This Legendary Conductor Always Knew Who He Was, a Musical Mystery by Drew Holmes

The Podcasting Store
3 min readFeb 16, 2024


From the beginning, Louis’ path was clear. The son of Jewish immigrants, he was destined to take over his father’s beauty supply business or, failing that, become a rabbi. Success in business was expected of him and his father made clear that music was more of a side pursuit. But he knew that wasn’t who he really was.

Though the synagogue he attended was conservative, its music program was quite progressive, allowing both girls and boys to sing in the same choir. At age 10 an aunt left her upright piano with Louis’ family, and he took to the instrument immediately. Though his father refused to pay for lessons the boy was determined to learn and raised the money himself. Still, his father disapproved, going so far as to write his teacher “I prefer he not regard music as a future means of maintenance.”

But Louis persisted. By his Bar Mitzvah, he had finally impressed his father enough that he purchased him a baby grand piano as a gift. After graduating from the Boston Latin School he attended Harvard University, studying with Arthur Tillman Meritt and Walter Piston.

The turning point was a concert where Louis saw Dmitri Mitropoulos conduct the Boston Symphony. The conductor’s emotion and enthusiasm made an indelible impression on him. At a reception the next day, Mitropoulos heard him play piano and was so impressed he invited Louis to attend his rehearsals. After spending a week with him his path was set. He knew his life was music.

After Harvard he furthered his education at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at age 22 was offered a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood. There he was mentored by fellow Jew Serge Koussevitsky who, due to the rampant antisemitism of the time, had renounced his faith to further his career. Koussevitsky encouraged him to do the same to which Louis replied, “I’ll do it as (myself) or not at all.”

This confidence in his own identity and thirst for social justice grew as he further established himself as a musical titan. A frequent attendee of civil rights marches and demonstrations, his first Broadway musical featured prominent roles for African American performers who were treated equitably to their white counterparts. He conducted concerts to commemorate the nuclear bombings of Japan during World War II and later led performances for unity and hope after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Though married to a woman, he left her to live openly with his boyfriend. He did not address his sexuality until later in life, but in this too he knew who he was despite societal pressures to be someone he was not.

His meteoric rise to fame began with a last-minute conducting appearance leading the New York Philharmonic at age 25 which landed him on the front page of the New York Times the following morning. Years later as music director, he conducted the first concert at the ensemble’s new home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which, ironically, had been the setting of one of his most famous musicals.

For almost five decades he conducted and composed, earning 16 Grammys, 7 Oscars, 2 Tonys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His Young People’s Concerts are the stuff of legend, exposing millions of people around the world to classical music on a then emerging technology — the television. In his New York Times obituary, Louis was remembered as “one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American history.”

Throughout his life there was only one person who did not seem to know who Louis was. His grandmother insisted he be named Louis, though the rest of his family always called him “Lenny”. He was 16 when she died, and then was finally able to change his name to the one that we all know today. One of the most recognized musicians in American history. Leonard Bernstein.



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