10 inconvenient facts about Leonard Bernstein

10 inconvenient facts about Leonard Bernstein


norman lebrecht

April 19, 2018

1 He was a Jew.

2 Committed to his faith. He attended Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Yom Kippur.

3 He was an avowed Zionist who spent several months in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

4 He celebrated Israel’s 1967 victory with a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony on Mount Scopus.

5 He never criticised the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

6 He was gay.

7 He married and had children.

8 As music director of the New York Philharmonic he did nothing to promote diversity.

9 He was a Democrat.

10 He was the best advocate for music ever seen on television.

If any of these attitudes and contradictions conflict with your strongly-held prejudices, you may have a problem.


  • Michael Smith says:

    A great musician and a great man.

    • Will says:

      Why is the fact that Bernstein was a Jew “inconvenient” or that we observed Yom
      Kippur and other Jewish holidays “inconvenient.

      Why was his support of Israel “inconvenient” when no one ever said that about RFK? Why is it “inconvenient that he celebrated the liberation of Jerusalem from
      its captors. Why would Lenny, who was well aware that the Jordanians and other
      Arab countries immediately attacked Israel when they would have settled for a tiny part of the Jewish Homeland

      I’m struck by the sense that whoever wrote this is anti-Semitic. Its a lot more than
      inconvenient that such a person would have the qualification to evaluate Lenny and then come up with hateful peccadillos.

  • Oded says:


  • Petros Linardos says:

    To me this looks like a list meant to provoke lots of comments in this space, not a list of inconvenient facts.

    • Sue says:

      I read the Humphrey Burton biography (a real tome) of Leonard Bernstein and it was a great read. Bernstein wasn’t a nice man, but I don’t care. He is dead but his music lives on. I think his score for “West Side Story” was absolutely inspired and way beyond the audiences for film when it was transferred magnificently to that medium. As a matter of fact, last year I held in my hands the leather-bound script for the London production which was used by Jerome Robbins and contained all the blocking and notes in pencil. Yes, that was a buzz.

      • Hilary says:

        “He wasn’t a nice man”
        I’m sure he could be, on occasion.
        At the very least, the letters reveal a loyal correspondent.

        In all likelyhood, complex is a more fitting description.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Nobody is always ‘nice’ in every situation. There are lots of reasons in life to be not ‘nice’, and one’s ‘niceties’ should be cultivated for the right moment and the right people (subjective indeed, but that is obligatory). I once attended a rehearsel with LB of Schubert VIII and, although I had entered the hall rather sceptically (not liking the reputation of showmanship around the man), I was greatly moved by what he could get out of the orchestra in such a natural way. Later-on my companion and I met him in the foyer, and although we were complete strangers to him (although my companion was a music agent), he was most friendly and wanted to know what we thought of the rehearsel. Then he exclaimed: but did you hear my Mahler IX which has just come out? We had not, and that was the moment he sank like a flopped soufflé and lost all interest and returned to his entourage of ephebes who were waiting for him at the other end. My impression was of a great musician and a fragile human being, whom you simply had to like, whether you wanted it or not.

      • Andy says:

        Burton’s biography of Yehudi Menuhin is a great read too, and also a weighty tome!

      • Lenny says:

        Fritz Renner wasn’t a nice man, a bit of a tyrant I’ve read, but still made beautiful music just like Lenny.

  • Bob Warsham says:

    What is inconvenient? All true.

  • Sue says:

    Loved your work, Maestro!! Don’t listen to the bottom-feeders who want to traduce your name.


  • Will Duffay says:

    What a really odd post by NL. Trying to provoke a reaction? Okay, I’ll bite: Norman, what’s your attitude towards the rights of Palestinians to live in their ancestral lands?

    Nothing to do with Bernstein, of course, who was a great man, a great musician, and a complex person. I’d expect nothing else of an artist.

  • Jean says:

    Fact 11: He was a bad composer

    (I know ‘bad’ is a pretty strong word, but….)

    • JoBe says:

      The “Symphonic Suite from the Film ‘On the Waterfront'” is magnificent. Much more rewarding, in fact, than Bernstein’s actual symphonies, and also than the actual Elia Kazan motion picture. So, there.

      • Steve says:

        I have just listened several times to the ‘Symphonic Suite’ from the film ‘On the Waterfront’ – in this great recording:
        It truly is magnificent. Thanks a lot for the tip.

        • JoBe says:

          That’s great Steve – I’m glad you discovered that piece thanks to my comment. Thanks to yours, I discovered the Carl Davis recording, which I didn’t know. It is good, but a bit pedestrian. Bernstein’s own recording (with the NYP, May 16, 1960) has much more urgency, and the better orchestra, too (let’s face it…)

    • John Borstlap says:

      I don’t think he was a ‘bad’ composer but he spread his energies too thin over different territories, which means that his output is rather ‘hit and miss’ than a sustained, focussed effort. Writing music is not something you easily do between other jobs.

    • Steve Schwartz says:

      Bad in what sense? The music itself is meticulously written. Even the works that almost, but not quite, come off have great moments, like Berlioz, a composer with whom he has a lot in common. Consider the following scores:

      Symphonies 1 & 2
      On the Town
      Fancy Free
      On the Waterfront
      Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs
      Choruses from The Lark
      Trouble in Tahiti
      West Side Story
      Chichester Psalms

      Exactly what does he have to apologize for?

    • Barry Lyons says:

      Not long ago I had to suffer through Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony. I’d much rather hear Mennin’s cantata, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. Someone needs to record that. Naxos would do a good job of it.

  • Brian says:

    12. He developed a strong relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic at a time when women were excluded from the orchestra. He never once spoke out.

    As others have said, he was complicated man, and certainly not perfect.

  • Chaim Feder says:

    All true.
    There was a period when Jews were excluded from the VPO as well and playing Mahler was also forbidden. For Bernstein the quite public Jew to have created the relationship with the VPO was a personal triumph. I think his first experience with the orchestra was conducting Verdi’s Falstaff with Fisher- Diskau.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      That “period” was in reality short, 1938-1945. Soon after the war Bruno Walter conducted Mahler 2 and Das Lied von der Erde, and, really, my favorite recordings of Mahler’s Music were done by the Wiener Phil and different conductors.

  • Bylle Binder says:

    I don’t get the relevance about all these “facts”. Did they in any way influence him being a great musician?

    • Anon says:

      In a way they might have. His parents might not have emigrated from Russia to America, had they not been Jews. You might counter argue though, he still would have been a great musician, regardless of his birthplace.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The mysterious spiritual gift of utter musicality is distributed among mortals entirely independent of class, gender, culture, background, race, character (!), life span expectation, shoe size and amorous interests. Although it can be nurtured by circumstance and culture, it goes its own way. It is the most otherworldly gift and a signal of spiritual justice, and its rarity is both elitist in the extreme and democratic in the extreme, in different ways.

  • Joe Shelby says:

    As the saying goes, you have to pick your battles. If you fight on every front, you just annoy everyone, and it won’t matter how much talent or charisma you have. They’ll just kick you out. To win some fights, you have to ignore others. Bernstein, in my looking back, had to fight enough for music itself (especially Mahler, modern tonal composers at a time when serialism dominated the academic and critical world, his own music, and salvaging the audience’s appreciation of the classical world in a time when The Beatles drowned out all other musical forms on pop radio…even at times using examples from the Beatles to do that).

    He also had to deal with the contradictions of his own identities: gay but married with kids; conductor yet composer; teacher for the layperson yet conductor for the finest orchestras in the world and tutor to some of the most talented of the next generation; a member of the “high” classical world who would defend pop music as a means to accessibility.

    He couldn’t fight every fight, not in that era. He’d have lost them all, and a part of himself, if he did.

    • buxtehude says:

      Good points, especially the first one.

    • Hilary says:

      “modern tonal composers at a time when serialism dominated the academic and critical world”
      Bit of a myth really. Not a big battle to fight on that front.
      Britten, Tippett , Arnold, Williamson (in the U.K.) all fared pretty well and had their admirers in the critical and academic world. They will have had their critics as well.

      Milton Babbitt taught Stephen Sondheim.

  • Jon H says:

    Growing up there was Solti/Chicago, Ormandy/Philly – and Bernstein. As a child the first two won out (especially Solti) – and it was interesting to find out how much of that was due to the 1960s Columbia recording and the quality of the NY Phil at that time. There are some recordings where I don’t think he’s completely into it – but some go right to the soul, like that Mahler 7 from 1985 (on DG). And as we know that’s not the easiest Mahler symphony to get.
    As for his compositions – well I didn’t grow up in NYC, and there were certain cultural nuances that didn’t resound as strongly. [Copland’s Appalachian spring was a different story.] There’s certain sensibilities, in the NY Phil’s sound as well – that speak the strongest to the NYC public. And that’s great, but it is there.

  • collin says:

    13. He was a jazzy composer, perhaps the jazziest of all classical music composers, and his best pieces are jazzy, but he was no jazz composer.

    • Allen says:

      Interesting, that.

      God help anyone who denies someone the right to call themselves “classical”. Snob! Elitist! etc etc

      No jazz composer? That’s OK.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Something that just popped in my mind when reading your comment: What’s a “jazz composer”? Aren’t jazz musicians basically performers who “make jazz” of popular tunes, or folk tunes, or else? Yes, there are (great) “jazz composers” like Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein, but is composition something that really belongs to “jazz”?

      • duane says:

        “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells bad.” Zappa

        All good points. He seemed fine with the points listed by NL, leaving his family, his fans, and the world to argue about why and what. He just followed passion where it took him.

      • anon says:

        Wynton Marsalis is a jazz composer.

  • Dan P. says:

    As for No. 6, I think a better case can be made for the fact that he was bi-sexual. He was married, after all, and had kids.

    As for No. 8, During his time with the NYPhil, consciousness about diversity was just ever so slightly beginning to develop. He was no different than Ormandy, Szell, and Munch/Leinsdorf. I think that claim needs context and he should be singled out.

    As for how inconvenient these facts are, I have no idea. They’re just facts and well known ones as well.

    • Bruce RAlph says:

      C’était un grand musicien, c’est cela l’important. Tout le reste, ce n’est pas important et ne nous regarde pas.

    • Amos says:

      Tossing Szell in regarding diversity is unfair. First, in 1957 he hired the African American cellist Donald White and more importantly refused demands that he be excluded from participating during tours of the south. He even went so far as to sign a letter threatening to cancel a performance if Mr. White was barred from the venue. Second, during the 60’s he hired a number of women when it was still far from the norm. Third, although not a matter of diversity but rather social conscious, immediately after the Kent State massacre he began a concert by addressing the audience and asking for a moment of science. I’m not suggesting he was an activist but the record suggests, in the interest of musical excellence and simple humanity, he was ahead of his time.

  • RW2013 says:

    A Quiet Place is underrated and underperformed.

  • anon says:

    Everyone says, he was so multi-talented, staggeringly so, but if only he devoted himself to one thing, he could’ve been the greatest ____ (fill in the blank).

    I don’t know. West Side Story gets more play in classical music concert halls than on Broadway, maybe his crossover appeal WAS his genius.

  • FS60103 says:

    I’m confused – are we supposed to find the idea that an eminent American classical musician was a Democrat in some way challenging or even surprising?

    In that regard, he held off-the-peg, standard issue arts sector political views. Hardly “inconvenient”, until Tom Wolfe called him out on some of his slightly nastier, less mainstream political tastes…

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Which, we now know, weren’t actually his views but his wife’s.

      • FS60103 says:

        …but to which he was perfectly happy to lend his name and his prestige.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          In a marital situation, as you may be aware, it is not easy to withhold approval from a fait accompli. And it may be that he did approve.

    • rita says:

      I wondered if anyone else remembered Wolfe’s amusing piece. Interested to learn the expression “radical chic” originated there.

  • Bruce says:

    None of these facts are inconvenient. Everyone has always known them, and nobody (as far as I ever knew) has cared.

  • John Kelly says:

    Welcome to the world where St Francis of Assisi could run for President and the “press” would find that some day he’d thrown a rock at a bird.

    Conductors and musicians are not “saints”. Lenny certainly wasn’t. BUT, I will say this, I heard him numerous times and I am grateful for every one of those times – even the time when he played Rhapsody in Blue at the Albert Hall half standing and fudging notes all over the pace, even the time when he did Prelude Fugue and Riffs with the VPO and the first clarinet played his part like it was a Mozart concerto………….because everything Lenny did was 110%.

    I ran into Glenn Dicterow in the street about two years after Lenny’s death. We had a nice chat and I said “I really miss Lenny”. And he said “so do I”……..and we were both sad, and grateful at the same time………………

    • John Borstlap says:

      That one bird was an atonal serialist from the sixties. Or he got utterly frustrated being in Messiaen’s long ‘opera’.

  • Doug says:

    Do you people not see the Endgame of Cultural Marxism? Or are you just too timid to admit that it will logically conclude with a ban of all classical music?

  • 1X. He manipulated the homophobic Koussevitzky against his mentor Mitropoulos who was considered to succeed Koussevitzki as head of BSO. He did it again via Taubman in NYPO and this time managed to get the job.

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    “your strongly held prejudice you may have a problem”…..what all this has to do with music?

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    OK, so LB might not have been perfect in every way. Which musican of any era has been? All that needs asking is how very much poorer the world of music would have been without him.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The only allround musician and composer who was also something of a saint, was Joachim Alzheimer (18th century). But he was completely forgotten after his death.

      • M2N2K says:

        With that last name, forgetting him was inevitable. Unfortunately the name itself is being remembered these days all too well.

  • James says:

    He was a jack of all musical trades and a master of them all. RARE.
    But I think he really wanted his legacy as a composer.

    • Lenny says:

      I do think I read or heard somewhere that he was bothered by the fact that no one took him seriously as a composer. But nowadays everyone and his brother is recording his music. Go figure.

  • Johann Geiferstuhl says:

    Wasn’t his TV producer in Germany, Fritz Buttenstedt, an ex-nazi ?

  • lwriter says:

    Bernstein appointed the first African American member of the New York Philharmonic – the violinist Sanford Allen. When he became music director, the NYPH was an all male ensemble. By the time he left, there were many women in its ranks. In a quiet way, he did open up the orchestra to a more diverse membership.

    • John Porter says:

      That’s right. He appointed Sandy Allen and Orin O’Brien. And Sandy’s appointment was not by mistake, the orchestra went out and found a fine African American violinist. He also programmed music by gay composers that other orchestras wouldn’t even consider at the time. And the comment that he was a bad composer was clearly made by someone who doesn’t know Bernstein’s music. Candide…Chichester Psalms…Serenade…West Side Story…Sonata for Piano…Arias and Barcarolles…I could go on…

  • Rob says:

    He also made his own markings in Mahler’s personal score of the composer’s 1st symphony.

  • muslit says:

    Genius doesn’t always come in neatly rapped packages. For me, Bernstein was a genius, perhaps the greatest conductor of the last century. One can quip: Too slow, too fast, too flashy, too personal. There are interpretations that I don’t like. But everything was a personal interpretation, and to my ears, sometimes so right that I can’t adjust to others. I was a Leonard Bernstein fellowship winner in violin and composition in 1970. I knew him personally. The Bernstein at a party at the Koussevitzky estate I couldn’t stand. The Bernstein Inaugural Speech made my eyes roll. But once on the podium, all of this disappeared. His commitment, his involvement at every second of music he conducted was 100%. He never flagged. His enthusiasm was enormous. We had a three hour rehearsal with conducting students on the first measure of Beethoven’s Pastoral. The problem was having the cellos sound on the first beat, before the entrance of the violins on the second eighth note, NOT with the violins. It was, as it turned, an incredibly stimulating rehearsal, and not boring in the least. I told him so right after. We performed Bruckner’s Ninth that summer in a shattering performance. A friend of mine, who was no fan of Bernstein and a Bruckner connoisseur, was tongue-tied at the end of the performance, who eventually admitted that it was a tremendous personal experience. Years later Bernstein told me he thought that it was his finest performance of that work. His music? He’s not among the elite, but he is widely performed, increasingly so, and his contribution to musical theater is without question. Some of his work is outstanding, like the Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, the neglected Dybbuk ballet, and the ballet Facsimile. About the latter, I asked him why he changed the very end of the piece in the published revision. He said he wanted a feeling of finality, then asked why. I said the original ended on a question, and was way more effective. He said, ‘you may be right’, not annoyed in the least. In the end, Bernstein was a multi-talented, and complex man, as many creative people are. I ignored what I didn’t like, and was privileged to experience the best of him.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Beautiful story, full of insight.

    • Stephen Owades says:

      I remember Bernstein’s Bruckner 9th in the Theatre–Concert Hall at Tanglewood, and “shattering” is definitely the right adjective for it! I have checked with the Boston Symphony archives (they do have some student orchestra concerts on tape), but they do not appear to have a copy.

      • muslit says:

        I’m sorry to hear that. It was definitely a shattering experience for me personally. I’ll never forget it.

  • Edgar says:

    Were Bernstein alive today, I am sure he’d join Daniel Barenboim and perform and make music together with talented young musicians of arab, palestinian, and jewish heritage with concerts in both the West Bank and Gaza as well as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and elsewhere throughout Israel and beyond. I am also sure he would not be supportive an Israeli government such as the present one in Jerusalem, precisely because of his being a great Jewish artist who experienced his gift and calling as a universal one, trying to adhere to the very best his tradition has to offer.

  • Tribonian says:

    In the late 80s I heard Bernstein conduct at the proms. He conducted the second half and two young conductors took the first half. He came on and introduced them with warmth and generosity. A true gentleman.

    And it’s good for us in the UK to remember a Jewish musician conducting Beethoven’s Ninth with the word “Freiheit” replacing Freude when the evil that was communism ended. I wonder what our current Labour Party leadership thought of that at the time.

    • Richard Slack says:

      There must be an award , I guess, for the person taking the most uncontextualised swipe at Jeremy Corbyn and that was an attempt to win it.

  • collin says:

    Bernstein has no signature sound.

    Bernstein the composer was ruined by Bernstein the conductor.

    All those composers he conducted were always omnipresent in his head as he composed. He couldn’t write 2 successive notes without saying, damn, Stravinsky, or Verdi, or Bach already used these intervals in this, this and that.

    Sometimes, ignorance is bliss is silence is freedom.

    • buxtehude says:

      Your first point is too true. That it was conducting (and playing piano and being Mr. Music) did him in, sounds plausible but others managed it — Mahler for example spent much more time conducting than composing and was a great conductor by all accounts.

      We’ll never know what happened to that sound but maybe it was just never there.

    • Mark J Henriksen says:

      His signature sound is that of the composer; loud and clear.

    • Steve Schwartz says:

      Are you actually telling me you can’t tell the difference between Stravinsky and Bernstein? Or Copland and Bernstein? Bernstein has stuff, although derivable from those two, neither could have come up with.

      Sometimes knowledgeable listeners have their heads so full of notes that they play “guess the composer” rather than listen to the piece before them on its own terms. Shaw, as great a critic as he was, admitted this in his apologia for beating up on Brahms.

      Vaughan Williams once wrote that it wasn’t the artist’s job to say the thing that had never been said before, but to say the right thing at the right time.

    • Steve Schwartz says:

      Are you telling me you can’t tell the difference between a Bernstein score and one by Stravinsky? Yes, many other composers flit through Bernstein’s music, but I claim that within five bars you can tell a Bernstein piece. Or at least *I* can.

      Vaughan Williams, surely an original musical voice (one built built from Elgar, Parry, Bach, Debussy, Ravel, and early Stravinsky), said that it wasn’t the composer’s job was not to be original, but to say the right thing at the right time, to find the bon mot.

      • muslit says:

        Early critics of Mahler said the same thing. Eclecticism does not necessarily hinder a strong voice. I have absolutely no problem hearing Bernstein’s personal voice in his music.

  • Doug Dean says:

    Anti-Semite, much?

  • Walt says:

    Hey Norman-
    That Barenboim Palestine thing is really sticking in your craw- mine too!

  • Elvira says:

    I think he was born conductor!
    Very charismatic,a must gift for leading groups of great musicians.

  • Ben G. says:

    Let’s cut out the crap about these inconvenient facts.

    How many conductors can what Lenny did in this video? :


    • Petros Linardos says:

      If you are asking about theatricals, probably Joseph R. Olefirowicz:

      Musically is another matter. I quickly tried to find better performances of the same movement. Some I found were comparably good, but not better. Personally I prefer Brüggen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIo1d41YNos , but he’s different enough not to be comparable. Bottom line: Bernstein draws a very well characterized performance. Whether his TV friendly antics made a difference is a question to ask orchestral musicians. After all, how well could orchestral musicians see his expressions?

      • Ben G. says:

        The only way that Lenny could get away with this performance was to have had high caliber musicians who know the score, under his nose. The dancing conductor is also unique and well done.

        I’m trying to give people another positive fact about Bernstein’s capabilities

  • Paolo says:

    These are all very known facts. I don’t understand the purpose of this article.Can someone explain it?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Originally, probably provoking clicks for money making purposes.

      As a side effect, some of us are having fun discussing Bernstein. Other enjoy showing off their wisdom. Others, venting their frustrations.

  • SJ Reidhead says:

    Is there something wrong with being Jewish and supporting Israel?

    BTW: LB is the reason I love classical music and opera. I grew up on his Young People’s Concerts.

    I was at a concert in NY, standing in line to go up to see the performers. I was talking to some guy. LB stopped to obviously chat with him, and bum a cigarette off him. He visited with us for a minute. When he moved on, the guy was freaking. “Leonard Bernstein tried to pick me up and get a smoke!” Instead of being upset, he thought it was great. The man was charming, in an odd way.

  • Chaim Feder says:

    One of the first responses, that of PETROS LINARDOS on 19 April, hit it on the nose: “To me this looks like a list meant to provoke lots of comments in this space, not a list of inconvenient facts.” Furthermore, one only needs to jump to the Wikipedia article on Lebrecht (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Lebrecht) to appreciate that his own Jewish identity was substantial. Hardly an anti-Semite!

  • David Sievers says:

    Why didn’t Bernstein serve in the military in WW2?

  • Edward C. Stengel says:

    Why is there no mention anywhere of Leonard Bernstein’s military service or lack thereof during World War 11?