He was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie (née Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hairdressing supplies wholesaler originating from Rovno (now Ukraine).
He was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein, but the two men were friends, and even shared a certain physical similarity. Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard).
His family spent their summers at their vacation home in Sharon, Massachusetts. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, which they preferred. He officially changed his name to Leonard when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother’s death.To his friends and many others he was simply known as “Lenny.”
His father, Sam Bernstein, was a businessman and owner of a hair product store in downtown Lawrence; it is standing today on the corners of Amesbury and Essex Streets.
Sam initially opposed young Leonard’s interest in music. Despite this, the elder Bernstein took him to orchestra concerts in his teenage years and eventually supported his music education. At a very young age, Bernstein listened to a piano performance and was immediately captivated; he subsequently began learning the piano seriously when the family acquired his cousin Lillian Goldman’s unwanted piano. As a child, Bernstein attended the Garrison Grammar School and Boston Latin School.
As a child he was very close to his younger sister Shirley, and would often play entire operas or Beethoven symphonies with her at the piano. He had a variety of piano teachers in his youth, including Helen Coates, who later became his secretary.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1935, Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with, among others, Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. Although he majored in music with a final year thesis (1939) entitled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music” (reproduced in his book Findings), Bernstein’s main intellectual influence at Harvard was probably the aesthetics Professor David Prall, whose multidisciplinary outlook on the arts Bernstein shared for the rest of his life.
One of his friends at Harvard was philosopher Donald Davidson, with whom he played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production Davidson mounted of Aristophanes’ play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein reused some of this music in the ballet Fancy Free.
During his time at Harvard he was briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club. Bernstein also mounted a student production of The Cradle Will Rock, directing its action from the piano as the composer Marc Blitzstein had done at the premiere. Blitzstein, who heard about the production, subsequently became a friend and influence (both musically and politically) on Bernstein.
Bernstein also met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the time. Although he never taught Bernstein, Mitropoulos’s charisma and power as a musician was a major influence on Bernstein’s eventual decision to take up conducting.
Mitropoulos was not stylistically that similar to Bernstein, but he probably influenced some of Bernstein’s later habits such as his conducting from the keyboard, his initial practice of conducting without a baton and perhaps his interest in Mahler.
The other important influence that Bernstein first met during his Harvard years was composer Aaron Copland, whom he met at a concert and then at a party afterwards on Copland’s birthday in 1938. At the party Bernstein played Copland’s Piano Variations, a thorny work Bernstein loved without knowing anything about its composer until that evening.
Although he was not formally Copland’s student as such, Bernstein would regularly seek advice from Copland in the following years about his own compositions and would often cite him as “his only real composition teacher”.
After completing his studies at Harvard in 1939 (graduating with a B.A. cum laude), he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During his time at Curtis, Bernstein studied conducting with Fritz Reiner (who anecdotally is said to have given Bernstein the only “A grade” he ever awarded), piano with Isabelle Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr, and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle.
Unlike his years at Harvard, Bernstein appears not to have greatly enjoyed the formal training environment of Curtis, although often in his later life he would mention Reiner when discussing important mentors.
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