The New Yorker, June 6, 1959 P. 42
The writer's eldest brother, Seymour, committed suicide in 1948, when he was 31. He was a great many things to a great many people while he lived, and virtually all things to his brothers & sisters in the outsize Glass family. He left behind 184 unpublished poems. The four other living Glass children want the writer - Buddy - to do something about the poems. Buddy does not quote any of them but tries to tell the reader about Seymour, whose poetry was much influenced by Chinese & Japanese poems. He describes some of Seymour's work. He tells about Seymour's reactions to his (Buddy's) writing by quoting a long memo & letter that Seymour wrote to him. He attempts to describe Seymour physically - he & Seymour looked alike both rather homely. He tells how badly Seymour dressed, & ends by describing how he played games. Writer tells a little about himself, too. He is a very self-conscious 40 years of age and an instructor at a girl's college in northern N.Y. state.
As its title suggests, “Seymour: An Introduction” doesn’t try to offer the final word on its subject, , the pianist, composer, teacher, philosopher and ultimate New Yorker. Instead, in 81 transporting minutes, this intimate, big-hearted documentary draws you so completely into his world that you feel as if you know all there is to know, even as questions linger. So effectively does it close the distance between you and Mr. Bernstein that afterward you may find yourself scanning the streets, hoping to catch sight of him, as if for an old friend.
And, if you gave up playing an instrument (oh, let’s say, the violin), you will surely regret that folly. Among the lessons, musical and otherwise, that Mr. Bernstein offers is that surrender isn’t an option. “The struggle is what makes the art form,” he says. “I had to go to war for my art form.” Many of us may not have felt equipped for war when we were trying to coax grace, beauty, something, from our sheet music, but that’s scarcely the point. What Mr. Bernstein reveals through both the example of his life and the many recollections and conversations threaded throughout this documentary, is that struggle — long, brutal, enervating, interminable — must have its due.
That this is as much a movie about life as about art is clear from the first few minutes, as is the sense that the terms are inseparable for him. Life for Mr. Bernstein began in Newark in 1927; music entered not long after. At 6, he begged his mother for a piano, though music was entirely absent from his family’s home. He began teaching piano when he was 15, started winning prizes shortly thereafter, studied with the likes of Clifford Curzon and, in 1969, made his debut with the . Mr. Bernstein played at the front in the Korean War and in concert halls afterward, winning praise and admirers, only to give up his public career when he was 50.
, who directed and occasionally appears on camera, provides a generous amount of biographical details about his subject while omitting others. Mr. Bernstein doesn’t seem terribly interested in oversharing. He sketches in his early years, but doesn’t often voluntarily return to the subject of his family. Sometimes, he is pulled back to it, as when Mr. Hawke asks if it bothered Mr. Bernstein that his father said he had two daughters and a pianist. (Yes, it did.) You can learn more facts from Mr. Bernstein’s website than from this movie and still more from his suggestively titled 2002 memoir, “Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music.” There’s nothing about his love life in the movie, no questions about partners or whether he longed for children.
If you don’t necessarily notice their absence it’s because there’s so much else here, so much music, poetry, philosophy and communion as well as memorable visits to the piano bank in the basement of the old Steinway Hall. Mr. Hawke incorporates a fair amount of interviews with Mr. Bernstein, but much of the movie takes the form of dialogues, including between the filmmaker and his subject, a dynamic that, over time, begins to resemble some of the other teacher-student encounters in the movie. Some of these students are familiar, others less so. (Among the guests is critic Michael Kimmelman.) None dazzle as brightly as Mr. Bernstein whether he’s talking, teaching or playing. That the three blur together is evident whether he’s alone at the piano, teaching students in his cozily appointed one-room apartment or holding a master class.
The movie shares a title with the ’s “Seymour: An Introduction,” a 1959 Glass family story in which Buddy Glass streams out thoughts about his older brother, Seymour, who has killed himself. It’s not a universally loved story; in a review, wrote that Mr. Salinger “disappoints because he is always practicing.” That’s a dig, and off the mark. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but, as Mr. Bernstein shows, practice, struggle and running your fingers up and down the scales year after year is what we must do. As Seymour asks Buddy, what will you be asked when you die? “ ‘Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out?’ ” Seymour assures Buddy, “If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.”Continue reading the main story