The College Papers: Music Critical Thinking Essay

For my second paper in Enjoyment of Music, I was commissioned to summarize and opine on Leonard Bernstein’s remarks on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

It’s a bit outside my normal music industry posts, but I did enjoy delving into a few of my other interests of politics, history, and philosophy. 

Course: MUS 165 Enjoyment of Music.

Instructor: Professor Reyelt

Date: April 2, 2021

Score: 100

Critical Thinking Essay

At the outset of remarks on the Kennedy assassination, composer Leonard Bernstein recaps a recent performance and the public’s reaction to it:

Days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The performance apparently raised eyebrows, however, due to the piece’s association with themes of hope and triumph, with some believing that a requiem would have been a more appropriate choice for honoring the fallen president. 

Bernstein then responds to his critics by asserting that the piece represents not just hope for the resurrection of the recently deceased leader, but the resurrection of hope for the nation as a whole. Bernstein explains that every musician he knew loved Kennedy because Kennedy held art and creativity in high regard. This regard for mental ability would have been represented in the last speech that Kennedy was scheduled to deliver before his death. “America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason,” read a line from Kennedy’s intended remarks. Bernstein declares that those two items—learning and reason—were clearly absent from the mind of Kennedy’s assassin, and is a motto by which we, as a nation, should live moving forward. 

After postulating that America’s feelings of remorse and revulsion are magnified by the violent nature of Kennedy’s death, Bernstein poses this question: Whence comes this violence? “Ignorance and hatred,” Bernstein answers—the antitheses of learning and reason. Although Kennedy was never able to deliver these words, Bernstein encourages us all to embrace them, using rational intellect (the power of the mind) to achieve victory over violence.

Bernstein concludes his speech by speaking on behalf of musicians, declaring that, while musicians are as incensed over the event as all others, they will refuse to retaliate in kind, and instead will respond with music. Music will never be the same, for in response to Kennedy’s death, musicians will strive to create superior compositions.

Mr. Bernstein’s sentiment is nice, to be sure, and undoubtedly sincere. But there is a central problem with the extracted line from President Kennedy’s speech. While “America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason” makes for a fine surface-level pull quote, the statement ignores the danger of education and rationality when lacking certain supporting elements.

Acquiring knowledge (learning) but being devoid of wisdom, which I would define as “the ability to use knowledge correctly,” can be at best an empty exercise and, at worst, a global detriment. Whence comes wisdom? Is it a natural ability? A gift of Divinity? The result of experience? Or does its origin fluctuate on an individual basis, sometimes one, sometimes two, yet other times all, of the above? Whatever its genesis, individuals who have gained information but are deficient in the ability to correctly use that information may have very well wasted their time. Yet others armed with information but lacking wisdom, may be able to leverage their education (“wisdom on paper,” if you will) to achieve positions of power. So, what happens to a society when those in power are knowledgeable but not truly wise? A similar analysis can be applied to reason, for reason un-tempered by empathy can lead to rigidity and callousness. 

Bernstein’s further assertion that Kennedy’s murderer was devoid of learning and reason simply based on the perpetrator’s act of murder is also fundamentally flawed. A heinous act in and of itself does not necessarily indicate a lack of education or reasoning, for if a person’s goal is to perpetrate evil, the goal itself may be born of a reasonable thought and enacted through a logical plan of achievement, no matter how morally reprehensible the act may be.

One needs only glance at some of the greatest villains of history to see that learning and reason alone do not necessarily coincide with peace and pacifism. Genocidal dictators Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, for instance, were intellectually inclined and received quite a bit of education. No doubt the pair also possessed a strong ability to reason, otherwise, neither would have been able to accomplish their political goals and remain in power. The same can be said of Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe, a school teacher-turned-violent guerrilla revolutionary-turned-life-long dictator.

Simply put, presuming that hatred cannot live in the hearts of rational and educated people is itself unreasonable and smacks of ignorance. I think the larger issue here is a question of morality. But to answer that question, we would be required to enter a philosophical debate of moral relativism vs. moral absolutism, and that would be too great a digression from the topic at hand.

I also take issue with Bernstein’s statement that every musician he knew loved Kennedy. While this may be true, it is an anecdotal account which implies that Kennedy had the support of all musicians, and possibly the arts and entertainment community at large. Although it’s true Democrat Kennedy enjoyed support from quite number of entertainers, in the 1960s, the celebrity world was not quite as politically one-sided as it is today, with many actors, singers, and musicians actively supporting Republican candidates. For example, within five years of Kennedy’s death, African-American jazz singer and former Kennedy supporter Sammy Davis, Jr. would throw his weight behind Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon—the man Kennedy beat in 1960.

Despite my quibbles with Mr. Bernstein’s remarks, however, I do believe in the ability of music to soothe in times of sorrow, for I have experienced this power personally. Music possesses the singular ability to affect human emotional states with a simple series of sounds. A heroic score can raise the listener from the depths of despair to the grandiose heights of elation, and a fast-paced piece in major mode can invigorate and exhilarate even the most downtrodden of spirit. That isn’t to say a slow, minor piece can’t be a healing balm as well, serving as a release mechanism for the listener’s grief. But under the circumstances in November 1963, while I dispute some of Mr. Bernstein’s assertions, I can’t say I disagree with his choice of music.

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