Pianist lauds love of art, human nature’s “spiritual reservoir” in Ethan Hawke’s new documentary on commitment to craft.
The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.
This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!
Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”
His dilemma of why to make art and how to make one’s work authentic is, ultimately, any artist’s. When I began to ask those questions about writing, they continued for years. What justifies this? Is it just ego? No, I decided at last. The desire to practice an art begins in love for that particular art. In Bernstein’s case, at age six he begged his mother for music lessons—in a home where music was never played—and someone gave the family an old upright piano. Early one Sunday morning, he opened his new music book to Schubert’s “Serenade.” His puzzled mother found him weeping. “Oh, it’s the most beautiful piece I ever heard,” he explained. About age 15, he noticed that if practice went well, so did life, but, if not, he felt out of sorts. He explains:
I concluded that the real essence of who we are resides in our talent. In whatever talent there is. Motivated by a love of music and possessed of a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing, you can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.
That didn’t seem to work for him, actually, without extraordinary effort, and he ended his career. But he never quit playing, and cautions against pursuing artistic success—or even a career:
I’m not sure a major career is a healthy thing to embark upon. I see my colleagues with major careers suffer horribly. . . The contrast between the unbelievable attainment of art and the unpredictability of the social world is so great, the contrast is so great, that it makes them [artists] neurotic. They can’t equate this. . . . I [aspire] to be like amateur musicians, namely to do it for love and not just for commercial purposes.
Late in the film, seen strolling down his leafy Manhattan street followed by Hawke’s camera, Bernstein drifts inevitably into the spiritual realm. He honors an internal force—“I call it a spiritual reservoir; I don’t call it God.” Of course, everyone must decide such matters for herself, but defining this inherent force—Carl Jung called it the collective unconscious—seems a basic, ancient, and urgent human task.
“Most people don’t tap that resource of the God within,” Bernstein adds. “What upsets me about religion is the answers always seem apart from us, in the form of a deity. And we depend upon the deity for salvation. But I firmly believe that it’s within us.”
[Below, Seymour Bernstein explains his love for Schubert’s “Serenade.”]