Leonard Bernstein: Lost in the Music

America depended on Europe for its symphony conductors until 1958, when Leonard Bernstein became the first native-born American to conduct one of the country’s five major orchestras.


Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


—“The Happy Genius” by Eleanor Harris, from the June 16, 1956, issue of The Saturday Evening Post

The music Leonard Bernstein draws from a symphony orchestra is generally praised, but his acrobatic style of conducting often has been damned as “shadow-boxing,” “dancing,” and “clownish.” He was once called a “musical Dick Tracy” by critic Virgil Thomson. He has never used a baton. Waving both arms at once, and sometimes clenching his fists, he reaches, jabs, punches, points, even seems to pray. Sometimes he pantomimes the motions of the violinists and horn players. Often, standing in one spot, he simply bounces up and down. When conducting singers, Bernstein unconsciously roars out every word right along with them; that’s why microphones are never placed close to him. As the music goes on, his mobile face mirrors every feeling from bitter sadness to ecstasy, making him seem emotionally drunk. He once said, “I honestly don’t realize what I’m doing on the podium. When I’m conducting, nothing else exists but the music and the ­players.”


This article is featured in the May/June 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *