Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) was a legend in the classical music world of the 20th century. He was New York’s maestro, known for his Broadway works, like “Peter Pan,” “Candide,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” and, most notably, “West Side Story.”
He was born to Russian immigrant parents and quickly took an interest in music, specifically the piano. His father was not willing to pay for his lessons, so young Bernstein saved his money and paid for his own lessons. Demonstrating his ability on the keys, his impressed father purchased the young musician a baby grand piano.
He attended Boston Latin school, a public school that focuses on the classics as the foundation for education. He then studied music at Harvard University, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and finally, at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center. All of these studies led to his eventual assignment in 1943 as the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
It was in this position and in the very same year that Bernstein’s life would forever change.
The Golden Opportunity
Only a few months after his 25th birthday on Nov. 14, 1943, Bernstein was presented with a golden, yet nerve-wracking opportunity. The guest conductor, Bruno Walter, had contracted the flu and was in no condition to lead the orchestra in that Sunday’s symphony.
Walter brought Bernstein in to go over the “Don Quixote” symphony. The symphony (inspired by the literary text of the same name) was written as a tone poem by the German composer, Richard Strauss. Walter went over a few of the challenging areas of the symphony with the young conductor but, with such a short notice, Bernstein was given no opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra. He was able to meet with the cello and viola soloists and the concertmaster, regarding the difficult parts.
He spent much of the afternoon before the performance in the local pharmacy drinking coffee. The pharmacist asked why he looked so pale, and, when Bernstein informed him, the pharmacist gave him two pills: a red one and a green one. One pill would calm his nerves and the other would give him energy.
As the performance came closer to beginning, Bernstein remembered “standing there in the wings shaking and being so scared.” Just as he was about to come out on stage to conduct the New York Philharmonic, he remembered the pills. He threw them to the far end of the backstage and determined to succeed or fail on his own.
That concert’s performance was aired live on the radio, and it was so impressive that Bernstein soon began receiving phone calls and invitations to guest conduct all around the country and the world.
Bernstein said in an interview for Town & Country magazine that he didn’t even remember walking out onto the stage, conducting the symphony, or even the concert’s intermission. The only moment he remembers is when the performance ended and he heard “the sound of people standing and cheering and clapping.”