Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bernstein's Curtain Call

It was on this day in 1990 that the great American conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein conducted his final performance, concluding the concert with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Bernstein was nearly 72 — in fact, his birthday was six days later — and he had been suffering from emphysema since his 50s. During the performance of Beethoven's Seventh, he had a coughing seizure that was so severe it nearly brought the performance to a premature end. He persevered, though, and Deutsche Grammophon later released the concert on CD.

If you know much about Bernstein, you will probably agree that was probably an appropriate way for him to retire.

The selection of a Beethoven symphony, for example, was appropriate. In the 1980s, Bernstein was the conductor and commentator for a PBS series on Beethoven's music. The series featured the Vienna Philharmonic playing all of the Beethoven symphonies, and it probably did its part to link Bernstein's name with Beethoven's in the public mind.

That was fitting. Beethoven was one of the composers Bernstein admired most.

When I say it was an appropriate conclusion to his career, though, I am thinking also about how his career began. His father was a businessman who originally opposed his son's interest in music, but he often took his son to orchestra concerts. Ultimately — and perhaps in spite of his own misgivings — he did not stand in the way of his son pursuing a career in music.

I am reminded of what Dan Fogelberg wrote so eloquently in his musical tribute to his own father: "I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go."

Bernstein may well have faced other obstacles as he followed his star — most people do. But he was not deterred. And, because of that, the world was not deprived of his brilliance.

It reminds me of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I ask you to indulge me for a minute or two while I share it with you:
"It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle
Well–loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Alfred Lord Tennyson

I've been thinking about this poem a lot lately. And I think what it is trying to say is that it may be tempting to play it safe, but we never feel quite as vibrant and alive — even if we are in our 70s, as Bernstein was, or the aging king of whom Tennyson wrote — as we feel when we take a chance.

Perhaps that sensation of being truly alive comes from following the path we were destined to follow. Sadly, some people never discover what they were intended to do. Others do, but they take a different path because they think it will be more lucrative, even if it is not more satisfying for their souls.

Both, it seems to me, do a disservice to those people and the higher power that created them.

"That which we are, we are," Tennyson wrote.

Bernstein was no "idle king." And he did not remain idled in retirement for long. He died of pneumonia less than two months after his last concert.

How I wish I could have been in the audience when he made his final journey 19 years ago tonight.