Bernstein at the Piano

As his principal instrument, the piano was inextricably a part of Leonard Bernstein’s musical life. There was no piano in his family home until he was ten years old, when an aunt’s upright was given to the Bernstein family of Roxbury, Massachusetts. As a boy Bernstein’s principal musical influences were the local synagogue and popular songs on the radio, which he began to play by ear as soon as the piano arrived. Lessons soon followed and Bernstein made quick progress, playing Bach Preludes, Chopin Preludes and Nocturnes in his second year of piano study. He was captivated by classical repertoire but his fascination with popular song continued. It never faded.

Leonard Bernstein, seated at piano, making annotations to musical score. 1955

By the age of 13 Bernstein was studying in the preparatory department at the New England Conservatory of Music and playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, which he adored. His father balked at the fee of three dollars a lesson, so the young Bernstein began earning money himself by teaching piano to neighbourhood children and playing popular music in a wedding band with friends. The piano, combined with his exuberant personality, became Bernstein’s social calling card. He was usually the centre of attention at parties. He had long been improvising at the piano and began more organised composition about the age of 12, and attempted to write no less than a piano concerto, which was left unfinished. For his bar Mitzvah in 1931 Bernstein’s father gave him a five-foot grand piano. The boy had discovered orchestral music and opera by now and delighted in playing piano transcriptions. His musical enthusiasms were broad and eclectic, even at a young age, but particular favourites were Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel’s Bolero, for which he discovered a piano solo arrangement.

In 1932 Bernstein began piano study with Helen Coates, a life-changing teacher and the first to recognise his potential. He made significant technical progress with her, adding discipline to his natural talent, and continued discovering vast amounts of literature. In a significant step as a pianist Bernstein played the first movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto on May 14, 1934, with the Boston Public Schools Symphony Orchestra. Even so, Bernstein was not at a level to become a concert pianist as a teen. After high school he entered Harvard University, where music study was intellectually stimulating but not focused on performance. During his Harvard years Bernstein met an important mentor in Dimitri Mitropouls, who was influential in Bernstein’s path to becoming a conductor. In this same period he first met Aaron Copland, a relationship that was important in encouraging Bernstein as a composer.

In June of 1938 Bernstein gave his first performance as a pianist of his own compositions: Music for the Dance No. I and Music for the Dance No. II. On this same program he performed Music for Two Pianos with his friend Mildred Spiegel. This was a modest event at the studio of Boston’s most eminent piano teacher, Heinrich Gebhard, Bernstein’s teacher since 1935. Though the records and sources are not absolutely clear, after research we assume that the untitled manuscript Non troppo presto is Music for the Dance No. I. In that same year of 1938 Bernstein composed his Piano Sonata for Gebhard, though it was not published until 1979, after Gebhard’s death.

Bernstein spent time in New York City after Harvard graduation, but soon enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music, unusual for a college graduate, primarily to begin study as a conductor with Fritz Reiner. Besides conducting, composition and score reading, he seriously studied piano at Curtis with Isabelle Vengerova, who some years earlier had been Samuel Barber’s teacher. Vengerova, a Russian immigrant, was a strict disciplinarian, forcing Bernstein to pay attention to detail and tone. He received a diploma from Curtis in 1941.

Bernstein’s progress as a conductor continued, including his 1940 summer study with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, and his debut conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1941. In the early 1940s Bernstein composed compositions which featured piano: the Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1940, and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in 1942, and the song cycle I Hate Music in 1943. Bernstein’s first published work, in 1941, was not his own composition, but a piano solo transcription of Copland’s El Salón Mexico.

In 1943 Bernstein performed what he later titled Seven Anniversaries on the New York radio station WNYC. (On the same program he performed the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.) Thus the series of Anniversaries began, short personal works affectionately dedicated to friends. Other sets would follow: Four Anniversaries, composed in 1948; Five Anniversaries, composed 1949–1951; and Thirteen Anniversaries, completed in 1988.

By his November 1943 debut conducting the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein’s career was quickly taking off as a conductor and composer. Opportunities and ideas arose for larger works that would preoccupy his composing for the rest of his life. Subsequent compositions for or featuring piano were relatively infrequent. Piano works include Four Sabras, composed in the 1950s, and Bridal Suite of 1960, composed for friends. He composed for piano and orchestra, for which he himself played the solo part, with Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety (1949). Touches, composed in 1980, and the aforementioned Thirteen Anniversaries of 1988 were his last compositions for piano.

For Bernstein the piano was often a tool of various kinds, a means of collaboration, and a path to an end, more than an end in itself. Even so, he could not have become all he became — the world’s most sought after conductor; the televised celebrity face of classical music to millions; the celebrated composer whose works broadly spanned from Broadway to the concert hall — without the piano as a foundation of his musical identity. The composer said it best in his dedication in the score of Touches: “To my first love, the keyboard.”

Published in Leonard Bernstein: Music for Piano, Boosey & Hawkes, distributed by Hal Leonard. Used by permission.

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