NEA Arts Magazine

Up Close and Personal

Conserving the Archives of Leonard Bernstein


Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre with Russian author Boris Pasternak at a small table in Pasternak's apartment

Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre with Russian author Boris Pasternak while in Moscow on a 1959 U.S. State Department-sponsored tour, one of the many items from his archive that will be preserved with a Save America's Treasures grant. Photo Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Archives

Arguably one of the most influential figures in American classical music, Leonard Bernstein was one of the first U.S.-born, U.S.-trained music directors of the New York Philharmonic, the nation's oldest symphony orchestra. Upon his death in 1991, his children gave the conductor's archives to the Philharmonic, which now possesses tens of thousands of pages of handmarked scores, work papers, and photographs, as well as concert recordings and radio and television broadcasts. In 2008, the Philharmonic received a grant to support the restoration and preservation of this historic archive through the Save America's Treasures program, a partnership of the Arts Endowment, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the President's Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and the National Park Service designed to protect the nation's cultural heritage.

Comfortable in the worlds of both popular and classical music, Bernstein is best known for Broadway sensations, such as West Side Story and Candide, and his orchestral conducting, especially the works of Gustav Mahler. He also wrote countless ballets and choral and symphonic works for the Philharmonic, with which he was affiliated for 40 years. Bernstein's commercial popularity was largely a factor of "being at the right place at the right time, with the right talents," according to Philharmonic archivist Barbara Hawes. "If he had been gorgeous and 45 without TV, 30 years prior, he wouldn't have had the same kind of popularity," noted Hawes.

While many of Bernstein's concert broadcasts are available to the public, still others are deteriorating in the Philharmonic's film vault, including footage from the conductor's appearance with the orchestra at the memorial service for John F. Kennedy. With Save America's Treasures support, these invaluable recordings are now being restored and digitized.

The NEA's grant is also helping to create acid-free storage units for fragile copies of Bernstein's personal letters, old scores, and manuscripts. Among these historic documents is a copy of the score for Aaron Copland's Connotations, which Copland inscribed, "For Lenny -- who asked for it and created it in unforgettable fashion -- This 'first' copy from a grateful composer friend."

The Bernstein archives are often exhibited throughout the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, where they are viewed by nearly 1,000,000 people each year. Scholars, conductors, and music lovers can pore through the pages of Bernstein's own texts, examining notation, changes, and marks. Said Hawes, "As a historian, I don't know of another kind of document other than a music score that captures multiple experiences over a period of time." Conserving these artifacts will ensure that they are available for future generations, offering a first-hand peek inside Leonard Bernstein's genius.