Poems and Letters

“Finalizing the Deal, I Believe You Call It”: Irons Reads Bernstein (Audio exclusive)

Academy award-winning actor Jeremy Irons reads Leonard Bernstein’s poem, a negotiation with a gender-changing God, penned six months before his death.

In May 1990, near the end of his storied life, Leonard Bernstein drafted “Finalizing the Deal, I Believe You Call It,” a poem bargaining with God, reminiscent of his Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.”

  • Read the full text and commentary, and relax with our playlist, inspired by Bernstein’s thirst for knowledge, below.

Academy award-winning actor Jeremy Irons reads (2:25):

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein at home, March 1956. (Original caption: The extensive Bernstein collection of records contains not only the famous classics, but also such representatives jazz selections as the 'hot' numbers played by Bessie Smith. Bernstein has earned fame for writing in the medium the scores for On the Town and Fancy Free. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images)
Leonard and Felicia Bernstein at home, March 1956. (Original caption: The extensive Bernstein collection of records contains not only the famous classics, but also such representatives jazz selections as the ‘hot’ numbers played by Bessie Smith. Bernstein has earned fame for writing in the medium the scores for On the Town and Fancy Free. Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Finalizing the Deal, I Believe You Call It

1. Trimeters

I made a deal with God.
God, she was tough to deal with.
Dealt me a tempting clause —
Then a sharp zap to the kidney.

It wasn’t a real deal,
Really, just a sort of
Gentleperson’ s Agreement.
We almost shook on it;
The snag was Time, time
Not just to live it out
To the maximum, only to write
That one Important Piece.

“How do you know it will be
That important?” she asked.
“I’ll know, all right, but there’ll be
No way to prove it. Not in a court
Of law, especially our kind
Of court. No witnesses.”
“Bull****,” she murmured. “It’s the same
Old thing again: Afraid
To Die, afraid to try
The consequences of Not-to-Be.”
“Wrong,” I said. “Afraid
Died in my vocabulary
Long ago — except of hurting
Someone I love, and then
Of not writing my Piece
Before my Not-to-Be.”
Long discussion; not to bore you
With it: We swapped equations,
We weighed the torts and liens.

2. Tetrameters

Then she became suddenly tender,
At the same time changing gender.
“I offer the Answer to the Unanswered Question
In trade for cancer, or lethal indigestion.”

I thought to myself: unfair bargaining.

Much more painful to know the Answer
Than any form of mortal cancer.

3. Mixed Doubles

“But the Cosmos,” she wheedled,
“The ultimate macro-atom.”

”No deal, thank you, madam.”
Changing gender, she played her ace
In the hole.  The biggest.  “Beginninglessness.”
That did it. I signed on.
We shook on it.
I’m still shaking.

~LB
Revised Prague
May 29, 1990

Understanding Bernstein’s “Finalizing the Deal…”

How do we measure a musician’s merit? How do we make peace with not knowing our legacy?

In Finalizing the Deal, Bernstein craves a God-like understanding (“conception of the inconceivable”) he calls “beginninglessness” — a concept he coined two years earlier in “Beauty and Truth Revisited” (“For want of a clearer / Conception of the inconceivable, / Beginninglessness, the lineage of a star, / The key, the Ultimate Creative Mind, / He calls it God…”).

As he and God argue over the importance of his “one Important Piece” and how it will be judged (*warning: Bernstein’s God swears), Bernstein says he no longer fears death (“Afraid / died in my vocabulary / Long ago”) — only personal and professional regret (“hurting Someone I love” and “not writing my Piece / Before my Not-to-Be”).

Bernstein — who suffered from cancer and the side of effects of treatments, and often advocated against nuclear war — rejects two offers from God (the “answer to the Unanswered Question” and understanding “the ultimate macro-atom”).

This time, “beginninglessness,” is offered; Bernstein accepts, sealing his fate, if not calming his soul.

We shook on it.
I’m still shaking.

About this content
Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons. (Photo courtesy of Irons)
(Photo courtesy of Jeremy Irons)

Audio of Jeremy Irons recorded for The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org/WGBH Educational Foundation by Mark Travis, Associate Director of Media, Production, for the New York Philharmonic. Special thanks to Irons, Travis, Jamie Bernstein, author of Famous Father Girl; and Barbara Haws, archivist of the New York Philharmonic Archives.

Leonard Bernstein’s poem used by permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

More Bernstein at 100

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection” – Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy III, November 22, 1963.

Bernstein Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish” (To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy) – “Back in 1963, when LB wrote Kaddish, he was automatically jettisoned from the pantheon of ‘serious’ composers for daring to interpose tonality amid the 12-tone sections,” says daughter Jamie Bernstein. “But today’s composers feel free to mix genres – and suddenly the Kaddish symphony, with its dramatic amalgam of dissonance and soaring melody, sounds utterly contemporary.”

Mahler Symphony No. 9 in D Major – “And when you listen to Bernstein, or Claudio Abbado, or Herbert von Karajan, or the majority of contemporary interpreters of [Mahler’s] Ninth Symphony, you are given no choice but to go on a journey through the veil to a glimpse of some other realm beyond worldly experience.” ~ Tom Service, The Guardian

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, “Choral” – Bernstein famously replaced “Ode to Joy” with “Ode to Freedom” in the historic conducting performance at the Berlin Wall on December 25, 1989.

  • Watch new, rare footage of Bernstein

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