Bernstein’s Rise to Fame as a Conductor

On November 14th, 1943, Leonard Bernstein’s life as a conductor would change forever, when he got the last minute opportunity to sub for a sick Bruno Walter. But what about him led to his success? Was it the people he met, or was it his innate character traits? I believe it was a combination of both, and would like to explore the process that led to Bernstein’s fame alongside the character traits that he had throughout this process.

Bernstein Conducting

Bernstein’s conducting journey started at the early age of 20, when Bernstein met Dimitri Mitropoulos who inspired him to take up conducting, in addition to composing. Not long after, Bernstein began his studies in conducting at the Curtis Institute where he studied with Fritz Reiner, who along with Bernstein’s other mentor, Aaron Copland, encouraged him to introduce himself to the then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky was impressed by Bernstein, and this connection would earn Bernstein conducting lessons at the Tanglewood Music Center while Bernstein was still in his early twenties.

Serge Koussevitzky clasps hands with Bernstein during a curtain call at Tanglewood

Not in small part due to Bernstein’s mentors, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, and Copland when it was time for Arthur Rodzinski, musical director of the New York Philharmonic, to chose an assistant conductor for the orchestra, Bernstein was the one who was chosen. (1). “It was Nov. 14, 1943, when Leonard Bernstein, then 25, was summoned to conduct the New York Philharmonic because Bruno Walter, the guest conductor, had fallen sick.”(2). This captivating performance, which was live-broadcasted, was a key event that led to continued fame for the rest of his life.

Although these connections and events were a key part of what led to his eventual success and fame, what innate characteristics of him as a conductor and person contributed to getting these connections in the first place, and ultimately to his fame?

One of the first things one will notice when watching a video of Bernstein conducting is his expressiveness. Menahem Breuer, former concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recalled of her time playing under Leonard Bernstein, “It was never for show although he was dancing on the podium. It was all emotional and sincere, music was pouring out of his body.” (3). This characteristic was undoubtedly part of what made Bernstein such a compelling conductor.

Another characteristic that I believe led to Bernstein’s success was his love of teaching. Bernstein was of course known as an educator in many ways but what is notable is that his love of teaching continued while he was conducting as well. A musician who played under Bernstein recalled a time when a substitute harpist in one of his orchestras needed help with their part, “Our harpist got sick, I think in Venice. The substitute harpist had never played the Mahler Fifth in rehearsal. So there she was, shivering by her harp, and Lenny looked over and saw she needed clear beats. So he laid out every single note in the slow movement for her. That entire movement, he conducted it just so she could be absolutely clear of all the triplets and subdivided rhythms, which are very difficult. He knew she needed him.” (4). Bernstein also loved teaching the orchestra as a whole. Marin Aslop stated, “I was always delighted when he would stop a rehearsal and say “must I tell you the story of this Haydn Symphony?” only to have 70 musicians magically turn into 4 year olds with that sparkle of anticipation in their eyes that says “yes, please tell us that story!” (5).

A final key characteristic that I believe was crucial to Bernstein’s success as a conductor was his passion. Bernstein’s son, Alexander Bernstein, stated, “When he studied a score his concentration was total, so that all of my fiddling around with his trinkets and jumping, Robin Hood-like, from chair to couch didn’t even faze him” (6). Lawrence Wolfe, bassist of the Boston Symphony, recalled, “ One time things weren’t going all that well. It wasn’t gelling, and it seemed there was a discrepancy between his score and the parts onstage. He took the score and slammed it down, and stomped offstage. Someone lit a cigarette, put it in his mouth; someone handed him a drink. The personnel manager said, “We’re going to take a break now.” About 20 minutes later, the break was over, and Lenny was fine, as if nothing had ever happened”( 7). Although his passion may have sometimes come out in the form of anger or irritation with the orchestra, whether Bernstein cared or not was never in question to the musicians who played under him.

When combining Bernstein’s expressiveness, love for teaching, and passion, with the fact that Bernstein had mentors like Copland, Koussevitzky, and Reiner, and adding alittle bit of luck (becoming assistant conductor of the NY philharmonic at the right time), it becomes clear how Bernstein rose to fame so quickly at such a young age, and stayed famous to the point of his death and beyond.


Works Cited

  1. Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein the Political Life of an American Musician. University of California Press, 2009.
  2. Brozan, Nadine. “CHRONICLE.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 1993,
  3. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Aug. 2018,
  4. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  5. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  6. Trott, Donald L., and Alexander Bernstein. “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander.” The Choral Journal, vol. 34, no. 4, 1993, pp. 9–13. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  7. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”

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