It was November 1963. In Texas, a great statesmen, a young vibrant idealist, and a harbinger of hope, was killed in a shocking act of violence. The world stood still as people tried to understand what had happened and how this single event would change . . . everything.
In New York, Leonard Bernstein was in a meeting with his assistants discussing the next day’s Young People’s Concert when they heard the dreadful news. The Philharmonic’s afternoon concert, conducted by George Szell, was already underway when the news of Kennedy’s death was announced. The concert was immediately halted and, following a minute of silence, the remainder of the program was cancelled.
Of course, many events were cancelled in the days that followed, as people mourned and processed the unfolding news.
Bernstein and Kennedy were friends and partners in the business of hope, both men making it their life’s work to invite people to aspire to making the world a better place; a place where creativity and courage would be the hallmarks of a new generation.
Although the New York Philharmonic had considered performing the Brahms Requiem in a memorial concert, providentially, the orchestra was already in the midst of rehearsing Mahler’s Second Symphony “The Resurrection.” Bernstein chose the Maher as the more fitting tribute to his friend. Not a requiem, but a work of optimism to honour of the man who had inspired hope in the nation.
The evening after this performance, and three days after the shooting, Bernstein was schedule to speak at the annual United Jewish Appeal Fundraising event. Instead of the scheduled program, the event became a tribute to the late President, and these moving words were part of Bernstein’s prepared remarks.
“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. . .
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.”
Over the years, Bernstein’s assertion that violence will not diminish the spirit of creativity has become a rallying cry for artists. As we mourn the tragedies in Syria, Beirut, Baghdad, and now Paris, artists continue to call us to hope, to prayer, and to action. As musicians, our hope, prayer and action is to bring beauty into broken places. We bring sounds of lament and longing into places of loss. And we hold fast to the belief that music is a balm for the weary and a buttress against despair.
Music opens the heart and soul. When words fail, music gives voice to a shared longing for resurrection. In these next weeks, and as we move toward Advent, let’s consider how we can let artists lead us in our movements of hope, prayer and action.
I posted Mahler’s Second Symphony “The Resurrection” a few weeks ago. If you didn’t listen then, you can find that post here.
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony
You might recognize this music which was used in the movie “Philomena.”
Gabriel’s Oboe played by Yo Yo Ma