1943: Leonard Bernstein's Triumphant Debut

On this day in 1943, Leonard Bernstein, who would become one of the century's most celebrated conductors and composers, made a successful debut with the New York Philharmonic – at the tender age of 25.

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Leonard Bernstein in 1945, two years after making his successful conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic.
Leonard Bernstein in 1945, two years after making his successful conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic.Credit: Wikimedia

On this day in 1943, 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein became an overnight star when he made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, filling in for the ailing Bruno Walter in a concert at Carnegie Hall that was broadcast nationally on radio.

Born in 1918, and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, north of Boston, Bernstein was an accomplished pianist as a child. He was educated at Harvard University and at the Curtis Institute, before being accepted to Serge Koussevitzky's conducting class at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home, in 1940. That experience led to his appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a position far less momentous than it may sound since the post rarely allowed one  to appear before a live audience. At that point, Bernstein was already composing music as well.

On Saturday, November 13, 1943, Bernstein's children song cycle “I Hate Music” premiered at Town Hall in New York with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel. His family had come south from Boston for the occasion. But he was notified that guest conductor Bruno Walter, the Jewish exile from Nazi Germany, was ill and might not be able to appear the following night with the Philharmonic. In the event that Walter’s regular substitute, the orchestra’s music director, Arthur Rodzinski, was unable to get into the city in time, Bernstein was told to begin studying the scores for the Sunday night concert.

The morning after the Town Hall recital, Bernstein called his parents, who were staying at a New York hotel, and told them not to head back to Boston, as he would be conducting the Philharmonic that evening. In a 1982 memoir about his family in The New Yorker, Burton Bernstein, Leonard’s younger brother, recalled how his parents cried, “'Oy gevalt!’ almost in unison,” when they heard the news, “both of them holding their cheeks, as if to prevent their faces from collapsing.”

Bernstein had no opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra before the concert – which was scheduled to be broadcast coast-to-coast on CBS Radio. When the audience was informed that Maestro Walter would be replaced by the young Bernstein, some concertgoers left Carnegie Hall in a huff. Those who remained, however, heard Bernstein lead the Philharmonic in a program that included the overture from Schumann’s “Manfred,” Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote,” and the Prelude to “Die Meistersinger.” 

The performance, of course, was a success, and when it was over, the audience and the assembled press went crazy over the charismatic young conductor. Burton Bernstein recalled how his parents kvelled backstage after the performance, as his father, Sam, “found his tongue and held forth for the press. ‘Just the other day,’ said Sam, ‘I said to Lenny, “If only you could conduct the ‘Don Quixote.’” And he said, ‘Dad, you’ll have to wait ten years for that.”’ It was mostly fantasy, of course,” Bernstein wrote. “Sam had never heard of ‘Don Quixote’ before that afternoon.”

In the years that followed, Leonard Bernstein fulfilled his early promise with international conducting engagements (particularly following World War II), and premieres of compositions for the symphony hall, dance and musical theater. In 1947 he appeared for the first time in Tel Aviv, and the following year, during Israel’s War of Independence, conducted (and played) Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic before an audience of soldiers in Be’er Sheva. Later came “West Side Story,” “Kaddish,” “Candide,” his televised concerts for young people, and innumerable honors. He served as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 until 1969.

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14,1990 in New York.