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“Maestro” — A Look at Leonard Bernstein’s Papers at the Library

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“Maestro,” the film biography of composer Leonard Bernstein, hits theaters this week starring Bradley Cooper as the world-famous musician. Bernstein’s life is documented at the Library in a collection that also seems almost larger than life — some 400,000 items, brought to the Library over half a century.

Not suprisingly, the filmmakers researched the Library’s holdings, spending time particularly on his correspondence. But they also drew on many other items to help the props and costume departments recreate things accurately. The full sweep of the collection includes original music manuscripts, personal letters, photographs, scrapbooks, film scores, audio and film recordings, business papers, concert programs and date books. “Maestro” is a feature film, not a documentary, but it draws deeply from the Library’s well of Bernstein material.

Mark Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library and the archivist for the Bernstein Collection, gives a brief tour of the material and its cultural significance in the video above, offering a peek behind the scenes at some of the images and moments that the film dramatizes. (One hint: Bernstein really did have a license plate that read “MAESTRO1.”)

“He was such a larger-than-life figure that I think he fascinates people as a human being, not just as a musician, but the life he led, the influence he had on people and social issues — it just reverberates,” Horowitz says.

Bernstein burst onto the public stage at the age of 25, when he had to fill in as conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on short notice. His debut, broadcast live on national radio, was such a success that the New York Times published a story about it on the front page. He would go on to lead the Philharmonic for four decades, write the unforgettable score for “West Side Story” and other productions, as well as composing, writing, conducting and educating on almost every platform that existed at the time.

He died in 1990 at the age of 72 after a heart attack.

He has remained such a towering figure that in 2018, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, “More than 2,000 concerts are scheduled on six continents, along with exhibits, including a Grammy Museum touring exhibit; several books; two documentaries in Germany alone; a 25-CD box set of just his musical compositions; and a 100-CD box set of him conducting,” Horowitz noted in a Library of Congress Magazine story that year.

Since then, Stephen Spielberg directed a new version of “West Side Story” and now, in theaters across the country, Cooper is directing and starring in a new feature film about the man himself.

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Comments (2)

  1. I was friends with LB back in the 60s and in the 770s my girlfriend was Janis Joplin’s biographer (Buried Alive) and I remember the struggle to find an opportunity to make a biopic of Janis, but they could never find an actress who could do it honestly. When I heard Bradley Cooper was attempting LB, I prayed to the heavens that he had to chops to do it — I haven’t seen Maestro yet (opens today) but based on the two little teasers in the film’s promo, I have no fear now that Mr. Cooper will nail LB’s portrayal — time will prove me right

  2. The film is spectacular as is the portrayal of LB! As a professional musician, I interacted with Bernstein at Tanglewood as well as with the New York Philharmonic and have performed much of his music which, by the way is very gratifying to play. What a wonderful tribute to such a legend!

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