Leonard Bernstein on Music – and how it changed my life

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

It was a matter of luck or fate that I stumbled into this book at a second-hand book market in downtown Athens. It was left unnoticed at the stand as people’s attention was drawn to more popular or modern titles as is usually the case.

In a sense I was also left unnoticed at that period in my life, having a nice job in Munich, I met a girl, followed her to France, that didn’t really work out and here I was, unemployed and alone back in Greece trying to figure it all out.

We matched I thought, so I bought it.


Little did I know that it would change my life.

Little did I know about classical music too, having only a vague remembrance of musical terms from a few lessons we had back in highschool. Truth be told I could not understand much and was almost giving up on it until…

Until this:

The book contained the audio transcripts from episodes of the Young People’s Concerts series (broadcasted in the US during the 60s), and that was the first clip that I came across while looking for them.

Suddenly it all made sense. What I had been reading on paper I could now understand and feel hearing the music. I was hooked, and alone in my room for days I binge-watched and binge-read anything Bernstein related that I could find. The discovery of classical music offered me the much needed consolation at that time and music being a lonely activity forced me into introspection.

How else, if not by introspecting, can one select among hundreds of interpretations the one that really connects with his emotions and mental state? What difference does it make in your soul the precision and sharpness of this or the intensity and power of this? Which interpretation do you like and why? What feelings or memories do you get?

The answers are inside us.

Music was the catalyst, and with its discovery I was discovering myself. That process of self-awareness resulted in greater confidence and inner strength, and the belief that no matter how difficult times can be I will always have someone to rely on. Me.

Now, in a strange sequence of events, here I am again in Munich facing the same dilemma. Different girl, different country.

In music there is a term when the beginning theme is repeated a second time; recapitulation. But then the theme is repeated in the tonic key, releasing the tension, concluding the piece in harmony and ultimately signifying that everything that preceded happened for a reason.

In life?


The Works of Lord Byron, Volume 2


“Ancient of days! August Athena! where,
Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul?
Gone – glimmering through the dream of things that were:
First in the race that led to Glory’s goal,
They won, and pass’d away – is this the whole?
A schoolboy’s tale, the wonder of an hour!
The warrior’s weapon and the sophist’s stole
Are sought in vain, and o’er each mouldering tower,
Dim with the mist of years, gray flits the shade of power.”

Madame Chrysanthème

4620562229_a354537572What a strange book.

It grips you with beautiful descriptions of Japan, shocks you with harsh, almost racist remarks about its people and leaves you with disgust or pity for the protagonist who had sought after this cold and calculative illusion of a relationship.

In the end she is counting the money while he leaves her like this:

“Well, little mousmé, let us part good friends; one last kiss even, if you like. I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could: given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music; in short, you have been pleasant enough in your Japanese way. And who knows, perchance I may yet think of you sometimes when I recall this glorious summer, these pretty quaint gardens, and the ceaseless concert of the cicadas.”

Well, what a great affair that was.


P. Loti (right) with “Chrysanthème” and his friend Yves in Japan, 1885.

Anna Karenina

What is love?

The harp, those tingly feelings in the stomach when you first realise you miss someone…

The cello, yearning that doesn’t subside but only becomes stronger and stronger…
(0:13 “I can’t stop thinking about you…about you…“)

The clarinet, anticipation, and in the background your heart palpitating nervously.

When finally you meet, violins like your feelings, unfolding slowly at first, till deep from within everything surfaces, emotions coming to you in waves, and the harder you suppress them the harder they return, they overwhelm you, they erupt into passion and you surrender…

You often ask yourself:
03:49 “what will be the end?

What is doomed love?
Do you hear the train coming?

The Piano Tuner

This time it happened to me inversely; hearing a piece reminded me of a book.

Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand:

A dark, intriguing opening, like the foggy England where the hero considers that mysterious invitation…

Maybe it’s his uneventful life, maybe it’s the prospect of adventure that lead him to embark. But it’s the calling of the piano that tempts and draws him deeper and deeper in the jungle…
It is a long expedition and he is eager to arrive.

5:08 Arrival at the exotic place but days spent in solitude, working on the piano, meticulously tuning it note by note, carefully observing it and thinking of his life…

6:55 Days pass for he delays his departure, he explores, he changes.

Months pass and his stay in Burma, dangers and adventures, all feel like a dream.
Persisting through difficulties, happy times, he plays the piano…
Delights of the orient, where nature and people are savage but pure…rythms, marches and dances…a new world has opened for him and he realises he may not want to leave anymore…

13:56 Yet what about his wife, his life back in England?

17:11 Enemies approach the fort, an attack is imminent…will the truce hold?

Interesting fact: the piece was written by Ravel for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm during World War I. Paul was the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage


Here let me sit upon this massy stone,
The marble column’s yet unshaken base!
Here, son of Saturn, was thy favourite throne!
Mightiest of many such! Hence let me trace
The latent grandeur of thy dwelling-place.
It may not be: nor even can Fancy’s eye
Restore what time hath laboured to deface.
Yet these proud pillars claim no passing sigh;
Unmoved the Moslem sits, the light Greek carols by.

But who, of all the plunderers of yon fane
On high, where Pallas lingered, loth to flee
The latest relic of her ancient reign-
The last, the worst, dull spoiler, who was he?
Blush, Caledonia! such thy son could be!
England! I joy no child he was of thine:
Thy free-born men should spare what once was free;
Yet they could violate each saddening shrine,
And bear these altars o’er the long reluctant brine.

But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.

What! shall it e’er be said by British tongue
Albion was happy in Athena’s tears?
Though in thy name the slaves her bosom wrung,
Tell not the deed to blushing Europe’s ears;
The ocean queen, the free Britannia, bears
The last poor plunder from a bleeding land:
Yes, she, whose generous aid her name endears,
Tore down those remnants with a harpy’s hand.
Which envious eld forbore, and tyrants left to stand.

Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!”

What a great excerpt about the Elgin Marbles.
The power of poetry… few verses, Byron’s emphatic language and the effect is more profound and memorable than anything written in prose.
And how bold and outspoken against his fellow countrymen!

The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture


Pros: The idea behind the book was really interesting (written by Japanese english students, edited by their professor, proceeds go to scholarships) and the approach was exactly what I was looking for: straight to the point, each chapter focusing on one Japanese peculiarity.

Maa-maa: In the end of each chapter there were discussion questions and cross cultural issues; some of them intriguing, some of them (maybe most) anticipated.

Cons: the content/writing was also…peculiar. Amateurish? One could expect that since each essay was written by a different student, but I couldn’t help but feel that some concepts were given in extreme, unnecessary detail (amakudari, shōshiki) while others were not given the proper space.

But most importantly in one case it failed to pass the younger (20-30 year old) japanese test: awkward faces ensued when…

…”in Japan the center of feelings is supposed to be the stomach, not the heart right?”
– ???
– …that’s why samurai used to harakiri, no?

Nonetheless I would recommend this book, it is sure to stir up interest and be a good start for further exploration.