Bernstein: Conducting as a Conductor Conducts

When Dimitri Mitropoulos said to the 21-year-old Leonard Bernstein, “You must be a conductor…go see Fritz Reiner in Philadelphia,” it was the first time Bernstein had considered conducting as a career. Until this point, he had only conducted with the mindset of a composer and instrumentalist. But how to conduct as a conductor? This he would learn from Fritz Reiner, the great Hungarian maestro who had joined the Curtis faculty in 1931.

Born in Budapest, Reiner had graduated from the National Academy of Music and studied law at the University of Budapest. Among his first conducting engagements were Budapest’s Opera Comique and the National Theater in Laibach, Yugoslavia. He arrived in the United States in 1922, taking a position with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He later moved on to the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and eventually the Chicago Symphony. In his decade at Curtis he served as head of the opera department, directed the symphony orchestra, and taught classes in conducting.

Reiner was a brilliant technician with the highest musical standards. He taught his students that a conductor had to earn the “right” to step up to the podium through intensive knowledge of the score. In a 1936 interview for The Etude magazine, Reiner provided some answers to the question of how to conduct as a true conductor; one must understand both the composer and the musician:


“Even if a conductor never creates a musical work of his own, he should be as familiar with the craftmanship of composition as any composer. Only in this way will he be able to see clearly into the meaning of the works before him… He must above all start out with a clear idea of what music is. How would you define music[?]…from the viewpoint of the professional musician.”


Reiner would also evaluate a student’s power to effectively lead other people in a positive way. This was the final component, and if he believed a student did not have the requisite leadership skills and personality, Reiner would not allow them to continue in the program. From the same interview:


“It is well, then, for the ambitious young conductor to take careful note of his personal powers, before venturing into a profession where just these personal powers- or lack of them- may be responsible for his future success or failure.”


Despite Reiner’s reported severity, he and his young American charge worked well together. Bernstein possessed the three major elements of Reiner’s model student: skill in composition, virtuosity, and—as American orchestras would soon discover—charisma.  







—Barbara Benedett, digital archivist, Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest Curtis news and stories.


Grand Designs of 1726 Locust Street

From the Spring 2022 Issue By Bruce Hodges Curtis's historic 1726 Locust Street home is better than ever. Bruce Hodges surveys the…

Scheherazade Is Ready for Her Close-up

From the Spring 2022 Issue By David Patrick Stearns Curtis's innovative Immersive Scheherazade multimedia production places the listener in the middle of…

Faculty Highlight: Winds of Change

From the Spring 2022 Issue By Vivien Schweitzer Imani Winds began its 25th year by embarking on a new role as Curtis's…