Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein


"Life without music is unthinkable."—Leonard Bernstein, Findings

When Lenny was two years old, his mother found that the only way to soothe her crying son was to turn on the Victrola. When his aunt passed on her piano to Lenny’s parents, the boy demanded lessons. When Lenny went to school, he had the most fun during "singing hours."

But Lenny’s love of music was met with opposition from the start. Lenny’s father, a successful businessman, wanted Lenny to follow in his footsteps....

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"Life without music is unthinkable."—Leonard Bernstein, Findings

When Lenny was two years old, his mother found that the only way to soothe her crying son was to turn on the Victrola. When his aunt passed on her piano to Lenny’s parents, the boy demanded lessons. When Lenny went to school, he had the most fun during "singing hours."

But Lenny’s love of music was met with opposition from the start. Lenny’s father, a successful businessman, wanted Lenny to follow in his footsteps. Additionally, the classical music world of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by Europeans—no American Jewish kid had a serious chance to make a name for himself in this field.

Beginning with Lenny’s childhood in Boston and ending with his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic when he was just twenty-five, MUSIC WAS IT draws readers into the energetic, passionate, challenging, music-filled life of young Leonard Bernstein.

Archival photographs, mostly from the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress, illustrate this fascinating biography, which also includes a foreword by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. Extensive back matter includes biographies of important people in Bernstein’s life, as well as a discography of his music.

Winner of the 2012 Sydney Taylor Award for Older Readers
A 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 5–10—Rubin's sparkling biography looks at one of the most influential and acclaimed composers/conductors in recent history and brings his story to vibrant, colorful life. Starting at age two and ending with his exalted New York Philharmonic conducting debut at age 25, the fascinating events of Bernstein's life are neatly organized into well-paced chapters. Rubin provides an unbiased, thoughtful, and well-researched account of how the virtuoso grew to become a musical icon, discussing his family life, musical education, and the trials and triumphs he encountered along the way. Photographs and primary documents such as sheet music, concert programs, and telegrams punctuate the presentation and enhance the lively narrative. Rubin's writing is clear and accessible enough for readers unfamiliar with Bernstein, but has enough information and anecdotes to satisfy the curiosities of even his most dedicated fans. There are few comparable biographies currently available for children or young adults. Jim Whiting's The Life and Times of Leonard Bernstein (Mitchell Lane, 2005) offers concise content, while Rubin's depiction has more heart and scope. Music Was It is an engrossing, warm, and comprehensive read, and should be considered an essential purchase for most libraries. All readers will appreciate Bernstein's story of proficiency, perseverance, and passion.—Rita Meade, Brooklyn Public Library, NY
Kirkus Reviews

An impeccably researched and told biography of Leonard Bernstein's musical apprenticeship, from toddlerhood to his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 25. Rubin traces Lenny's education, musical influences and enduring friendships. Lenny reveled in mounting elaborate musical productions in Sharon, Mass., his family's summer community. As a student, he augmented support from his family by giving lessons, accompanying singers, transcribing music and more;the narrative sparkles with details that match its subject's energy and verve.Especially crystalline are the links drawn between father Sam's decades-long dismissal of his son's musical gifts and the consequential importance of mentors and supportive teachers in the young man's life.In exploring Lenny's devout Jewish roots and coming of age during the persecution of Jews in Europe, the author reveals how dramatically Bernstein altered the landscape for conductors on the American scene. In an epilogue sketching Bernstein's later life, she briefly mentions his bisexuality, marriage and children. Drawn from interviews, family memoirs and other print resources, quotations are well-integrated and assiduously attributed. Photos, concert programs, early doodles and letters, excerpts from musical scores and other primary documentation enhance the text. Excellent bookmaking—from type to trim size—complements a remarkable celebration of a uniquely American musical genius. (chronology, biographical sketches, author's note, discography, bibliography, quotation sources, index) (Biography. 9-12)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580893442
  • Publisher: Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 178
  • Sales rank: 1,549,528
  • Age range: 9 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 970L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including ANDY WARHOL: POP ART PAINTER (Abrams) and THE CAT WITH THE YELLOW STAR: COMING OF AGE IN TEREZIN (Holiday House), both ALA Notable Books. Susan lives in Malibu, California.

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Table of Contents


1. Moynik....................1
2. In Love with a Piano....................9
3. Crazed and Raging Fingers....................21
4. Lenny the Showman....................33
5. Lenny at Harvard....................45
6. Genius Boy....................53
7. Crazy Artist Nuts....................57
8. November 14th....................63
9. Glimmering Possibility....................73
10. Me? A Conductor?....................77
11. Work and Work and Work....................85
12. What to Do Next?....................103
13. On the Town....................115
14. Suddenly Famous....................125
Lenny's Music (includes Discography and Bibliography)....................151
Sources of Quotations....................157
Photo Credits and Permissions....................169
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First Chapter

Music Was IT

By Susan Goldman Rubin


Copyright © 2011 Susan Goldman Rubin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58089-344-2

Chapter One


From the start Leonard loved music. When he was about two years old, his parents, Sam and Jennie, stayed with friends who had a summer house at Revere Beach near Boston. The friends had a piano in the living room, and whenever Leonard heard someone playing, he pressed his ear to the closed door. "Moynik!" he shouted, his own word for music.

At home in Mattapan, a suburb of Boston, he would cry "Moynik!" with tears running down his face until his mother put a record on the windup Victrola. Then Lenny, as he was called, would stop crying and listen happily. The Victrola was Lenny's faithful companion and, often, his only playmate.

Lenny was a sickly boy with asthma. "Every time he had an attack," said his mother, "we thought he was going to die." She stayed up all night "with steam kettles and hot towels, helping him to breathe." If he so much as sneezed or seemed to be coming down with a cold, she kept him indoors. At ages four and five, Lenny amused himself by sitting at the window of the front room and watching people pass by as he listened to the Victrola. One of his favorite tunes was a popular song called "Oh by Jingo": "Oh by jingo! Oh by gee!/ You're the only girl for me." He also enjoyed recordings of opera singers and Jewish cantors. From his perch indoors, he would tap rhythmically on the windowsill in time to the music, so his mother called him her "windowsill pianist."

In 1923, when he was five, his sister was born. Their mother named her Shirley Anne, after Anne Shirley, the heroine of her favorite book, Anne of Green Gables, and the actress Anne Shirley, who later starred in the movie version. For the first few years until the family rented a larger apartment, Lenny and Shirley shared a room. She became his closest ally, and they thought of themselves as a separate family.

During Lenny's childhood his greatest musical influence came from the synagogue. Because his father was a deeply religious man, the family joined Temple Mishkan Tefila and went to services on Friday nights, the big music night. Mishkan Tefila was a conservative congregation that allowed an organ and a mixed choir of men and women. The music moved Lenny deeply and brought tears to his eyes. The cantor sang "the ancient tunes," Lenny remembered. "Then the organ would start and then the choir would begin with its colors, and I just began to get crazed with the sound of choral music." The organist and choirmaster was Professor Solomon Braslavsky, a musician trained in Vienna. Braslavsky was also a composer and performed many of his own compositions during services. Once he created an arrangement of the hymn "Adon Olam" ("Lord of the World") for High Holy Days. "Arrangement is too small a word," said Lenny. "It was a great composition. I knew every note of it because I heard it every year; it was like an opera." Later as an adult, Lenny said that Braslavsky provided him with "the first real music I heard." In a letter to Braslavsky he wrote, "I never forget the tremendous influence you and your music made on me when I was a youngster."

For a long time Lenny thought of becoming a rabbi. His ancestors on his father's side were scholarly rabbis. Sam's Judaism pervaded the household. Born in the town of Beresdiv in the Russian Ukraine and raised as a Hasidic Orthodox Jew, Sam had lived in a shtetl, a Jewish village. At age sixteen he had come to America against his parents' wishes. Sam struggled to make a good living. First he cleaned fish in a market in New York City, then he worked at his uncle's barbershop in Connecticut. Finally he wound up selling barber and beauty supplies for a company in Boston.

In 1923 Sam opened his own business, the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company. Mostly he made and sold wigs to Orthodox Jewish women, who were traditionally required to keep their own hair covered. In 1927 his business grew when he bought a license to sell a new invention—the Frederics Permanent Wave machine for curling women's hair. His was the only company in New England that sold the machine, and beauty parlors swamped him with orders. "It was what you call the American Dream coming true," said Sam.

Lenny's mother, Jennie, was also Jewish and had emigrated from the Old Country when she was six years old. As a little girl in Russia, she liked to wander through non-Jewish parts of town, listening to strolling street musicians. Once she followed the musicians and got lost. She fell asleep in a park, and the next morning a czarist policeman dragged her home. As a teenager in America, Jennie was forced to drop out of school and work in the Massachusetts textile mills to help support her family. Then she married and started raising her own children.

Like many other Jewish immigrant families, the Bernsteins moved frequently to bigger apartments in better areas as Sam's income increased. By the time Lenny was nine, they were living in Roxbury. On the way home from school, bigger boys chased him. Frail and skinny, Lenny didn't know how to fight back.

Then when he was ten, a miracle happened. Almost overnight his health improved, he shot up in height to be the tallest boy on the block, and he could run faster than anyone else.

All because of a piano.


Excerpted from Music Was IT by Susan Goldman Rubin Copyright © 2011 by Susan Goldman Rubin. Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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