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“Goodbye Lenny” : Ode to Joy

Dinner with LennyThis short read was both much more, and much less, than I expected. It is the transcript of a 12 hour conversation (interspersed with listening to Bernstein recordings) which journalist Jonathan Cott completed with Leonard Bernstein in 1989, a condensed transcript of which was published in Rolling Stone magazine.

Less than, because I was hoping for more detailed analysis of some of the works and composers Bernstein was particularly associated with (Mahler, Beethoven as well as his own works) I realised pretty quickly this was an impossibility, that what I really was after was what he did with specific works in an Omnibus series – music must be illustrated by listening to the orchestra demonstrate what is being described.

More than, because, as in his music, what almost overwhelms from the off is Bernstein’s overflowing joy in life, of which of course, music was integral.

The product description talks of Berstein thus : “Bernstein truly led a life of Byronic intensity”

WRONG! The quality Bernstein expressed in abundance in his music and life was Joy and Love (not happiness, which stands in relationship to joy as pretty does to beautiful). Byron certainly lived life with hectic energy, anxious to sup it all up, but he was not noted for love of his fellow man or woman (other than in a sexual sense)

By contrast, Lenny loves. And that lover’s passion spills into the music, the embracing of music different from his own cultural background, poetry, musicians, composers, education, children, writing, sex, humanity, freedom, equality,…..and the word he keeps using to describe his relationship to life, to music….play…we play music, musicians play their instruments.

Leonard Bernstein even at the end of his life was spring-like, had a quality of youthfulness, hopefulness, as can be seen in this video of him rehearsing a youth orchestra for a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

And to come back to Joy and Happiness. Happiness is evanescent and ephemeral and innocent, Deep Joy exists as something more timeless, and holds an understanding of its opposite – Sorrow, Loss, Longing and Pain. It’s a saying YES to life, to the everything of life – and that is something which pervaded Leonard Bernstein.

And explains a final image in this book – by all accounts, along the route of his funeral cortege as his body passed through Manhatten on its way across the Brooklyn Bridge, some construction workers “removed their yellow hard hats, waved, and shouted out “Goodbye, Lenny!”

That sort of Lover of Life, that YES to Life, is contagious

On his deathbed, Leonard Bernstein who had spent his life in the joy of music, that most communicative of human endeavours, asked to be read the following words, from that other great lover and mystic, the 13th century Persian Sufi Poet Rumi:

Last night in a dream I saw an old man in a garden
It was all love.
He held out his hand and said, Come toward me


13-BernsteinMahler-sweatshirt._V399347360_(I received this, gratefully, as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK. Thanks Az!)

Dinner with Lenny Amazon UK
Dinner with Lenny Amazon USA