Even Leonard Bernstein Pulled An All-Nighter In College

Jul 25, 2018

Here’s the story of one of Leonard Bernstein’s college capers.

Bernstein was a senior at Harvard University when he met Aaron Copland at a concert in 1938. Copland was nearly 20 years older than Bernstein but, despite the age difference, the two became fast friends.

Even one potentially crazy-making situation early on in their friendship didn’t ruffle feathers.

In December 1939, Bernstein took a trip to New York City. At the time, he was working on his senior honors thesis on nationalism in American music, and it seems that some of his luggage was on a one-way ticket.

On Jan. 17, after returning from the Big Apple, Bernstein wrote his friend Kenneth Ehrman about, as he put it, “a series of minor catastrophes of varying kinds.” Bernstein explains:

“I left a valuable manuscript of Copland’s plus another printed piece of his plus a valuable manuscript book of mine plus a valuable fountain pen plus all my thesis notes [emphasis in the original] over which I had theoretically slaved (!) in New York on the train coming back from that City of Sin. The infallible New Haven Railroad is unable to find these things, which means that I must start my thesis all over again at double speed […] and be generally upset at having lost Aaron’s manuscript for him.”

Copland graciously dismissed the young Bernstein’s error.

Bernstein continues: “[Copland] of course took it as only he could take it – with a philosophical phrase. Good old Aaron: if it had been anyone else but he I should long ago have gone into voluntary exile.”

As for the thesis, Bernstein wrote to Ehrman again three months later, in April 1939, saying, "I’m dead on my feet. I just handed in the thesis, having stayed up all night, and I’m just beginning to recover.”

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online. Find more Bernstein Minute stories here.