Bernstein’s Dilemma: To Conduct or to Compose?

I wanted to compose, and I wanted to be free to see the world.

Leonard Bernstein was just 25 years old when he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1943, filling in with only a few hours’ notice for Bruno Walter who was sick with the flu.

The concert was broadcast across the nation and launched Bernstein’s conducting career.

But when the orchestra’s manager Arthur Judson devised a plan to install Bernstein as the Philharmonic’s next conductor?

Bernstein said no.

… I tried to explain to him that I wanted to compose … I didn’t want to be tied down to one orchestra in one city.

Wrestling with Hadrian, a “hero’s existence”

Fifteen years after his legendary conducting debut, Bernstein changed his mind.

He had become successful at so many things that he felt tired and uncentered.

Bernstein told biographer John Gruen that he saw an uncanny glimpse of himself in Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel about the life and death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

He read to him a particularly stinging line:

‘When I consider my life, I am appalled to find it a shapeless mass.’ …

Do you remember the other night, I said something very much like this? How I envied those who had a single goal, a single activity, around which everything else revolves?

In 1957, when Bernstein again was offered the New York Philharmonic, he saw a chance to find the “locus” that he’d been missing.

It wasn’t an immediate acceptance at all — I talked with Felicia endlessly about it, and she finally advised me to take it  … After all, I was now married, and I wanted to have some kind of central, settled feeling around which I could do the peripheral things.

… but, it was accepting the inevitable truth that composing would now be a peripheral thing.

About this content

The Bernstein Experience brings to you, for the first time ever, exclusive audio from intimate recording sessions of Leonard Bernstein by biographer John Gruen, who interviewed Bernstein, his family, and his confidants in Italy for seven weeks during the summer of 1967. Copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Julia Gruen.


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