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Bernstein at Brandeis

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the great artists of the 20th century. A renowned composer, conductor and teacher, he served on the Brandeis University Department of Music faculty from 1951-56.

For the university’s first commencement in 1952, he directed the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts that included the world premiere of his opera, "Trouble in Tahiti."

Bernstein subsequently served as a University Fellow from 1958-76 and on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 81. He was a trustee emeritus until his death in 1990. 

The Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis honors his legacy – as an artist, an educator, an activist and a humanitarian. He believed in the power of art to affect social change and we proudly carry on that tradition. 

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and took music lessons on an upright piano that today resides in Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis. At the age of 17, he began study at Harvard University with Aaron Copland, among others. In 1940, he studied at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's newly created summer institute, the Berkshire Music Center, at Tanglewood. His first professional conducting opportunity came in 1943 with the New York Philharmonic. In 1945, he was appointed Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in 1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood.

Bernstein became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, and more than half of his 400 recordings were made with them. Internationally renowned, he first conducted in Tel Aviv in 1947, beginning a relationship with Israel that lasted until his death. In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct opera at La Scala in Milan: Cherubini's "Medea" with Maria Callas. While Bernstein's conducting repertoire was vast, he is best remembered for his performances and recordings of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius and Mahler. 

Inspired by his Jewish heritage, Bernstein composed his first large-scale work in 1943: Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah."  His Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish" (1963) was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra who bestowed on him the lifetime title of Laureate Conductor. Other major compositions include "Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," (1971) commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Bernstein collaborated with choreographer Jerome Robbins on three major ballets. He composed the score for the film "On the Waterfront" (1954) and contributed substantially to Broadway theatre: "On The Town" (1944), "Candide" (1956) and the landmark musical "West Side Story" (1957), later made into the Academy Award-winning film.

Social justice was deeply important to Bernstein. Through his powerful commitment and connections, he helped bring public attention to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (where he conducted concerts on both sides of the wall). In the early days of AIDS research, Bernstein raised the first million dollars for a community-based clinical trials program run by the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1981. He received the Kennedy Center Honor; a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award; eleven Emmy Awards; the MacDowell Colony's Gold Medal; medals from the Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft; the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest honor for the arts; Broadway’s Tony Award, and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities. He received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis in 1959 and the university’s Creative Arts Award in 1974.