled engagements and a fortnight age announced that, on his doctor’s advice, he was retiring as a conductor, In 1990, Leonard Bernstein, 72, died in his Manhattan apartment after a heart attack brought on by lung failure. Perhaps to abandon conducting was to end a love affair, to give up life.
A first-generation Jewish American, Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass. In 1918. His father, Samuel, who was in the beauty-supplies business. Hoped his son would someday work with him. But at 10 Lenny discovered the piano. When he used his allowance to pay for lessons his father stopped doling it out— but reinstated it after discovering his son was playing in a dance and to earn money. At the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (after graduating from Harvard, at 20. with honors), Bernstein was the most gifted pupil of the great Fritz Reiner. This so enraged one student that he threatened homicide.
Contrary to legend, the golden boy did have some lean times. In 1942. Bernstein moved to New York City armed with glowing references, but couldn’t find work. Lyricist Irving Caesar happened to hear him play the piano and thought he resembled his former collaborator George Gershwin. Bernstein told him that he needed $10 a week to stay alive. “What!” Caesar exclaimed. “You, a genius, starving? Ten dollars a week for a genius? I’ll get you fifty!” And promptly got him a job transcribing music. Within two years Bernstein had published his first symphony, written a successful ballet (“Fancy Free”), had a hit Broadway show (“In the Town”) and made his now legendary New York Philharmonic conducting debut in Carnegie Hall. Filling in for an ailing maestro, the dashing 25-year-old(who had a fierce hangover) was such a smash he got as much front-page space in New York Times as the American submarines that sank seven Japanese ships.
The great creative output of the late ‘40s and ‘50s— the musicals “Candide”, “Wonderful Town” and “West Side Story”, the film score for “ On the Waterfront,” the ballet “The Age of Anxiety”— came, with good reason, before Bernstein acquired an orchestra. In 1958, he became music director of the New York Philharmonic — the first American-born conductor to head a top symphony orchestra. He revived the works of Mahler and Nielsen and programmed such contemporary music, even if he, a dedicated tonalist, was uncomfortable with it.
Bernstein, says Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. “not only opened doors for all of us, but was the musical conscience of this country for years. We couldn’t have had a better spokesman.” After leaving the Philharmonic in 1969, Bernstein, the original globe-trot-ting maestro, maintained close ties with many orchestras, including (with typical Bernstein irony) the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Since the late ‘50s his compositions have often been disappointing, but he was back in form in some recent works, especially the delicious Arias and Barcarolles. Though he had become white-haired and craggy, he retained the passion and quickness of a wunderkind, and no one could dispute the depth of understanding he brought to the podium, particularly in recent years, when his interpretive powers were sharper than ever.