Exclusives

Bernstein on the Paradox of Vacation, the “Great Rallentando” (Audio Exclusive)

For his book on the private world of Leonard Bernstein, biographer John Gruen spent the 1967 summer vacationing in Italy with the Bernstein family, asking countless questions while becoming a part of their lives.

Gruen learned that Lenny had a fundamental discomfort with the very notion of a vacation. It was a discomfort that Lenny found hard to describe. And so, Lenny prepared himself to talk about it with Gruen by reciting one of his own letters. It was addressed to Gretel Hilbert, wife of the head of the Vienna State Opera, who had been pressuring him for answers to many questions, with no regard for his schedule.

The letter I just wrote her might have some bearing upon this moment this summer…

It is a silence of temporary withdrawal from the “world” into a sleepy life of sun, water, boats, children. No music, no thoughts, no planning – and hardly any communication with the “world” I’ve left. …

This is all very necessary, this great “rallentando,” and it does not mean that I am happy in my resting – I’ve never been really happy except when I am working…

Bernstein expected that the peace of this vacation would pry open a burst of inspiration. Yet, after two and a half weeks, Bernstein’s hope was invariably dashed. He summed it up to Gruen with a couple of sentences – perfectly crafted, and completely spontaneous:

And yet sometimes in my period of great activity, I long fiercely for just a period when I don’t have to do anything, and I can just lie around and think…

One foresees a kind of Eden-like calm and bliss in which one lies in the sun, or sits in the shade, or floats in the water… and all these thoughts come to you…

And instead everything gets more and more gray and opaque and vague…

I think as a matter of fact, that a day is coming soon, when the old motors will start working again – but they sure aren’t working now.

About this content

The Bernstein Experience brings to you, for the first time ever, exclusive audio from intimate recording sessions of Leonard Bernstein by biographer John Gruen, who interviewed Bernstein, his family, and his confidants in Italy for seven weeks during the summer of 1967. Copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Julia Gruen.

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