Leonard Bernstein: It was 30 years ago today

Leonard Bernstein: It was 30 years ago today


norman lebrecht

October 14, 2020

Say a kaddish for Lenny, who died on this day.

Remembered as if yesterday, with both hands behind his back.

Any of our readers remember playing in this?


  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    Alas, the concertmaster won’t be reading this (at least, not from this world). He is the great Gerhard Hetzel, who died following a fall in the hills above Salzburg less than two years after Bernstein.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes, that was just a dreadful loss for the Wiener Philharmoniker. He wouldn’t be the first member of that orchestra to be killed during mountain hiking. Wasn’t a double bass player killed on Mt. Fuji during a tour of Japan in 2010?

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Oh, yes….
      Hetzel was an absolutely marvelous violinist, who as a soloist left really wonderful and inimitable recordings of the two Bartok concertos with Adam Fischer and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra.
      His loss was huge, not only for the Vienna Phil, but for music in general.

    • Gustavo says:

      „Wohin ich geh’? Ich wandre in die Berge – ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.“

    • Pedro says:

      Karajan said that Hetzel had a phenomenal memory as he knew by heart every orchestral work he played.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Photo after photo, video after video–a cigarette in his hand. He made it to 72.

    • Mike_T says:

      Herbert Blomstedt made it to 92. As a 7th Day Adventist, I’m guessing he doesn’t smoke… We could have had 20 more years of Lenny 🙁

      • Tamino says:

        well, if Lenny hadn‘t smoked like a chimney and gulped whiskey like others drank water, he wouldn‘t have been Lenny.

      • Steven says:

        Notwithstanding the use of the preterite in the above post, Maestro Blomstedt also made it to 93, in July, and here’s hoping for more returns of that day. And that he continues to conduct the Berlin Phil.

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        Really, this amounts to asking, why was Mozart not Haydn? Why was Christopher Marlowe not John Milton? Why was Jacques Offenbach not César Franck?

        As the great French humorist François Cavanna observed, “Victor Hugo wearing a balaclava looked like Alfred de Musset.”

    • Cubs Fan says:

      The constant whisky didn’t help either. Boy could we use him today.

  • John Kelly says:

    Thanks so much for this. Lenny is one of the conductors I miss most, along with Klaus Tennstedt. I talked a few years after his passing with Glenn Dicterow and I said “I really miss Lenny Bernstein” . Mr Dicterow simply said, rather sadly- “So do I”. Then- silence between us, which seemed appropriate. A conductor who can be talked about forever and yet, like the most extraordinary things in life, words are absolutely inadequate. It’s all in the music, whether he wrote it or performed it. His memory truly is a blessing. Thanks again Norman.

  • Sisko24 says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Lebrecht. I hold Bernstein in prized memory not only for the concerts of his I was fortunate to attend but also for his televised broadcasts, the “Young People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic on the American TV network, CBS. On those broadcasts, he explained classical music in such a way as to make it clearer, more concise and more exciting than anyone who followed has been able to do. In part, he inspired me to love, follow and patronize – in a small way – the arts. Mr. Dicterow, Mr. Kelly (and others) are not the only ones who miss him. He was a singular sensation whose like me are unlikely to see or hear again. May he rest in peace.

    • OperaClare says:

      A great educator – we are blessed to have some his lectures – including the young persons concerts on YouTube. Not sure whether there would be a full house for “What is a mode” today. I see the government has just reduced the teaching bursary for music (and others) to zero for 2021 – wilful vandalism.

      • Curious says:

        Is this in the U.S.? Are you talking about the U.S. Dep’t. of Education or an individual state?

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        These lectures are INCREDIBLE, including the Norton Lectures from Harvard!! Valuable cultural artifacts.

        It’s one thing to have esoteric knowledge and quite another to be able to impart that to others -especially children. Bernstein was a master of it.

  • violin accordion says:

    Candide Overture, and Schumann 4, Schneller, Presto,
    Live with VPO.

    No words

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Lenny declined very quickly. In Dec 1989 he had filmed Candide in London and the Freedom concerts in Berlin. Then I remember it being big news in summer 1990 that he was stopping conducting (pre-internet, there was wide exposure of this fact in the press) and then as you said dying in Oct 1990.

    I visited his grave in Brooklyn last year and was very moved. RIP

  • HugoPreuss says:

    I remember a Bernstein concert from the Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival, ages ago. Before the intermission three talented students from his conducting class gave us decent music with the festival orchestra. After intermission Bernstein conducted himself, and it sounded as if he had a different orchestra at his disposal. They sounded so much better, so much more focused, so much more energetic. It was utterly amazing.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    And what a magnificent symphony from the great Haydn!! Absolute joy. The maestro loves that music and that orchestra – that much is plainly evident.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      That’s another Bernstein memory I hold dear: the Haydn Schöpfung / Creation, also at the Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival. Right in the middle of summer, at the Ostseehalle (Baltic Sea Hall) in Kiel – usually the arena for handball matches. About 5.000 people in the audience, and it was in absolutely sveltering heat. The musicians had taken off their jackets and their ties and played with open shirts and rolled up sleeves. Kurt Moll (who was singing next to Judith Blegen and Wieslaw Ochman) was wiping off the sweat from his forehead every minute or so. And yet… Bernstein managed to make you believe that you were actually present at the creation. Unforgettable.

      With Karajan conducting I always felt a cool intellect dissecting the piece, with Bernstein it was raw exploding energy. Mind you, I’m not judging which approach is better. But they certainly felt different, at least live and when I was in the audience… I didn’t get quite as much difference from the recordings.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Right, Sue! Bernstein was probably the greatest 20th c. conductor of Haydn.
      Others such as Szell, Davis, Jochum, Beecham, Scherchen – even Toscanini and Reiner (all favorites of mine) – they all beautifully brought forth many different facets of Haydn’s music. Lenny brought them ALL forth.
      Bravo, Lenny!

  • Pedro says:

    I was at this concert. Norman’s film is the encore, which was rehearsed. Bernstein’s Haydn was without peer. My mother was at his concert at the Bastille Opera on the day Karajan died -15 months before his own death – and still remembers the moment Bernstein announced it to the audience and his moved words. A great colleague. I had many memorable moments with LB, including a whole week of performances and rehearsals for the upcoming american tour in 1984. The world has changed a lot since then.

    • Pedro says:

      That was in Vienna. The programmes of the concerts (two performances each) were Haydn 88, Schumann piano concerto (whith Justus Frantz) and Fourth Symphony, and Mozart 40 and Mahler 4. For the tour, they also rehearsed the Eroica and Brahms 2, among other works. A true feast.

    • Pedro says:

      I have some other memories of Bernstein concerts. The New World in London with the IPO where he was able to hold the second movement for around 15 minutes. Sibelius 5 and Mahler 5 with the VPO in Lucerne. In Vienna, Mozart 25, Kindertotenlieder and Sibelius 7. The next day Karajan conducted the BPO there and LB was at the concert (Verklärte Nacht and Brahms 2). A superb Tschaikowsky programme in NY. I was supposed to go to Traviata next door, but as Kleiber cancelled, I went to LB’s long evening (Francesca, Romeo and the 4th symphony). We can’t drop names as those now.

  • Loop says:

    I read Jaime Bernstein’s “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” last year in which the maestro’s nearly constant cigarette consumption is emphasized in many chapters.

    Blomstedt is such a great contrasting example. I saw him conducting Brahms German Requiem in 2017 and he was spry! I hope he continues to work for another decade!

  • Few months ago I found on YouTube his version of the Sibelius 2. Bernstein at his best.

  • Chris says:

    I particularly like the photo posted with Kleiber holding the electronic memory game Simon. Would have loved to see Kleiber v. Bernstein in that matchup.

    • John F Kelly says:

      A good contest but I think Lenny might pip Carlos at the post…………some years ago Lenny was conducting his Second Symphony at Tanglewood and I was driving past the venue on the Sunday morning (concert in the afternoon). I saw a figure walking along and I thought “that looks like Lukas Foss, let me see if he wants a ride”. He did and was very appreciative of getting some “extra time.” We drove up the driveway of Seranak, the house where the guest conductors stay and as I pulled up Mr Foss said “there’s Lenny doing the NY Times crossword, he always has it done within 20 minutes with no help!”

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I think I remember reading that meeting took place at the home of Franco Zeffirelli. Bernstein loved Carlos Kleiber. Who didn’t??!!!

  • Nancy McKinley Kerr says:

    My oldest son, Brian David Kerr sang at Tanglewood with the Indiana University Opera Chorus for
    Lenny’s 75th Birthday. They brilliantly performed ” The Mass”! Lenny was overwhelmed by their outstanding performance of his great work. He thanked each participant personally. It was such a memorable performance for my son and all the students involved.

    • Ari Bocian says:

      I think you might have meant his 70th birthday. Tanglewood performed his Mass in 1988, and he died two years later at the age of 72. Either way, that must have been an incredible experience.

    • John F Kelly says:

      I was at that performance and it really was superb. Lenny was absolutely overwhelmed and gave a very nice thank you speech.

  • M McAlpine says:

    ‘Mr Music’ I believe was Karajan’s description of Bernstein. Very fitting.

  • Nancy McKinley Kerr says:

    Please note, it could have been Lenny’s 70th Birthday Celebration.

  • Ken says:

    Ok, l’ll play. I worshiped him in high school 45 years ago. And memorized those Harvard lectures (written by Jack Gottlieb IIRC). Learned all my Mahler that way. Finally heard live Schumann 2/Songfest in 1978, then a couple of AIDS gala things in New York in the 80s, and I still don’t get the “buzz.” Met him in 1989 in Key West, he kissed me with tongue — well, that’s an infinitely long list — and still don’t understand why we should care. Very nice discography, way lots of esoterica which was a healthy change — but besides having a street named after him on W65, WTF cares any more? (And don’t say “West Side Story,” please!)

    • anon says:

      Ok, I’ll bite. Did his kiss taste of cigarettes? Was he a good kisser?

    • John Kelly says:

      Oh dear, I am afraid you didn’t hear him enough live to make a determination. For me, he was a great conductor of Haydn, Mozart, Nielsen, Sibelius and his own music and maybe Copland too. A very good conductor of most repertoire but these composers he excelled in. He always had something to say about the music he conducted, which is really what orchestras and listeners want. Even if you didn’t like or agree with it, he was never boring.

  • Alexander T says:

    Pass the sick bag…
    How vulgar and self serving. Predictably, the audience laps it up.

  • My memories of the great Leonard Bernstein are always present. I really miss him. I sang under his baton in the Tanglewood Shed and snuck my way into Tristan rehearsals in Munich. We passed each other on the way to a performance at the MET and he was wearing a black Bavarian cape. I will always love and remember him


  • Greg Bottini says:

    Of course Bernstein was a musical polymath and a genius, but the psychological soup that his brain and soul were home to impelled him to smoke and drink himself to death.
    As an ex-Catholic, I know all about guilt. Whatever guilt LB felt about the course that his life took must have been crushing.
    He was one of the greats, no question.

    • John Kelly says:

      Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt are different though can be similar in intensity – for Catholics, it’s about sex – for Jews, it’s about separation…………..

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Interesting thought, John.
        Would you care to elaborate?
        – regards, Greg

        • John Kelly says:

          It was my clinical psychologist (Jewish) ex-wife’s comment. She said our children could be half-Catholic, half-Jewish – the bottom half Catholic so they could be guilty about sex and the top half Jewish so they could be guilty about separation. Of course my kids are Jewish because their Mom was. I am not Jewish but as an adopted New Yorker I have a pretty extensive repertoire of Yiddish…..and plenty of my own michegas………best to you Greg, I enjoy your comments even if I don’t always agree!

      • Don’t underestimate Jewish guilt about sex….LB never quite accepted his sexuality, which must have caused him great angst.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I can recommend Humphrey Burton’s huge tome on Bernstein; it’s very insightful. I’m sure there have been others written since, but this one is very good.

  • Daniel says:

    Who is the second person on the picture?

  • Skippy says:

    Played under his baton at Tanglewood. Tristan und Isolde with Ingrid Bjorner and James King. I was not quite 18. Youth may be wasted on the young, but even at that callow stage, but even I could see the self-evidence of his greatness as a musician and a pedagogue.

  • Papageno says:

    Most people didn’t know Lenny got a new (young) boyfriend the year before he died, and that Karajan on his deathbed begged him to take over Berlin & Vienna Phil. It’s all in the book “Dinner with Lenny” by Jonathan Cott.

  • Ron says:

    What contemporary conductors did Lenny admire? Haitink? Tennstedt? Maazel? Abbado?

    • John Kelly says:

      Well most conductors don’t admire ANY of their contemporaries but pretty much everyone had to admit Kleiber was stupendous. They were just grateful he didn’t conduct that many things……or that often…..however I do know that Mariss Jansons and Muti were/are admirers of Kleiber.

    • Pedro says:

      Karajan and Kleiber for sure. Maazel too ( I was with LB – and a lot of other people at the Musikverein when Maazel – and Eschenbach and Gwyneth Jones – congratulated him after a concert there in 1984) and could see how well they spoke to each other.

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    I met Lenny once! I was standing outside Washington Opera one night trying to sell a couple of spare tickets for the double bill of Lenny’s operas Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place . An enormous Cadillac pulled up and jumped out Lenny. Hi Lenny I said “ do you want a ticket for the show”? He said with a grin “ Naw I’ve seen it”!