Leonard Bernstein at 100! Celebrating the Maestro’s Music

Mike Lawson • • August 30, 2018

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August 25, 2018 marks the birth centennial of music legend Leonard Bernstein. Celebrate the Maestro’s legacy through learning scenarios that focus on Bernstein’s varied music.


Leonard Bernstein is one of the most revered musicians in history. Some music conductors have become famous worldwide, yet Leonard Bernstein was one of the first American-born conductors to become internationally renowned. August 25, 2018 would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. An official centennial celebration began on August 25, 2017 and will continue until August 25, 2019, sponsored by the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. of New York.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., James Kett and Joseph Trefil lists Leonard Bernstein as a fine arts performer that culturally literate people should know about. This article pays tribute to Maestro Bernstein, shedding light on his musical genius and intelligence, his wide array of compositions and works, and learning scenarios that will benefit both teachers and students alike.

Leonard Bernstein, Musical Genius

With piano lessons throughout childhood, a Harvard degree in music, and additional postgraduate training at the Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein was equipped to share his musical genius with the world. From symphonies to Broadway musicals to ballets to film scores, Bernstein demonstrated skill as a composer, conductor, teacher, author, concert hall musician, film composer, and TV show host.

Jazz was an important part of Bernstein’s life and music. As a teen in the 1930s, Bernstein formed a jazz band, played jazz piano at parties, and directed a summer camp swing band. His jazz-infused music composed while at Harvard and the Curtis Institute provided source material for his future works. His undergraduate thesis maintained that jazz is the universal basis of American composition. By day, Bernstein transcribed for publication improvisations of jazz players such as Coleman Hawkins and by night, played piano at jazz clubs.

Many of Bernstein’s works have jazz influences and rhythms. “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” (1949) was a clarinet solo and jazz ensemble composition commissioned by Woody Herman’s jazz band. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety was written for jazz piano and percussion. Jazz had a huge impact on Bernstein and his compositions. Both as a performer and teacher, Bernstein helped legitimize jazz’s influence on classical music.

In West Side Story, Bernstein utilized many minor chords and the lowered third and seventh scale degrees, characteristic of jazz and blues music. The score also includes classical, popular, and Latin style music. Bernstein also used hemiola, setting a duple time melody against a triple time accompaniment, or three against four, etc. Bernstein based the entire score on the tritone, the musical interval of a raised fourth. This dissonance evokes danger or evil. The tritone is used in almost all West Side Story songs, but especially in songs that reflect Maria and Tony’s romance (“Somewhere,” “Maria”). Scott Miller provides a detailed analysis of West Side Story in his book From Assassins to West Story: The Director’s Guide to Musical Theatre.

In 1954, Bernstein appeared in his first television series entitled Omnibus. Geared to adult audiences, the series was a cultural program that highlighted music appreciation segments. Regarding Bernstein’s television work for children, singer Marni Nixon, friend and colleague, observed Bernstein’s devotion to education in her book I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story. She wrote: “Lenny had the innovative and wonderful notion (to which I wholly subscribe) that if we exposed children to the best that music had to offer it would enrich their lives. Even with all his fame as a performer and composer, he had devoted a large part of his career to being an educator. He was brilliant at it and his Young People’s Concerts television series is a testament to what can and should be done in this country to foster the arts in the young” (pp. 128-9). Ultimately, Nixon provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood in the 1961 motion picture version of Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story.

Curricular Considerations

Students will benefit from learning about Leonard Bernstein and his music because of the quality and variety of his music. Curriculum frameworks such as the Multiple Intelligences, the Habits of Mind, differentiated instruction, learning styles, cooperative learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy, higher order thinking, interdisciplinary and thematic learning, and standards including 21st standards in particular can help create powerful lessons. Assignments can be completed alone or with others, in class or out of class, within a flipped classroom, or in traditional or block schedules. The whole class can work on a single topic or groups or individuals can work on different topics.

Learning Scenarios: Bernstein’s Life and Work

The following learning scenarios offer students several ways to explore the life and works of Leonard Bernstein. The variety of topics encourage differentiated instruction and interesting perspectives of Bernstein’s influence on twentieth century music. The website leonardbernstein.com includes a list of Bernstein’s works among other useful materials for lessons.

Life Story

What life experiences led Leonard Bernstein to become an internationally known composer and conductor? Using biographies of Bernstein, which individuals helped shape him as a musician? How did Bernstein exhibit his musical intelligence as described within the Multiple Intelligences framework?

Classical Works

Leonard Bernstein composed a number of classical works including three symphonies. Choose one or more classical works and conduct research about each. When did Bernstein complete the work, what was his motivation, and when and where was it first performed? Which classical piece would you most want to perform and why?

Bernstein’s Broadway Musicals

Bernstein composed music for six Broadway musicals: Candide, West Side Story, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Focusing on the songs in one musical, note the theme of the songs, how they helped develop the plot, the musicality of the songs, and which songs became popular within the Great American Songbook. Determine what led to the creation of the musical, when, and how it was received by reading published reviews or other critical works.

West Side Story

One of the most celebrated stage and film musicals, students can explore West Side Story, one of Bernstein’s most popular works. Consider the score, the gang theme within a cultural context, the 1957 Broadway production, the 1961 film version, and revivals. Students could analyze West Side Story using the Multiple Intelligences, the Habits of Mind, or thematic learning. The jazz elements of the score including both instrumental and vocal components are worth exploring. The tritone used throughout the score is worth consideration. Scott Miller’s chapter about West Side Story provides many insights. The complete vocal score, recordings, and print and digital materials can also prove useful.

Bernstein’s Mass

Research Bernstein’s Mass. For what occasion was his Mass to be performed? Who asked him to create this work? What aspects of the work can be linked to the Catholic Mass? In what languages are the lyrics? Students can create a comparative chart with Bernstein’s Mass on one side and the Catholic Mass on the other.

Jazz History and Development

Explore Bernstein’s musical compositions that were clearly influenced by jazz. Consider West Side Story, “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” and “Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety,” and others.

Bernstein the Educator

What did Bernstein teach and lecture on? Find one documentary, program, or interview that helps shed light on Bernstein as a teacher or lecturer. Consider his Harvard Norton lecture series in particular as well as his television programs Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts.

Bernstein the Author

Bernstein authored five books including The Joy of Music. Students who like reading could read one of Bernstein’s books from cover to cover. The material learned can be assessed in a few ways such as a PowerPoint presentation, an opinion essay, a review article, or a round of Jeopardy answers and questions.

Bernstein and New York

Using an interdisciplinary approach, what characteristics of New York provided Bernstein with an appropriate environment to explore his musical genius? Be specific. This can be presented in a few ways including an essay, a storybook, PowerPoint, montage, or a traditional or digital quilt.

Bernstein in Hollywood

Which films had music by Leonard Bernstein? Create a chronology of his film work. Choose one film and describe the music in detail (names of songs, instrumentals or with vocals, genre of music). This can be presented traditionally through an essay or using technology such as PowerPoint, an app or Internet-based site.

Great Performances

Choose one Bernstein composition to play instrumentally alone or with others. One or more students could also sing to the instrumentals. Why did you choose the one song? When was the song composed and in what context? Was it part of a larger score?


Which Bernstein works were ballets? Choose one and create a storyboard and written narrative describing one part of a specific ballet. What emotions are evoked by the chosen scene?

Foreign Language and Cultural Influences

Bernstein was multilingual with a knowledge or fluency in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Find examples of his works that you believe were influenced by his linguistic or cultural background. Students could create a comprehensive physical or digital montage outlining Bernstein’s works and the linguistic or cultural presence in these works.

Visual Arts

Choose one work by Leonard Bernstein considering the visual arts. Create a painting, drawing, sculpture, digital montage, or mural that is inspired by the chosen work and a detailed written narrative describing the artwork and its inspiration.


Leonard Bernstein’s music can enrich any student’s learning. The varied musical genres and his famous compositions offer something for everyone to embrace. Bernstein is one of the most prominent musicians of the 20th century. Music educators can influence student learning by celebrating the Maestro’s music.

Leonard Bernstein: His Life and Work Leonard Bernstein (pronounced with a long i as in pine or vine) was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to Samuel and Jennie Bernstein. He showed an interest in music at a young age and began piano lessons at age 10. His father did not support his son’s interest in music. From his studies in piano, attendance at Harvard University receiving an A.B. in music, and postgraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Bernstein became skilled as a pianist, composer, and conductor. He was also a teacher and lecturer and the author of several books. Bernstein was an internationally celebrated conductor who performed throughout North America, Europe, South America, and Japan. He composed a variety of musical genres including symphonies, ballets, Broadway musicals, and film scores. He is probably best known as the composer and part lyricist of the musical West Side Story. Bernstein hosted a popular television series that ran from 1958-1972 entitled Young People’s Concerts. Young viewers learned through listening to music and what Bernstein had to say about the music. He taught at his alma mater Harvard University as a professor of poetry from 1972 to 1973. He gave six Norton lectures (named after a professor) at that time including ones that utilized theoretical linguistics to shed light on music. After a long career in music, Maestro Leonard Bernstein died on October 14, 1990 at the age of 72 at his home at the Dakota in New York. His legacy is a body of musical compositions that are known by individuals all over the globe.

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