Leonard Bernstein: Definition of a Genius
A tribute written and compiled by Raktim Sen
01: My Motivation
Most ardent readers who live in Kolkata or its neighboring cities, anxiously awaiting the “Calcutta Book Fair” (now, “Kolkata Book Fair”). We would spend most of the evening during the two weeks at the fair along with our friends and classmates. My favorite book stalls used to be those of rare books. It was at one of those rare book stalls during the late 1970s that I came across a book that immediately drew my attention. It was Leonard Bernstein‘s “The Joy of Music”. The book was last published in 1959 and contained a collection of “imaginary” conversations on the wonders and meaning of music. It also contained seven scripts from his popular 1950’s show “Omnibus”.
I bought the book without any hesitation. I did not know much about Bernstein then except that he was New York Philharmonic Orchestra‘s conductor and for all practical purposed, Zubin Mehta, the Bombay (now, Mumbai) born musician was his successor. I also knew he was the Music Director of the film “West Side Story”. It did not matter that I knew very little about him since the chapter titles were enough to ignite my interest.
I came back home and started reading it. I finished reading the book within the next couple of days, only to find myself reading it again, this time slowly, often playing the notes he scribbled to comprehend better what I was reading. My viewpoint about music changed forever. From then onwards, the book used to be constant companion. I often wondered what it would be like to see the Omnibus shows! Then suddenly one day I discovered that I could not find the book. I lost it. I missed it so much that I would look for it at every second-hand book store in Kolkata.
When I came to the US, one of the first book I checked out from the University library was “The Joy of Music”. I was delighted to learn the media library had a copy of the audio track, an LP, of one of the Omnibus programs. I checked with the reference librarian if the “Omnibus” show was ever commercially released or can be borrowed from the Library of Congress.
The book was still out of print. I must of mentioned about this loss to my wife a thousand times. Even my son, who was little then knew how I missed the book. Then one day, in 1995, on my birthday, my son hands over his gift to me. It was the paperback edition of “The Joy of Music” that was re-published a few months back in 1994. I was overjoyed! That remains one the best gifts I ever received. (He has a wonderful quality of getting me exactly the gifts that make me happy. He presented me a few years back a CD of Ray Charles, one of my favorite singers. More recently, he presented me Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” DVD and a CD compilation of Shyamal Mitra’s songs!)
In 2010 “Omnibus – The Historic TV Broadcasts” was released as a set of four DVDs. Of course, I wasted no time to buy the set and more importantly, watch the great Maestro talk about music. Bernstein had this God-given ability to talk intelligently about any subject. He was an extraordinary Pianist, Composer and Conductor. He did every kind of music. He is one of the greatest musicologist ever. Most importantly, to me, he could share his understanding of music at a level even kids could comprehend and appreciate. His “Young People’s Concerts”, the “Omnibus” telecasts, and “The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard” are a testimony to that.
I am grateful to the fact that I was introduced to Bernstein as an author quite accidently early in my life accidently when I discovered and bought his “The Joy of Music. Through the years, his work and talks shaped my understanding of music as a science as well as an art. To me he is a definition if the word “Genius”.
BTW, a few years back, as a matter of sheer luck, I found the orginal edition of “The Joy of Music” on the sidewalks of a music store on sale for quarter. The book was lying unappreciated alongside many other valuable books. It was my day, again, I thought! ■
02: Bernstein::The Educator
There are many other websites and sources which document Bernstein’s complete works, e.g., the Wikipedia and www.leonardbernstein.com. His work encompasses every conceivable form that has graced the world of Western Music. They include Ballet, Opera, Musicals, Incidental music, Theatre Music, Film Scores, Orchestral Compositions that include three symphonies, Chorals, Chamber Music, Vocal Music and Piano Music. He has authored several books and given numerous lectures, some of which have been released as videos. And this does not even include thousands of pieces he conducted.
Usually, I prefer musicians when they perform. With Bernstein, I prefer when he explains the music he is playing or better still, talk about music and then given examples, and then decompose them note by note. Here are a few his “must listen” lectures on music.
Young People’s Concerts | What Does Music Mean (Aired on: Jan 18, 1958)
The Unanswered Question::Six Norton Lectures at Harvard (1973)
- Lecture 1 – Musical Phonology
- Lecture 2 – Musical Syntax
- Lecture 3 – Musical Semantics
- Lecture 4 – The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity
- Lecture 5 – The 20th Century Crisis
- Lecture 6 – The Poetry of Earth