The Only True and Durable Antidote to Violence: Composer Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Response to JFK’s Assassination
By Maria Popova
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 (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) 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.
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.
With this, he turns to the creative person’s only generative response to destruction — persisting in the affirmation of life and the elevation of human nature that we call art:
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.
Published November 25, 2014