Bernstein's Senior Thesis At Harvard: The Roots of a Lifelong Search to Discover an American Identity

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The College Music Symposium




Sometime in March 1939 Leonard Bernstein, then a Harvard University senior, wrote a letter to his former piano teacher and future secretarial assistant Helen Coates on Stillman Infirmary letterhead.2 After a day which found him prostrate as a "victime de la grippe," the patient felt "perfectly fine again," although he worried about the possibility of a relapse if he left Stillman's "lair of lassitude" too soon. The "victime" also lamented the inopportune timing of his malady: "It struck me right in the middle of the busiest part of the year—The Birds performance only a short way off [April 21 and 22]; the thesis (only partly done so far) due next week, etc."

Although his final months at Harvard may have been unusually hectic, Bernstein had maintained an active extracurricular life throughout his four years, while managing, often after some last-minute cramming, to achieve passing or better grades in philosophy, English, comparative literature, and with the exception of a "C" he richly deserved in counterpoint for not doing the work, his major, music. He especially relished an aesthetics course taught by the popular David Prall, one of the three people he thanked by name at the outset of the thesis.3 During his four years of study with his piano teacher at Harvard, Heinrich Gebhard, Bernstein also developed his playing skills to a professional level. By the conclusion of his Harvard years Bernstein had also demonstrated considerable interest and promise in both composition and conducting. Considering his future occupation, his conducting debut of his own incidental music to The Birds mentioned in his letter from Stillman infirmary, witnessed and praised by both Coates and Copland, marked a fitting capstone to an active career with deep repercussions for the future.