Music Was IT book cover image

Music Was IT:
Young Leonard Bernstein

  • 1295

By: Susan Goldman Rubin

“Life without music is unthinkable.”—Leonard Bernstein, Findings

When Lenny was two years old, his mother found that the only way to soothe her crying son was to turn on the Victrola. When his aunt passed on her piano to Lenny’s parents, the boy demanded lessons. When Lenny went to school, he had the most fun during “singing hours.”

But Lenny’s love of music was met with opposition from the start. Lenny’s father, a successful businessman, wanted Lenny to follow in his footsteps. Additionally, the classical music world of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by Europeans—no American Jewish kid had a serious chance to make a name for himself in this field.

Beginning with Lenny’s childhood in Boston and ending with his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic when he was just twenty-five, Music Was IT draws readers into the energetic, passionate, challenging, music-filled life of young Leonard Bernstein.

Archival photographs, mostly from the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress, illustrate this fascinating biography, which also includes a foreword by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. Extensive back matter includes biographies of important people in Bernstein’s life, as well as a discography of his music.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Susan Goldman Rubin, author

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter (Abrams) and The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin (Holiday House), both ALA Notable Books. Susan lives in Malibu, California.

Read more about Susan.

Awards & Honors:

  • A Junior Library Guild Selection
  • The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon
  • Sydney Taylor Book Award, Older Readers
  • NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
  • Carter G. Woodson Award, Middle Grade
  • ALA Notable Children's Book
  • PSLA Young Adult Top 40

Editorial Reviews:

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

An impeccably researched and told biography of Leonard Bernstein’s musical apprenticeship, from toddlerhood to his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 25.

Rubin traces Lenny’s education, musical influences and enduring friendships. Lenny reveled in mounting elaborate musical productions in Sharon, Mass., his family’s summer community. As a student, he augmented support from his family by giving lessons, accompanying singers, transcribing music and more; the narrative sparkles with details that match its subject’s energy and verve. Especially crystalline are the links drawn between father Sam’s decades-long dismissal of his son’s musical gifts and the consequential importance of mentors and supportive teachers in the young man’s life. In exploring Lenny’s devout Jewish roots and coming of age during the persecution of Jews in Europe, the author reveals how dramatically Bernstein altered the landscape for conductors on the American scene. In an epilogue sketching Bernstein’s later life, she briefly mentions his bisexuality, marriage and children. Drawn from interviews, family memoirs and other print resources, quotations are well-integrated and assiduously attributed. Photos, concert programs, early doodles and letters, excerpts from musical scores and other primary documentation enhance the text.

Excellent bookmaking—from type to trim size—complements a remarkable celebration of a uniquely American musical genius.

Booklist, starred review

What do you do when you have a dream and your father is firmly against it? That's the frame story for this highly readable and inspiring biography of Leonard Bernstein, whose father, Sam, was insistent that music should be a hobby and that Leonard should take over the family beauty-parlor-equipment buiness. But what Rubin's involving book makes so clear is that music was Leonard's life, and even a carping father couldn't change that. From the moment young Leonard started banging around on a relative's cast-off piano, the boy wanted more; as the years went on, that meant working to pay for his own lessons, worrying about what avenue his talents should take, and enduring prejudice for his American Jewish heritage, which made conducting seem an unlikely career. The book ends with Bernstein's unexpected conducting debut at Carnegie Hall, his father in the audience. The determination, charm, and talent of Bernstein overcome the fact that few readers will know him or his music (except perhaps West Side Story). The wonderfully chosen photographs sometimes suffer from muddy reproduction, but the cover--showing a young Bernstein in a T-shirt conducting his heart out--is a sure draw. More about Bernstein comes in an expanded discography that includes videos and a bibliography of adult and youth books. Quotations are sourced, and thumbnail sketches of friends and colleagues mentioned in the book add dimension.

School Library Journal

Rubin's sparkling biography looks at one of the most influential and acclaimed composers/conductors in recent history and brings his story to vibrant, colorful life. Starting at age two and ending with his exalted New York Philharmonic conducting debut at age 25, the fascinating events of Bernstein's life are neatly organized into well-paced chapters. Rubin provides an unbiased, thoughtful, and well-researched account of how the virtuoso grew to become a musical icon, discussing his family life, musical education, and the trials and triumphs he encountered along the way. Photographs and primary documents such as sheet music, concert programs, and telegrams punctuate the presentation and enhance the lively narrative. Rubin's writing is clear and accessible enough for readers unfamiliar with Bernstein, but has enough information and anecdotes to satisfy the curiosities of even his most dedicated fans. There are few comparable biographies currently available for children or young adults. Jim Whiting's The Life and Times of Leonard Bernstein (Mitchell Lane, 2005) offers concise content, while Rubin's depiction has more heart and scope. Music Was It is an engrossing, warm, and comprehensive read, and should be considered an essential purchase for most libraries. All readers will appreciate Bernstein's story of proficiency, perseverance, and passion.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Framing the story of famed conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) in the context of the frustrated struggles between a loving father and son, Rubin spins his biography into a tale that reads as smoothly and compellingly as a novel. The focus is on Bernstein's musical development - not only his formal studies, but also the amateur theatrical productions he staged just for the fun of it, the friends he regularly jammed with, and the high-profile mentors and sheer lucky breaks that put him on track for his acclaimed debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of twenty-five in 1943.

Report writers will find a treasure trove of back matter, from meticulous source notes, bibliography, and index, to a timeline, discography, and biographical portraits of persons influential in Bernstein's musical education. Most spreads include a photograph or document, although the black-and-white reproductions unfortunately appear dull and muddy against the matte, cream-colored stock. Young classical music fans who appreciate the passion and exuberance of Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel will be particularly delighted with this portrait of a star of yore on the rise.

The Horn Book Magazine

Classical music during the early twentieth century was dominated by Europeans, but at a young age the Jewish-American Leonard Bernstein discovered a talent for piano that would, with the encouragement of various mentors, lead to a brilliant career as a conductor and composer. He pursued this career against the wishes of his father, who thought his son would always struggle as a musician (klezmers in his native Russia were little more than beggars); he wanted Lenny to take up the family business. Most orchestras were conducted by men in their forties, at least, but through a lot of perseverance and a little bit of luck, Bernstein made his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic at the age of twenty-five--with his father sitting proudly in the audience. A biography that focuses on the youth and early adulthood of its subject risks missing the point of a biography altogether (i.e., the fame and accomplishments are what drive our interest in the person), but Rubin, with her engaging style and infectious passion, succeeds here. A timeline, biographical sketches, bibliography and discography, source notes, and index are appended; numerous black-and-white photographs appear throughout.


From early childhood through his college and early adulthood, this engaging biography chronicles the life of Leonard Bernstein up to his triumphant debut at age twenty-five as conductor of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Sifting through a multitude of sources including personal interviews, author Rubin presents a well-balanced view of the young Leonard Bernstein who pursued music despite persistent opposition from his father. The chronicle introduces key figures and influences in both Bernstein’s personal and musical worlds, making generous use of quotations and occasionally citing more than one version of the same incident. The emphasis on people and personalities make this an engaging biography for a broad audience not limited to music students. Well-organized, with plentiful b&w photographs and ample back matter, this is an exemplary biography.

Library Media Connection

Rubin thoroughly documents critical events in Leonard Bernstein's life, from early childhood to his first of many triumphs as an accomplished pianist and as conductor with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Bernstein demonstrated a sincere love of music even as a toddler, his father never accepted a child who did not intend to follow in his footsteps. This conflict continued until, at the age of twenty-five, Leonard achieved recognition. This touching tribute to Bernstein is supported with musical scores, letters, and photographs, depicting his relationships with other artists who mentored and/or collaborated with him and who bolstered his resolve. The biography concludes with brief sketches of Bernstein's peers and associates, a timeline of pertinent events in his life, a discography, bibliography, list of quotation sources, and photo credits. Music Was IT is a valuable resource for students looking for a well-written biography, especially those interested in music.


ISBN: 978-1-58089-345-9

E-book PDF
ISBN: 978-1-60734-276-2
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 9-12
Page count: 192
7 3/8 x 9

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