Bernstein at Brandeis

Leonard Bernstein with a pencil in his mouth

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing for the first Creative Arts Festival, June 4, 1952

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department, Brandeis University

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) 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 and was a prominent supporter of the young university.

For the university's first commencement in 1952, he directed the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts. Guest artists included Merce Cunningham, William Carlos Williams Aaron Copland, and Phyllis Curtin. Bernstein conducted the world premiere of his opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," and a new translation by Marc Blitzstein of "The Threepenny Opera."

The following year, Bernstein gave the festival the theme of "The Comic Spirit," inviting S.J. Perelman, Fred Allen, Irwin Corey, among others, to speak. There was a symposium on the comic strip, a performance of comic poetry, a comic opera and a concerto for tap dancer and orchestra. He taught courses on modern music and opera, and held an intimate seminar for undergraduate composers at which he workshopped his new score for "Candide."

Bernstein served as a University Fellow from 1958-76 and on the university's Board of Trustees from 1976-81. 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.

Early Life

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the first son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. As a child, he played an upright piano that today resides in Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis. He graduated with a degree in music from Harvard University, where he studied with Aaron Copland, among others, and wrote his undergraduate thesis on "Absorption of Race Elements into American Music."


In 1943, he made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, filling in for a guest conductor on a few hours' notice. Bernstein’s association with the Philharmonic spanned 47 years, 1,244 concerts and 200-plus recordings. Beginning in 1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.

He conducted the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv in 1947, cementing a lifelong relationship with Israel. In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct opera at La Scala in Milan: Cherubini's "Medea" with Maria Callas.


Bernstein composed his first large-scale work in 1943: Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," which drew on his Jewish heritage. His Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish" (1963) was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. "Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" (1971) was commissioned for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. 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 an Academy Award-winning film.

Social Justice and Activism

Bernstein used his celebrity and connections to bring attention to causes he believed in, from civil rights to advocacy for people with AIDS.

  • On the final day of the historic Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965, Bernstein performed in the Stars for Freedom rally and concert at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • He co-hosted "Broadway for Peace," a 1968 fundraiser to support congressional candidates opposing the Vietnam War.

  • In 1970, he and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, hosted a fundraiser at their home for legal aid to 21 jailed Black Panther members. The media responded with ridicule and the federal government with surveillance.

  • Bernstein was one of the first public advocates for AIDS research, raising $1.7 million in 1987 for a community-based clinical trials program run by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR).

  • In West Berlin on Christmas 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with an international group of musicians, marking the first time East and West Berliners could mingle freely in 28 years.

  • Bernstein refused to accept the National Medal of Arts in 1989 from President George H.W. Bush after federal funding was pulled from an exhibit of AIDS-related art.


Among Bernstein's many honors and awards are membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Kennedy Center Honor; a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award; 11 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.

“I sometimes think that man’s capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering. Laughing cleanses a man: it restores his sanity, and balances his sense of values. Now in a time of caution and fear, in an atmosphere turgid with non-direction and non-expressivity, let us laugh and let laugh, lighten the air we breathe, and feel clean.”

Leonard Bernstein

Brandeis University, 1953