Essential Bernstein

The Life of Leonard Bernstein: Timeline

Leonard Bernstein was born as World War I ended (1918) to immigrant parents in Massachusetts. His life, including personal and musical journeys, followed a path of similarly momentous events, through World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Explore Bernstein’s life in five periods, juxtaposed with key world, scientific and arts events.

Period 1: Early years (1918-1935)

Bernstein ca. 1921 with parents, Samuel and Jennie. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.
Bernstein ca. 1921 with parents, Samuel and Jennie. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.

1914 – 1918: World War I

1918: Leonard Bernstein (LB) born in Lawrence, Massachusetts; LB was the first child of Ukrainian immigrants, Samuel and Jennie Bernstein

1923: LB’s father Sam becomes owner of a beauty supply business (“In Boston – It’s Bernstein – The Best in the Beauty Business”) / sister Shirley Anne is born / LB’s family joins Mishkan Tefila Temple (Boston, MA)

1924: Serge Koussevitzky appointed Music Director Boston Symphony Orchestra

1926: LB begins Hebrew school (Boston, MA)

1927: Charles Lindbergh flies non-stop to Paris

1928: Aunt Clara has her piano sent to the Bernstein home / hears live music for first time; meets new music director of Mishkan Tefila Temple, Solomon Gregory Braslavsky, first musical mentor (Boston, MA) / begins piano lessons with Frieda Karp

1928: Disney’s first Mickey Mouse films released / Arturo Toscanini named Music Director New York Philharmonic

1929: LB begins 7th grade at Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the US / begins to improvise music on the piano

1929 – 1940: Great Depression (On Oct. 29, 1929, the US stock market crashes, beginning decade-long economic depression around the globe)

1931: LB begins piano with Susan Williams at New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, MA) / has bar mitzvah at Temple Mishkan Tefila (Boston, MA)

1932: Brother Burton is born / LB performs in first piano recital at New England Conservatory, performing Brahms’s Rhapsody in G Minor / auditions for Heinrich Gebhard “one of the best-known piano teachers in Boston” – but is referred to Gebhard’s assistant, Helen Coates; begins piano lessons with Coates / hears an orchestra for the first time: the Boston Pops, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, performing Ravel’s Bolero / begins attending Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts (when he can afford to) / hears Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 

1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as US President

1934: LB performs first piano concerto, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with the Boston Public School Symphony / organizes and stars in first theatrical production, a cross-dressing Carmen at new family summer home (Sharon, MA)

1935: LB graduates from Boston Latin, co-writes the Boston Latin 1935 class song, “All for one, One for All” / organizes 2nd theatrical production: this time, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado (Sharon, MA)


Period 2: Young adult (1935-1942)

The first known photograph of Bernstein as a conductor. As a camp counselor he is conducting the Camp Onota Rhythm Band, 1937. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.
The first known photograph of Bernstein as a conductor. As a camp counselor he is conducting the Camp Onota Rhythm Band, 1937. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.

1935-1939: LB completes undergraduate studies at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)

1935: LB studies piano with Heinrich Gebhard, counterpoint with A. Tillman Merritt, and philosophy with David Prall

1936: Gone with the Wind published

1936: LB leads third theatrical production: Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (Sharon, MA) / improvises on the piano for silent films / hears Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations / meets conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos

1937: George Gershwin dies / Maurice Ravel dies / Israel Philharmonic founded

1937: LB holds first summer job: music counselor at an all-Jewish Camp Onota (Pittsfield, MA), meets Adolph Green at camp / meets Aaron Copland

1938: Annexation of Austria by Germany

1938: LB hears Copland’s El Salon Mexico / writes about music in the Harvard Advocate and in Modern Music (a NY music journal) / begins composing a piano sonata

1939 – 1945: World War II begins  (Sept. 1, 1939)

1939: LB writes music for and conducts – for the first time in public — The Birds (serves as composer, music director, and conductor) for the Harvard Classical Club at Sanders Theatre (Cambridge, MA) / plays piano and music directs Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock / meets Blitzstein, who becomes a mentor / graduates from Harvard, cum laude / spends first summer in New York, NY / arranges solo piano transcription of Copland’s El salon Mexico / Begins studies at Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, PA) / studies conducting with Fritz Reiner, orchestration with Randall Thompson; score reading with Renee Longy-Miquelle / wants to study piano with Rudolf Serkin; assigned to Isabelle Vengerova

1940: LB meets Serge Koussevitvky / attends inaugural summer of Tanglewood Music Center (Lenox, MA) as a conducting student of Serge Koussevitzky / makes first appearance as a symphonic conductor of Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2

1941: LB graduates from Curtis Institute of Music with a diploma in conducting / makes first conducting appearance with a professional orchestra, conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra in Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger / first work published: piano transcription of El Salon Mexico by Aaron Copland

1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7)

1942: LB publishes Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

1943: Premiere of I Hate Music (Lenox, MA) / LB appointed assistant conductor for New York Philharmonic (known officially at the time as the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York) by Artur Rodzinski


Period 3: Early Adult/Young Composing and Conducting Celebrity (1943-1957)

Young Bernstein plays piano, c. 1944 / Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
Young Bernstein plays piano, c. 1944 / Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

1943: Sergei Rachmaninoff dies / Oklahoma! premiere in NY

1943: LB fills in for the ill Bruno Walter, conducting the NY Philharmonic concert – with no prior rehearsal

1944: D-Day (June 6)

1944: Symphony No. 1:  Jeremiah premiere (Pittsburgh Symphony, with Jennie Tourel) / LB conducts premiere of Fancy Free (Metropolitan Opera House) / On the Town premiere (Adelphi Theater, NY)

1945: LB begins three-year conducting stint with the New York Symphony

1945: Attack on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) / Bela Bartok dies

1946: LB makes first European conducting appearances (Prague and London) / conducts US premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes 

1947: LB makes first visit to Israel / conducts in France, Belgium and Holland

1947: Israel created as a Jewish State (Nov. 29) / Bell Labs invents the transistor

1948: LB conducts newly renamed Israel Philharmonic at Beersheba during War of Independence / makes first appearance as conductor in Munich, Budapest, Vienna, Milan and Rome

1948: Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire

1948-1949: serves as musical advisor, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

1949: Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety premiere (Symphony Hall, BSO, Boston) – Koussevitzky, conductor, LB as piano soloist / makes first television appearance as conductor with the BSO at UN Human Rights Day Concert (Carnegie Hall, NY)

1950: Peter Pan premiere

1950: Kurt Weill dies

1951: LB marries Felicia Montenegro Cohn

1951-1955: LB serves asProfessor of Music at Brandeis University (Waltham, MA)

1952: Queen Elizabeth II of England crowned

1952: Trouble in Tahiti premiere (Brandeis University, Waltham, MA) / 1st child, Jamie Anne Maria, born

1953: Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated as US President (Jan. 20)

1953: Wonderful Town premiere (Winter Garden, NY) / conducts Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala, becoming first American to conduct at the prestigious La Scala Opera House (Milan, Italy), with Maria Callas

1954: On the Waterfront premiere (Astor Theater, NY)

1954-1958: Omnibus telecasts (Nov 14, 1954: first)

1955: LB conducts Symphony of the Air season (New York) / 2nd child, Alexander Serge Leonard, born / first performance of The Lark (Longacre Theatre, NY)

1955: Albert Einstein dies / Vietnam War begins

1956: Candide premiere (Martin Beck Theater, NYC, NY)

1957-1958: LB serves as joint principal conductor, New York Philharmonic

1957: West Side Story premiere (Winter Garden, NYC, NY) / conducts inaugural concert of Mann Auditorium (Tel Aviv, Israel) / appointed Music Director of NY Philharmonic for 1958-59 season; becoming first American‑born and -trained conductor of a major American orchestra

1957: Jean Sibelius dies / Erich Wolfgang Korngold dies / Arturo Toscanini dies 


Period 4: Growing Family and Fame: Conductor, Television Star (1958-1969)

Bernstein with Felicia, Jamie and Alexander. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.
Bernstein with Felicia, Jamie and Alexander. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unknown.

1958-1972: LB conducts televised New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts on CBS‑TV

1958-1969: LB serves as music director, New York Philharmonic (New York, NY)

1959: Space Race intensifies between USSR and USA

1959: LB tours Europe and Soviet Union with New York Philharmonic / publishes The Joy of Music (New York: Simon and Schuster)

1960: LB leads Mahler centenary season with New York Philharmonic

1961: John F. Kennedy inaugurated as US President (Jan. 20) / Yuri Gagarin (USSR) orbits the earth

1961: Fanfare premieres at Inaugural Gala for President John F. Kennedy / tours Japan with New York Philharmonic / film version of West Side Story released

1962: John Glenn in space

1962: 3rd child, Nina Maria Felicia, born / LB conducts inaugural concert of NYP at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center (later Avery Fisher Hall); (New York, NY)

1963:  First performance of Third Symphony, Kaddish, in Tel Aviv (Israel)

1963: John F. Kennedy assassinated / Lyndon B. Johnson inaugurated as US President / Francis Poulenc dies / Joan Baez and Bob Dylan most popular American singers

1964: LB takes sabbatical year from New York Philharmonic / makes US operatic debut, conducting Verdi’s Falstaff at Metropolitan Opera House

1964: Cole Porter dies / Fiddler on the Roof premieres / James Bond Goldfinger and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night leading films

1965: First performance of Chichester Psalms in New York

1966: LB works with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera (Falstaff)

1966: Truman Capote In Cold Blood

1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated (April 4)

1968: LB conducts Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna State Opera / leads New York Philharmonic tour of Western Europe and Israel

1969: Richard M. Nixon inaugurated as US President (Jan. 20) / Woodstock / Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five / USA Apollo 11 lands on moon

1969: LB’s father, Samuel Bernstein, dies / LB conducts last concert as music director of New York Philharmonic, named lifetime Laureate Conductor


Period 5: Hope and Reconciliation (1970-1990)

Bernstein with protégé, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, at 1974 Charles Ives Centenary Concert in Danbury, Connecticut. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unidentified.
Bernstein with protégé, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, at 1974 Charles Ives Centenary Concert in Danbury, Connecticut. / Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division; photographer unidentified.

1970: Felicia hosts fundraising meeting for Black Panthers at Bernstein’s residence (New York, NY) / conducts bicentennial production of Beethoven’s Fidelio (Vienna, Austria)

1970-1974:  LB serves as Artistic advisor, Tanglewood (Lenox, MA)

1971: A Clockwork Orange film

1971: Mass premieres, inaugurating the Kennedy Center (Washington. DC) / LB conducts one-thousandth performance with New York Philharmonic

1972: Films include Cabaret, The Godfather

1972:  LB conducts Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera

1973: LB leads Concert for Peace at National Cathedral (Washington, DC) / conducts for Pope Paul VI at the Vatican (Rome) /  Delivers six Charles Eliot Norton lectures, “The Unanswered Question,” at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)

1974: Watergate and Richard M. Nixon’s resignation / Gerald Ford inaugurated as US President (Aug. 9) / Charles Lindbergh dies

1974: First performance of Dybbuk ballet / LB leads New York Philharmonic on tour of New Zealand, Australia and Japan

1975: Dmitri Shostakovich dies

1976: Benjamin Britten dies / Walter Piston dies / Landing vehicles on Mars

1976: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue  premieres / LB publishes The Unanswered Question (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

1977: Jimmy Carter inaugurated as US President (Jan. 20)

1977: LB conducts excerpts from Songfest at Inaugural concert for President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy Center (Washington, DC) / First performance of complete Songfest

1978: LB’s wife, Felicia, dies

1978: Zubin Mehta becomes Music Director of New York Philharmonic

1979: LB conducts Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

1980: John Lennon shot and killed in New York City

1980:  First performance of Divertimento / LB receives Kennedy Center Honor

1981: Ronald Reagan inaugurated as US President (Jan. 20)  / MTV debuts / Aids virus first identified / Iran hostages released

1981:  Halil premieres / LB records Tristan und Isolde (Munich, Germany)

1982: Michael Jackson Thriller

1982: LB serves as Artistic Director, Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute (Los Angeles, CA) / publishes Findings (New York: Simon And Schuster)

1983: Proliferation of the CD

1983: A Quiet Place premieres at Houston Grand Opera (Houston, TX)

1984: LB revises A Quiet Place at La Scala

1985: LB conducts Journey for Peace at Hiroshima

1986: Challenger shuttle explosion

1986: Bernstein Festival at Barbican Centre, London / LB inaugurates Schleswig-Holstein Festival / first performance of Jubilee Games

1988: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes head of Soviet Union / Communist decline in Eastern Europe begins

1988: LB leads NYP in all-Bernstein concert, marking 45 years since debut / Four-day seventieth-birthday celebration at Tanglewood

1989: Fall of Berlin Wall  (Nov. 9) / Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses / George H. W. Bush inaugurated / Seinfeld debuts / Communist party relinquishes power; dissolution of Soviet Union

1990: LB inaugurates the Pacific Music Festival (Sapporo, Japan) / conducts last concerts with BSO at Tanglewood Music Center (Lenox, Massachusetts) / LB died in New York City, October 14 at 6:15 pm.

Today: Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as a composer, performer, educator, and humanitarian continues. #Bernsteinat100

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