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Bernstein’s disturbing vision

By Jeremy Begbie


On my office wall I keep two photos together in a single frame. They show two teachers who inspired me more than any others—my first theology teacher, James Torrance (1923–2003), and next to him the American conductor, composer and pianist, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). The former gave me an unforgettable vision of what to teach. But the latter (whom I met only once) gave me a vision of how to teach, of what teaching could be.

Composer of the ever-fresh West Side Story, music director of the New York Philharmonic for many years, prolific to the point of manic over-activity, and prodigiously talented, Bernstein’s influence on the twentieth-century musical world was incalculable, a seismic impact whose reverberations are still being felt. His letters have just been published, and demonstrate well what he always insisted himself: that before anything else he was a teacher, an educator par excellence. As his son once said, “his brain was on fire with curiosity,” and there seemed to be nothing he learned that he didn’t also teach.

Leonard Bernstein in 1971
If you went to see him conduct, it was as much an education as a performance, a kind of sonic seminar. You simply had to listen, as detail after detail was meticulously delivered to your ears. It was as if he was constantly prodding: “Do you hear this…?” But it was when the music was intertwined with words that his real uniqueness as a teacher shone out. When put in front of a TV camera (and he was made for television), most striking of all was the sheer breadth of sources that he could effortlessly sweep into a lecture: every kind of music, poetry, art, linguistics, anthropology, Baudelaire and Beethoven, the Psalms and Freud, Lewis Carroll, biology, Russian literature, astrophysics. The range was breathtaking. The focus was musical, undoubtedly: as a musician, few could touch him, then or now. But the wider vision was an intellectual feast which—like the symphonies of his beloved Mahler—seemed to have no limits.

It is tempting to think of Bernstein as an extreme exception, the ultimate “one-off,” the kind of multi-gifted phenomenon who appears only once in a lifetime, comet-like across the sky of history. But that would be too easy. For he poses a discomforting challenge to any who dare call themselves educators. He seemed to be driven not simply by an ability to relate disparate topics, but by a tacit conviction that apparently unrelated fields of knowledge could and should be related. To him that was obvious. In the contemporary educational climate, it is not. Why not? At root, we can only assume, because the view that things are or can be connected, that Mozart might actually have something to do with politics, that solar physics might throw some light on Plato, depends on believing at some pre-theoretical level that we inhabit a universe and not a multiverse, that human culture is not the accidental conglomeration of zones of interest but is capable of at least some measure of unity. Could a teacher like Bernstein ever appear today? It is hard to imagine how, given that our schools and universities so often present a sorry picture of fracturing and specialisation which seems to mask a deep despair of ever believing that our lives together on this planet could have any kind of coherence.

Inevitably, this pushes us towards the realm which my other teacher inhabited, theology, whose place in the modern academy is, at the very least, to keep the question of the unity of knowledge alive. I don’t know what Bernstein would have made of that suggestion. But I do know that he stares at me from my office wall as a disturbing witness, testifying to a vision we are losing at our peril.

Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor in Theology at Duke University and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the interplay between theology and music. He is author of Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening.

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Image credit: Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal of his ‘Mass’, 1971. By Marion S. Trikosko. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Whitsend3

    Isn’t “boundless curiosity” redundant? Give me capacious theology and curiosity without the bounding outline. Give me sunlight through barn slats. Give me a good mule and an acre of books.

  2. Brian1101

    Steve Whitlock, even if you do have a masters in English from UNC, I don’t understand the complaint, nor do I see the supposedly-offending phrase appearing in the piece above. And surely this is beside the point, right? The question is whether your ‘acre of books’ coheres as a unified piece of land, or whether it is just a random collocation of scattered fragments of rubble from a building that no longer exists and cannot be rebuilt.

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