Leonard Bernstein was an American pianist, composer, conductor, and educator and one of the strongest proponents and ambassadors for classical music of the 20th century. He is widely lauded for his ability to bring an immense amount of passion and charisma into all his work, from conducting the classics of symphonic repertoire to composing some of the most cherished scores to movies and musicals ever written. His ostentatious and energetic style not only inspired generations of musicians, it also helped renew the interest of the American public in classical music.
Bernstein was born into a family of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Despite his apparent talent on the piano at a young age, his career-oriented father actively dissuaded him from his musical endeavors, forcing the teenage Bernstein to raise money himself for his music lessons. Eventually his musical prowess became undeniable and his father relented, buying him a baby grand piano for his Bar Mitzvah. This set the stage for Bernstein to go on to study piano at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard University.
It was during his time at Harvard that Bernstein met and discovered many of the people that would become mentors and role models. The first was the Greek conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, whom Bernstein first witnessed conducting the Boston Symphony in 1937. Bernstein was fascinated with Mitropoulos’s expressive and vigorous conducting style, and credits that concert as the definitive moment in which he decided to dedicate his life to music. The second influence was the Russian composer and contrabassist Serge Koussevitzky, whom Bernstein himself called the strongest influence on his life. They met over the summer of 1940 in Tanglewood and Koussevitzky immediately recognized the talent in 22-year-old Bernstein, taking him under his wing and almost single-handedly fostering his interest in composition while also inspiring his conducting.