He was the Leonardo da Vinci of America in the 20th Century. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), America’s best known conductor, composer, music lecturer, and TV star, would have turned 100 on Saturday, Aug. 25.
Bernstein made a meteoric rise in the industry when he substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter at a concert of the New York Philharmonic at the age of 25. From 1958 to 1969, he served as music director of the orchestra, leading the golden age of the New York Philharmonic.
The late conductor also wrote three symphonies and a musical “West Side Story,” receiving acclaim from both audiences and critics alike. Starting the televised series “Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic” in 1954, he also played the role of a guru for viewers, introducing the energy and power of music.
However, his life was not always smooth. Bernstein made no secret of his affiliation with the progressive politics during World War II, and was under the watchful eye of an intelligence agency. It was only after he signed an affidavit saying he was not a communist that America’s star conductor was removed from the blacklist.
In 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the occasion, he reworded the text of the fourth movement “Ode to Joy,” substituting the word “freedom” for “joy,” taking an optimistic view that the entire world can become one in freedom.