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Classical 101

Hard to Believe Leonard Bernstein Died 25 Years Ago

Christina Burton, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office

I was at my desk at The Entertainment Corporation, Ltd, on Broadway and 67th St. that morning, trying to wake up over strong coffee and the air filled bran muffins available at the pricey deli near Lincoln Center. An older colleague walked in crying. Leonard Bernstein was dead.


Bernstein's concert at Tanglewood a few weeks earlier was a harrowing afternoon. He was sucking on oxygen off stage and was unable to complete the program, The Four Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes, of which he had introduced from that very stage in the Berkshires in 1945.

Bernstein's physical deterioration had been evident for a few years. The bloated belly, the shortness of breath, his awesome vitality now having to be summoned by sheer will power. Years of heavy smoking, the scotch and the rough lifestyle had caught up with him. 

Still, I remember reading the press release over the fax machines announcing that he would retire from public life. No more conducting, no more appearances, would he just fade away? We were all shocked. Nobody in the office knew of a life without Leonard Bernstein.

Five days after announcing his retirement he died. The unfinished Tanglewood appearance was his last. Fitting his career should end where it had begun nearly fifty years earlier, as Koussevitsky's protege who had come to study with Copland. At his death, Bernstein's fame had far outrun that of both mentors.

Bernstein died at home, in the Dakota, reportedly while trying to frolic with his grandchildren. I wouldn't mind going that way. Would you? The great building at 1 West 72 St., had achieved legendary status for macabre reasons: the setting for the film Rosemary's Baby, and the murder of John Lennon in 1980. There was a vigil begun as soon as word of Lennon's death got out. People stood in silence by the Dakota for two days. For Bernstein, we in the office were among the many to go out and stand at the corner to see the funeral cortege go by. The funeral had been private, at home. (Dakota apartments easily accommodate the big crowds) Can you imagine a public funeral for Leonard  Bernstein? Everybody from the world of music, plus the black panthers and gay liberation?

The cortege was going to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the resting place of Horace Greeley, Samuel FB Morse, and Mae West. We watched it go by, and I remember thinking what could I listen to to remember?. Nothing. But I could clearly remember hearing him conduct Mahler, Beethoven and Bach's B minor Mass and thought, nobody got the floorboards buzzing like Lennie.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.