Saturday, February 3

what you are interested in is the well-being of the object you love

"What was most difficult for you as a student?" I asked one evening after what had been billed as an informal chat with the conducting seminar students had grown into a monologue before an audience of about a hundred and he had momentarily run out of steam.

"Oh, controlling myself," he said without hesitation. He was sitting on the floor in his blue jeans and cowboy boots, his shirt unbuttoned to expose a tanned white-haired chest and a protruding pot belly. "So as not to fall into a fainting fit in the middle of the finale. The second week I was here, in 1940, I was doing Scheherazade, and in the middle of it, I remember having something like a heart attack. That was a big lesson to me. You are there to serve the music and you have to take care of yourself. There's a certain point beyond which you cannot let yourself go.

"I still haven't learned that lesson completely. I still go haywire and walk off the stage after a Tchaikovsky symphony so that they have to throw buckets of water at me. But the advice I have to give has to do with not going overboard. Your ideal situation is the complete loss of ego."

He paused, examining the young faces around him.

"I don't know whether any of you have experienced that but it's what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you've studied him so intently, that it's as though you've written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you have become that composer.

"I always know when such a thing has happened because it takes me so long to come back. It takes four or five minutes to know what city I'm in, who the orchestra is, who are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It's a very great experience and it doesn't happen often enough. Ideally it should happen every time, but it happens about as often in conducting as in any other department where you lose ego. Schopenhauer said that music was the only art in which this could happen and that art was the only area of life in which it could happen. Schopenhauer was wrong. It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation. It can happen in orgasm when you are with someone you love."

The students received all this in silence. Then someone in the back of the room raised his hand.

"How do you train yourself to lose your ego?"

Bernstein lit another in his chain of cigarettes and regarded him politely. "If you have to train yourself to do that, I don't think you're in the right business. If you are an artist, you are a driven person. My father didn't want me to be a musician but he couldn't win. It was destiny. I didn't care what it cost me. My father wouldn't give me money for lessons and I had to go out and play in jazz bands at the age of twelve. But it was in the stars. If you have to try to concentrate, you should be in the shoe business.

"That doesn't mean you don't have your doubts every now and then," he said, more gently. "I don't know any great musician who has not had the experience of wondering whether he shouldn't have been doing something else and then saying, 'Of course not!' It's like love. What was Plato's definition of love? You desire the happiness of the beloved. You desire the best for the music. What you are interested in is the well-being of the object you love."

-- Leonard Bernstein, quoted in Music Talks by Helen Epstein