15-Year-Old Lenny Writes a Poem to “The Love of My Life”
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BERNSTEIN, LEONARD. (1918-1990). American composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist.AMs. (Unsigned). 1p. 8vo. In pencil. N.p., August 14, 1934. An unpublished, handwritten poem composed in Bernstein’s youth and sent to his early girlfriend, BEATRICE GORDON (1918-1983).
“I walked for threescore years & ten
Along a jagged precipice;
And stopped, & saw below a void --
And everlasting nothingness…
I asked, “Whither shall I go,
Advance, I, or retreat?
One a corpse, & one a coward
Tell me, dear God, I entreat!
Then came the answer, loud & clear
Forward Beat onward [?], Son of Cain!
Forward shall the sinner go
His soul -- peace to attain!”
As a youth, Leonard Bernstein spent summers with his family in Sharon, Massachusetts where they had a lakeside cottage in a community with other affluent Jewish families. In the summer of 1934, the precocious 15-year-old wrote a comedic version of Bizet’s Carmen, performed by school friends and holiday neighbors including Beatrice Gordon whom he referred to as “the love of my life” in a letter to his friend Sid Ramin, (Leonard Bernstein, Burton). “His attachment to Beatrice Gordon, who sang Don José in matador pants at Sharon, went well beyond music. They were both romantics enamored of poetry and words... In the weeks leading up to Carmen, Bernstein scribbled four nocturnal poems for her in the space of eight days,” (ibid.). Our poem, perhaps one of the four, is unpublished.
Following his graduation from Boston Latin, Bernstein attended Harvard University where his talent led him to posts with several prominent orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. A successful composer, working in the disparate areas of classical, liturgical, jazz, and contemporary music, Bernstein’s works include West Side Story, the oratorio Kaddish and music for the film On the Waterfront.
Our poem, written shortly before Bernstein’s 16th birthday, displays some wear in the folds. Interestingly, Bernstein died just two years after the “three score and ten” mentioned in his poem. An especially rare and moving relic from one of America’s greatest musical talents.
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