Music

Leonard Bernstein: Exploring the American composer behind Bradley Cooper's musical biopic Maestro

Bradley Cooper took conducting lessons from the Metropolitan Opera’s musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to prepare to play Leonard Bernstein

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. Image: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Classical music is Hollywood’s latest obsession, and it seems to be here to stay. Last year brought us the critically acclaimed Tár – a psychological drama starring Cate Blanchett about the fictional director of the Berlin Philharmonic – and Chevalier, the ‘untold’ story of Joseph Bologne, a virtuosic 18th-century violinist and composer, born on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. 

Now, Bafta-winning actor and director Bradley Cooper brings us Maestro, the highly anticipated biopic of the 20th century’s greatest American conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein. Set to premiere on Netflix in December, Cooper both directs and stars in the film as the musical maestro himself.

While not known for being a classical musician, Cooper did admit in an interview with Stephen Colbert in January 2022 that he “asked Santa for a baton” when he was eight years old, because he was “obsessed with conducting classical music”. 

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Cooper told the bewildered host of CBS’s The Late Show that his love for conducting along to classical music had been inspired by the symphonically scored cartoons of Tom and Jerry, and Looney Tunes characters such as Bugs Bunny.

Despite his love for classical music having been previously under wraps, Cooper’s first directing credit A Star is Born uncovered his love for live musical performance when he starred alongside pop sensation Lady Gaga in the Oscar-nominated film.

“I spent hundreds of hours practising conducting,” he told Colbert. “And Steven Spielberg happened to know that I had this obsession.”

This fun fact about conducting led Spielberg, who had been considering directing Maestro himself, to pass on the project to Cooper.

Cooper knew nothing about Bernstein prior to the project, but told CBS in an exclusive report five days before the film’s worldwide release that the conductor “somehow found his way to me. I really do feel like I know him”. The American actor has since become close with Bernstein’s now adult children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, who are deeply supportive of the project. The trio went as far as defending the actor from ‘Jewface’ accusations earlier this year when photographs of Maestro revealed Cooper wore a prosthetic nose to play their father.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro.
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Image: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

By his own admission, the actor and director spent six and a half years learning to conduct just six minutes and 25 seconds of music. The six minutes and 25 seconds in question were for a triumphant recreation of Bernstein’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s symphony no 2 at Ely Cathedral. In the film, Cooper conducts the real-life London Symphony Orchestra, though he’s not the first Hollywood actor to lead a prestigious ensemble on the silver screen.

Last year, Cate Blanchett starred as the fictional tyrannical conductor of the internationally acclaimed Berlin Philharmonic in Tár. While the orchestra seen in the film is in fact the Dresdner Philharmonie, Blanchett nevertheless took conducting lessons in order to be filmed directing the orchestra with her own baton. Similarly, Cooper took lessons from the Metropolitan Opera’s musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to prepare for Maestro. Not only an outstanding conductor, Nézet-Séguin brought a unique perspective to Cooper as an openly gay musician. Leonard Bernstein, who was unable to live as an openly gay man during his career, is an incredibly important figure in classical music’s LGBTQ+ history, as is Nézet-Séguin. For Cooper, the direct comparison between these two musicians would have been key to demonstrating just how much the industry has changed.

Bernstein’s real-life performance of Mahler – also known as the Resurrection Symphony – took place at Ely Cathedral 50 years ago in August 1973. The recording session was filmed by English television presenter (and later Bernstein biographer) Sir Humphrey Burton for CBS. The outstanding musicianship and filmography cemented the recording as one of Bernstein’s most memorable achievements. 

Clocking in at almost 90 minutes long, the giant work features a full orchestra, a mixed choir, a soprano and contralto soloist, an organ and an offstage ensemble of brass and percussion. 

While Bernstein is best known for conducting the New York Philharmonic, the ensemble under his baton for the 1973 recording was the London Symphony Orchestra, who appear on screen for Maestro. The American conductor had previously worked with the LSO to record the 8th symphony for Bernstein’s acclaimed ‘Mahler Cycle’, a recording of all of the German composer’s nine symphonies. 

Bernstein was the first to record the cycle and is therefore credited with popularising Mahler outside of Europe and bringing his grandiose music to the American concert hall. 

Bernstein’s love for Mahler’s music is one of the maestro’s defining features. According to biographer, Allen Shawn, the composer was buried with a pocket score of Mahler’s fifth symphony. He was also buried with a piece of amber, a lucky penny, a copy of Alice in Wonderland and, perhaps less unexpectedly, a baton. 

The Resurrection is perhaps the most poignant of all the Mahler symphonies Bernstein conducted. He had previously brought the symphony to the attention of the world 10 years prior to his Ely appearance. No more than 24 hours after the assassination of president John F Kennedy, Bernstein conducted a performance of the work in a tribute concert by the New York Philharmonic. 

Bradley Cooper and opera singers Isabel Leonard and Rosa Feola recreate Bernstein’s legendary performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973.
(l-r) Bradley Cooper and opera singers Isabel Leonard and Rosa Feola recreate Bernstein’s legendary performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973. Image: Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.

Leonard Bernstein knew the president personally, so his death left a mark on the then 45-year-old conductor. He had been personally selected by Kennedy to compose and conduct a fanfare for the president’s inaugural gala, and soon became friends with both JFK and his wife, often visiting the White House. 

After the tribute performance of the Resurrection, Bernstein spoke at Kennedy’s memorial days later, explaining his decision to play Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony as opposed to a more customary requiem or funeral march. 

“We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him,” Bernstein said. 

“In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.” 

In his performance as the acclaimed conductor, Cooper follows Bernstein’s words. To be worthy of playing the maestro, he dedicated years to studying conducting and practising the art form daily, so he would be able to direct the London Symphony Orchestra live – the same ensemble Bernstein led half a century ago. 

With all the traits in place to bring Leonard Bernstein back to life on screen, the film in itself could be seen as a resurrection of a kind for the poster child of American classical music.  

Maestro is out in selected cinemas now and is on Netflix from 20 December 

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