Bernstein: The Curtis Class of '41

Leonard Bernstein completed his conducting studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1941. His graduation photograph, taken in what was then known as Casimir Hall, shows him (middle row, fourth from left) as one of 29 graduates facing the first steps of their post-Curtis lives. For Bernstein, those steps would lead, just two years later, to his unscheduled, tremendously successful, and career-cementing debut conducting the New York Philharmonic.

But in May of 1941 all of that was to come, and it is probable that the Bernstein pictured here felt the universal trepidation at facing an unknown future. It is also probable that he, like most graduates, was recalling memories of the school he was about to leave behind – not all of which were positive. In his first year at Curtis Bernstein had contended with the preconceived notions of some classmates who saw him as a Harvard snob and a show-off (his uncanny ability to sight-read orchestral scores even prompted some students to label him a “fake”). While Bernstein later conceded that their opinions may have had some credence, at the time he struggled greatly with such undisguised, targeted animosity. These feelings of isolation and loneliness at Curtis, difficult enough under any circumstances, were then further exacerbated by Berntein’s own depression as he looked upon an increasingly hostile world in which such seemingly unshakable tenets such as truth and beauty were not only being questioned, but overtly challenged.

Fortunately, however, Bernstein’s second year at Curtis proved significantly more enjoyable than his first, fostering more pleasant memories of his fellow students. Barriers began to break down. Unfounded rumors were dispelled, and common ground on thought, philosophy, and music was found. Discussions took place, new music was played, and lasting friendships were formed. Bernstein’s initial despair was replaced by the hope that perhaps, though obscured, truth and beauty did still exist if one only strove to find them. The 1940–41 school year thus proved to be a complete antithesis of the one before, creating a complex juxtaposition of memories that likely shaped the older Bernstein’s recollections of his two years in Philadelphia.

But for the young Leonard Bernstein seen here, his “deeply moving experience” at Curtis was as yet untarnished by time, and he undoubtedly channeled it, still raw and redolent with hope, into the man—and the maestro—he would become.

Kristina Wilson / archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.

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