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Leonard Bernstein: A Guide to Resources at the Library of Congress

Conductor, composer, pianist, and educator Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a 20th-century American music icon. This guide connects researchers with primary and secondary resources by and relating to Bernstein, including digitized material.


Leonard Bernstein backstage with visitors during a Young People's Concert intermission. 1960. Library of Congress Music Division.

Composer, conductor, pianist, writer, and educator Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) left an indelible mark on American music and popular culture. Shortly after being appointed assistant conductor to Artur Rodziński, Leonard Bernstein unexpectedly made his major conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1943, replacing guest conductor Bruno Walter due to illness. The New York Times music critic Olin Downes published a review the next day praising Bernstein's musicianship, connection with the orchestra, and confidence with both the material and performance. Many more newspapers published about the dramatic musical event and the young conductor's great success, propelling Bernstein to stardom seemingly overnight.

In addition to an influx of exciting conducting opportunities, the next year saw major premieres of Bernstein's own works that spanned multiple genres such as his Symphony no. 1: Jeremiah, the ballet Fancy Free, and the musical On the Town. The opportunity, promise, creativity, and breadth of this one year anticipates the massive achievements yet to come: Bernstein's Koussevitzky commissions and appointment to Head of Conducting Studies at Tanglewood, appointment to Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic, the seminal musical West Side Story, the influential Young People's Concerts, and much more. His deep connection to his Jewish identity inspired his music, travels, and affiliation with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. His admiration for John F. Kennedy and friendly relationship with the President and First Lady prompted Bernstein's participation in Kennedy's Inaugural Gala as well as his conducting a performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on a televised memorial two days after Kennedy's assassination. Bernstein's Mass was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy to celebrate the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1971. These career highlights represent a mere slice of Bernstein's worldwide impact and influence.

The Library of Congress provides unparalleled collections to research the career, creative work, and legacy of this Goliath of 20th-century music, from the incredible Leonard Bernstein Collection to the many other primary and secondary resources highlighted in this guide.

About the Performing Arts Reading Room

The Performing Arts Reading Room is the access point for the collections in the custody of the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Numbering approximately 20.5 million items and spanning more than 1000 years of Western music history and practice, these holdings include the classified music and book collections, music and literary manuscripts, iconography, microforms, periodicals, musical instruments, published and unpublished copyright deposits, and close to 500 special collections in music, theater, and dance.