The eldest of three, Bernstein is born on 25 August in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Jewish parents, both immigrants from Russia. He starts piano lessons at ten against the wishes of his father, a supplier of hair and beauty products.
At Harvard he studies with Walter Piston and forms friendships with Dimitri Mitropoulos and Aaron Copland. Continuing his conducting at the Curtis institute, he appears at Tanglewood Summer School.
He shoots to fame replacing an ill Bruno Walter as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. Within months the orchestra are playing his First Symphony (‘Jeremiah’).
He marries Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre with whom he subsequently has three children. Having completed a Second Symphony (‘The Age of Anxiety’, 1949) he returns to more popular territory with Trouble in Tahiti (1952), Wonderful Town (1953) and music for the film On the Waterfront (1954).
Hot on the heels of Candide comes his masterpiece, the box-office hit West Side Story. As music director of the New York Philharmonic the following year he inaugurates a seminal series of Young People’s Concerts.
Religious themes dominate his later works, such as the Third Symphony (‘Kaddish’, 1963), Chichester Psalms (1965) and ballet Dybbuk (1974), though his music-theatre romp Mass (1971) is too blasphemous for some. In 1973 he delivers six Norton Lectures at Harvard.
One of his pupils during the 1970s was conductor Yakov Kreizberg
Houston Grand Opera stages his semi-autobiographical opera A Quiet Place, a work that incorporates the whole of his 1952 Trouble in Tahiti into a contemporary tale of love and alienation.
Two years after completing Arias and Barcarolles he is diagnosed with lung cancer: his health quickly deteriorates. Smoking to the end, he dies of a heart attack on 14 October in New York. His body is buried in Brooklyn’s Green Wood Cemetery.
To listen to our 'Best of Bernstein' playlist, click here.
This article first appeared in the June 2005 issue of BBC Music Magazine, when Bernstein was the Composer of the Month.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.