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Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Bernstein’

25 NOVEMBER, 2014

November 25, 1963: Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Tribute to JFK and His Timeless Wisdom on the Only True Antidote to Violence

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“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.”

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Three days later, as a devastated nation processed its shock and grief, the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York transformed its 25th annual fundraising gala, “Night of Stars,” into a memorial. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson had been scheduled to speak, but canceled. Instead, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein delivered the address to 18,000 of the country’s most distinguished artists, writers, and other public figures. His speech was not only a passionate tribute to JFK and his vitalizing support of the arts, but also a piercing meditation on violence, tussling with the same eternal questions that Tolstoy and Gandhi pondered in their correspondence on why we hurt each other and which Einstein and Freud addressed in their letters on violence and human nature.

Bernstein’s beautiful speech that November evening, which was eventually included in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library | IndieBound) — the fantastic volume gave us the revelations of Bernstein’s dreams and his prescient vision for crowdfunding the arts — forever entrenched Mahler’s symphonies as a symbol of mourning in the popular imagination.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

New York, NY
November 25, 1963

My dear friends:

Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony — the Resurrection — in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the Eroica? Why indeed? 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. 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.

I know of no musician in this country who did not love John F. Kennedy. American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth. We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols. This reverence for the life of the mind was apparent even in his last speech, which he was to have made a few hours after his death. He was to have said: “America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.” Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet. Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power. Learning and Reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it. And where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred — the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason. Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive. This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.

A month later, Bernstein premiered his next major symphony with the Israel Philharmonic and dedicated it “to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” Half a century later, in times as troubled as ours and a world as war-torn as today’s, his message of Learning and Reason endures as a potent and urgently needed antidote to the hatred and ignorance that drive the impulse for violence.

For more of Bernstein’s timeless wisdom, see his meditation on motivation and why we create.

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28 AUGUST, 2014

Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Letter of Gratitude to His Mentor and a Prescient 1943 Manifesto for Crowdfunding the Arts

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Decades before Kickstarter, a vision for how micro-patronage can help creators “ascend to new heights” and “gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.”

As a great proponent of the mutual gift of gratitude to those who touch our lives in a meaningful way and a joyful practitioner of sending regular notes of appreciation to these generous people in my own life, I was extraordinarily moved by a letter of gratitude that legendary composer Leonard Bernstein sent to one of his big heroes and mentors, the Russian-born conductor, composer, and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. Found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library | IndieBound) — the same volume that cracked open Bernstein’s dreams — the missive is second only to Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron.

Shortly after taking Koussevitzky’s conducting classes at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer institute in 1940, Bernstein writes:

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,

Words are a remote enough medium of expression for any musician, but it is especially difficult for me to find words for this letter. Let it be brief.

This summer to me was beauty — beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.

It was a renaissance for me — a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined Weltanschauung [worldview] with which I came to you.

For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.

[…]

In devotion, and in gratitude,

Leonard Bernstein

The first page of Bernstein's letter to Koussevitzky (Library of Congress)

Bernstein eventually became Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant, later dedicating the 1948 Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety to his beloved mentor.

But gratitude alone doesn’t keep a roof over one’s head. In addition to his creative influence, Koussevitzky would also come to impact Bernstein with his convictions about the more tangible ways in which culture at large shows its appreciation to musicians. On May 29, 1943, Bernstein writes in another letter to Koussevitzky:

Reading your letter to the Times … I became inspired all over again; and I was very happy to find that the general reaction to your idea is so favorable and understanding. But who can resist an idea at once so bold and so simple?

The idea he is referring to had appeared in The New York Times thirteen days earlier, in an open letter by Koussevitzky titled “Justice to Composers” — a passionate plea to support creative musicians. Koussevitzky writes:

It is hardly necessary to stress the preeminent place that music holds in our world today — not alone in the world of culture, not alone in the art history of mankind, but also in the daily life of the average man.

[…]

What is being done for the composer of our day?

[…]

With the turn of centuries, how much has been done for the creative artist to whom millions of past and present musicians owe their true place in life, their happiness and their welfare? Very little — by far not enough. If the present-day composer is not dying of heartbreak and hunger, he has, nevertheless, to struggle along and to earn his living through other ways and sources than his God-given gift: as a composer he cannot make a living. He is forced to go out and teach, lecture, and crowd his days with trifling obligations which kill his time, his energies, his creative art. If his present-day life is less tragic, it is none the less hard, unfair and maladjusted.

[…]

Therefore I say the time is ripe to act.

It is no surprise that the plea stirred Bernstein, for he was living the very predicament his mentor had described: Bernstein, who had given up his apartment and was residing at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, confessed in his letter to Koussevitzky:

I go on doing my horrible chores for Warner Brothers in order to live. It is dull beyond belief, and takes much too much time; but I feel that somehow better things must be coming for me.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony in 1945

In fact, Koussevitzky was vehemently opposed to the notion of talented, “serious” composers compromising their creative integrity by doing commercial work catering to popular taste. He actively discouraged Bernstein’s activities as a Broadway composer — indeed, after his 1945 musical On the Town, Bernstein wrote no more Broadway shows until after Koussevitzky’s death.

But what is most extraordinary about Koussevitzky’s letter is that several decades before Kickstarter, Patreon, and other micro-patronage platforms that formalized the art of asking to help support independent creators — the very concept that helps me keep Brain Pickings going — he advocated a crowdfunding solution to the predicament, calling not only on music-lovers but on the community of musicians themselves to chip in:

The appeal for the composer must embrace the whole musical world, reach the musician in every field, the music lover and sponsor, far and wide. It will be a timely and major step forward.

[…]

In this great country alone there are many thousands of performing musicians. A small annual donation of $1 each will bring in a substantial permanent income and, with the joint co-operation and contributions of other groups and organizations, will go a long way toward establishing a composers’ fund… Whatever action we take now will lay the groundwork for the impelling and just cause of the composer. Embracing that cause, we shall ascend to new heights, we shall gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.

What a beautiful and prescient testament to the idea that “donating = loving.”

Complement the immeasurably absorbing The Leonard Bernstein Letters with Bernstein on motivation and why we create, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s eloquent modern-day counterpart to Koussevitzky’s plea.

Donating = Loving

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13 JANUARY, 2014

On Motivation: Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on Why We Create

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A journey to the heart of “the mindless, useless, glorious pursuit of artistic truth.”

An even greater and more enduring mystery than the question of what creativity is and how it works is the question of why we humans create in the first place. One of the most beautiful and profound responses to that eternal question comes from legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, a sage of music and a man of inner conflict. On May 26, 1964, Bernstein gave a speech at New York’s Brandeis Creative Arts Award Dinner, which was eventually adapted into an essay titled “On Motivation” and included in the wonderful 1982 compendium Findings (public library) — a composite portrait of this extraordinary creative hero painted through a selection of his letters, formal writings, speeches, and personal notes.

Bernstein begins by relaying an anecdote from another award ceremony he had attended the previous week at The American Institute of Arts and Letters:

A young composer, sitting on my left, but unknown to me, was receiving a grant; and as he rose to receive it, and bask in the glory of his citation — which was very fancy gibberish — I heard, among a welter of extraordinary phrases, this one: “a composer of deeply motivated music.” This positively riveted me; and so while the young man was gone to collect his check, I asked the fellow Institute member on my right what she thought “motivated music” might be. She had no idea, and asked the gentleman to her right; and so it went down to the end of our row and back to me, with no answers forthcoming, except some snickering witticisms, which I won’t go into.

Needless to say, this trivial incident produced a fat intellectual discussion during the postceremonial drink period; and several giants of the Institute, and the Academy, like Truman Capote, and Louis Kronenberg, put their heads together over the martini glasses to decide what motivates music or, for that matter, any art at all. The young composer himself rather waspishly said that his motivation was money — which is understandable from a man with a new check in his hand.

Bernstein considers the motive of money for a moment — a motive that drives an overwhelming majority of cultural production, or as Schopenhauer presciently argued, of worthless cultural production:

Money is a perfectly valid motivation for art, as much as we’d like not to think so; but since it’s also the chief motivation for selling shoes, or Buicks, or chewing gum, it doesn’t quite explain what motivates art in particular. The same might be said for the other low-down motivating forces, like success, fame, popularity, adulation, and the rest; they are all, undeniably, motivations for the artist, for all artists; but insofar as these ideals also motivate Senators, Beatles, and fan dancers, one cannot say that they are uniquely motivations for art — that useless, most unsenatorial endeavor called Art.

He notes that the answers he and his Institute colleagues arrived at as the true motive for making art were invariable clichés which, while true, still failed to explain the creative impulse:

Communication and self-expression were voted the two real motivations for the artist; every creator is one because he must express himself and, what’s more, must share that expression with mankind. These may be platitudes, and they may also be true, as far as they go. But whether or not true, they do not explain that devil with a pitchfork who goads an artist into doing dangerous, unpopular, unpredictable works.

Bernstein points to a counterexample to these false or incomplete motivators in the work of composer Carl Ruggles, honored at the ceremony that evening, whose music “never earned him a penny, or formed him a fan club” and was “rarely, if ever, played” in public. In answering the question of what motivates people like Ruggles, Bernstein argues, lies the enigma of the creative spirit:

Ah, there’s the mystery. And in these days of explaining mysteries, these days when [psychoanalyst Lawrence] Kubie can explain the creative process by simply invoking the word preconscious — when the duration of our planet can be estimated by the rate of expansion of the universe — please, God, leave us this one mystery, unsolved: why man creates. And in that artless and unmysterious world, I would also preferably cease to be.

While the poeticism of Bernstein’s point about the mystery of art is undeniably beautiful, it’s also rather misguided in its assumption that scientific knowledge destroys the mystery of life rather than intensifying it and making it all the more enchanting. One need only hear Richard Feynman’s famous “Ode to a Flower” monologue to appreciate the unfortunate misconception.

There aren’t too many mysteries left, you know; one of these days some superbrain is going to come up with a brilliant revelation of original cause; DNA, or whatever it is, is going to explain heredity; and XYZ will remove the last veil from the chemical wonder of sexual attraction. And then what will we be let with? Man and his mystery — the mindless, useless, glorious pursuit of artistic truth. And all, hopefully, without a shred of motivation.

Bernstein returns to the question of what motivates Ruggles’s unmarketable, sublime music or the “incredible record of courageous flops” of legendary theater producer and director Cheryl Crawford, who was present in the audience that day. He concludes:

That, thank Heaven, is still a glorious mystery; and it is a mystery that enshrouds every good artist I know, rich or poor, successful or not, old or young. They write, they paint, they perform, produce, whatever, because life to them is inconceivable without doing so. And it is for that mad compulsion, that unmotivated persistence, that divine drive — it is for that that we are honoring these seven artists tonight. I ask you now to join me in paying tribute to them, and through them to all artists everywhere. They may yet save the world.

Findings, which Bernstein assembled for his 64th birthday, is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, featuring his insights on everything from music to education to politics to identity, spanning the half century since he first began writing at the age of fourteen. Complement this particular meditation with Saul Bass’s superb vintage animated film Why Man Creates.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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