Leonard Bernstein, one of the most versatile and brilliant musicians in this nation's history, died yesterday at the age of 72 of cardiac arrest at his home in New York. His death came only five days after an announcement that he was retiring from conducting.
His physician, in whose presence he died, had said that Mr. Bernstein's health -- he was suffering from emphysema, pulmonary infections and a lung tumor -- made it too difficult for him to continue conducting.
But if Mr. Bernstein, who had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, was struck down by an excess of illnesses, he had been blessed -- some would say cursed -- by a multitude of talents. This Boston-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants was at once the greatest American conductor of the 20th century as well as one of its most important composers, one of its most brilliant pianists, an important educator and a TV star. He became an instantly recognizable cultural icon.
Mr. Bernstein made the most sensational debut in the history of conducting.
Early in 1943 the New York Philharmonic engaged Mr. Bernstein, a 25-year-old Harvard graduate, as its assistant conductor. The night before a November concert, guest conductor Bruno Walter became ill, and Mr. Bernstein came to the rescue.
The program included the world premiere of a new work by Miklos Rozsa, and difficult ones by Strauss and Wagner with which the young conductor was not familiar. Mr. Bernstein conducted a concert for an electrified audience that included the critics of every major New York newspaper.
But it was more than just a front-page story in New York. The concert became national news because Sunday afternoon Philharmonic performances were broadcast live over the CBS Radio Network. By the dinner hour, Mr. Bernstein's name was on the lips of every music lover in America.
Before a dozen years passed, Mr. Bernstein had become more than just the most famous classical musician in this country -- and television was responsible for his transformation. Handsome, witty and charming, he was made for the medium.
It would be difficult to find a classical-music-loving member of the baby-boom generation who did not watch Mr. Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts." Whether he explained the structure of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 or illustrated relations between popular and serious music by accompanying himself at the keyboard in a manner that rivaled that of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mr. Bernstein could entrance an audience.
When he became the Philharmonic's first American-born music director in 1957, it marked this country's musical coming of age. It was not just that America now had a musician talented enough to lead the Philharmonic, but that it finally had enough cultural self-confidence to name one of its own to such a post.
This is not to say that Mr. Bernstein was without detractors. Critics mocked his choreographed conducting style, and they scorned his highly personal interpretations.
His extremely liberal politics brought him under additional attack -- memorably in author Tom Wolfe's 1970 account, "Radical Chic," of a black-tie fund-raising event that Mr. Bernstein and his wife sponsored for the Black Panthers.
But Mr. Bernstein transcended ridicule. In 1969, he left the Philharmonic and began to conduct regularly in Europe. In Vienna, Paris and London, Mr. Bernstein was idolized, and his European reputation revived his standing at home. With the death last year of Herbert von Karajan, he had no rivals for the title of the world's greatest conductor.
When the Berlin Wall came down last year, it was Mr. Bernstein who conducted the first concert -- a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony -- in the unified city. That concert, which was broadcast around the world and made into a best-selling video, was probably seen by more people than any classical concert in history.
But like Gustav Mahler, the great turn-of-the-century Viennese conductor-composer whose music Mr. Bernstein almost single-handedly rescued from obscurity, the American conductor-composer always felt that his success as a performing musician overshadowed his redoubtable gifts as a creative one.
The year of his sensational conducting debut, 1943, was also the year of the debut of his "Fancy Free," one of the greatest American ballets ever written, and the "Jeremiah Symphony," which won the New York Music Critics Award as best composition of the year.
Mr. Bernstein's "serious work" included two other symphonies, two operas, a Mass and such staples of the modern repertory as the "Divertimento" and the Serenade for Violin and Orchestra. But it's likely that Mr. Bernstein will be best remembered for such Broadway scores as "West Side Story" (1957), which many regard as the finest musical ever written, "Wonderful Town," for which Mr. Bernstein won his only Tony Award, and "Candide," the overture to which visits concert halls almost as frequently as those of Rossini, Beethoven or Mozart.
But in recent years -- although he kept taking sabbaticals to write -- Mr. Bernstein did not compose very much. Part of the problem seemed to be that the awareness of his great talent pressed too heavily upon him and that he kept conceiving impossible-to-execute projects, such as an opera on the Holocaust.
"I haven't slept very much in months," Mr. Bernstein told reporters before a gala 70th birthday celebration at Tanglewood. "I have no further request of the fates except time to write my music. . . . I've got a lot of music to write."
Survivors include his son, Alexander, a teacher, and two daughters, Jaime Thomas, a rock musician, and Nina Bernstein, an actress. His wife, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, died in 1978.
Spokeswoman Margaret Carson said that Mr. Bernstein's funeral would be private.