Bernstein Explains Beethoven's Fifth - Part 4

Although Leonard Bernstein became a famous musician, composer and conductor, he had a very difficult childhood.  He did not grow up in a home were music was played or appreciated.  How, then, did Bernstein find his way to international fame?

David Ewen, in his biography of Bernstein, provides some background:

Like so many of his compatriots, Samuel Bernstein [Leonard's father] had come to America to find a refuge from the ghettos and pogroms of his native Russia. The year was approximately 1909, and he was about sixteen at the time.

Also, like many of his compatriots, he settled in the slums of New York's East Side, where he soon found a job cleaning fish beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. For this work his only compensation were the pennies grateful customers would drop into a tin box as a tip, usually amounting to about a dollar a day. Such an income could permit him to live only in a dark, dank, airless room of a congested tenement, and to allow him only a few cents a day for food, which generally consisted of nothing more than a slice of black bread and some herring.

Samuel was an ambitious lad. After his day's work he would go to evening school to learn the language of his new homeland. He was ever on the lookout for ways in which to better himself. When he was nineteen he took a civil service examination which he failed because of imperfect spelling. Soon after that he became an errand boy for a beauty-parlor supply firm. When this shop opened a branch in Boston he was able to convince the owner to send him there as its manager.

In Boston he married Jennie Resnick, also a native of Russia. He also managed through hard work, indefatigable drive, and initiative to save enough money to buy out the store where he was employed and set out for himself as a supplier to beauty parlors and barber shops, and in time to make the Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Supplies Company a thriving business.

His first child was Leonard born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918. At the time the Bernsteins were living in Boston proper. They were vacationing with some relatives in Lawrence when the mother had her birth pangs and was rushed to its hospital where Lenny was born. A half dozen years later came Shirley. With the birth of Burton in 1931 the immediate family circle was completed.

During Lenny's childhood and boyhood, his family frequently changed residence in or near Boston. To find himself continually in a new neighborhoodwith ever unfamiliar points of reference and among boys who were strangers would have proved an emotionally disturbing experience even for a normal boy. And Lenny was no normal boy.

From birth on he had been a victim of chronic asthma, of rose fever, of hay fever. He was continually taken to doctors, continually given injections. He became a sickly, skinny, unhappy little boy who did not make friends easily. He was in perpetual terror of the neighborhood boys because he was usually the helpless victim of their aggressions. Lenny, consequently, became an introvert.

He preferred the security of his home to the society of friends or the diversion of kids' games. In addition, his parents' continual concern over his health, well-being, and even his appearance (which they did not try to hide from him) served to aggravate his stifling sense of inferiority. He became a sad, lonely, maladjusted boy, whose major concern was to be left strictly alone.

Since neither parent was musical, there was little good music in the Bernstein household. A phonograph was a part of the living-room furniture, but the only pieces of music Lenny remembers hearing on it were the hit songs of the day, such as "Barney Google" [based on a comic strip of the same name] and "Oh, by Jingo!" Nevertheless, a few musical experiences managed to touch him. When they did the effect on him was far-reaching.

He was about eight years old when his father took him one Saturday morning to the local synagogue, where the music of the organ and the choir made the boy burst into tears. At about the same time, while visiting relatives or friends who owned pianos, he would always drift away from their company to find his way to the keyboard where he would immediately become totally absorbed in the game of combining random tones into familiar tunes.

Then, one magic day he has never forgotten, he came home from his religious classes at the Temple Mishkan Tefila, to find a piano standing in his own living room. His Aunt Clara had sent it over to his house for temporary storage. It was an old, weatherbeaten, ugly upright instrument. But to the eleven-year-old boy it was a thing of ineffable beauty.

"I made love to it right away," he recalls, by trying to play on it the melodies he knew to his own improvised accompaniments, songs like Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

A new world now opened up for Lenny. It was the first world where he could be completely at ease; where he could  find solace, joy, and stimulation; where the problems and harassments of his everyday life did not exist. The moment he came home from school he would rush to the piano. He would stay there for hours at an end.

His sister, Shirley, recalls more than one evening during her childhood when she was kept awake by the sounds of Lenny's musical tinkerings. Late one night the entire family was awakened by the piano. The father stumbled into the living room and shouted: "Lenny, don't you know what time it is? It's two o'clock! What in heaven's name are you doing?"

Lenny answered firmly: "I have to do this. The sounds are in my head and I have to get them out."

Like the proverbial love affair, this one with the piano refused to run a smooth course. Lenny's parents had long since  decided that he would be the one, someday, to take over the already flourishing beauty-supply business. They wanted nothing to frustrate these plans.

Every time Lenny was at the piano, they would nag him to leave it alone and do his homework instead. They argued, and at times they became explosively angry. But Lenny stubbornly refused to surrender his precious hours with music.

"I knew with finality," he has said, "I would be a musician."

His stubborness, and love of music, paid off for him - and for the rest of the world.

See, also:

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 1

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 2

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 3


Media Credits

Video clip of Bernstein explaining Beethoven, online courtesy YouTube.

Quoted passages from the first chapter of Leonard Bernstein:  A Biography for Young People, by David Ewen.

All of Bernstein's historic broadcasts for the Omnibus program were released on DVD in January of 2010.  Copyright, Omnibus, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and for acquainting new viewers with the production.


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"Bernstein Explains Beethoven's Fifth - Part 4" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Nov 20, 2019.
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