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Leonard Bernstein: Notes on a Legend

Leonard Bernstein changed American culture in the 20th century, bringing classical music to a new audience by popularizing older composers, championing new ones and blending both old and new styles in his own dynamic compositions. This timeline shows the extraordinary career of this great American artist.

Leonard Bernstein is born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25.

Bernstein graduates from Harvard University, where he writes and performs several early compositions.

Bernstein studies conducting at the newly-formed Tanglewood Music Festival with Serge Koussevitzky, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Bernstein is named assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, when the scheduled conductor of a nationally-broadcast concert comes down with the flu, Bernstein steps in to conduct on short notice and becomes a sensation.

Bernstein composes the music to Jerome Robbins’ exuberant ballet Fancy Free, about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. After the ballet becomes a runaway hit, Bernstein expands the idea into a Broadway musical, On the Town, which runs for more than a year.

Bernstein is nominated for an Academy Award for his score to Elia Kazan’s classic film On the Waterfront.

Candide, Bernstein’s satirical operetta with a script by Lillian Hellman, runs for only two months on Broadway, but goes on to produce a best-selling cast recording and several successful revivals.

Bernstein’s musical West Side Story, a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet created with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, opens on Broadway. It runs for two years, and the 1961 film adaptation wins ten Academy Awards.

Bernstein becomes principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a post he will hold for 12 years. On January 18, he broadcasts the first of his popular Young People’s Concerts on CBS television.

Bernstein’s Mass, a theatrical choral piece, premieres as part of the opening ceremonies of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Bernstein dies on October 14 at age 72, only five days after conducting his farewell concert at Tanglewood.


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