I awoke on my 18th birthday, June 6, 1968, to the news that Robert Kennedy had died from an assassin’s bullet. I was disconsolate but it was also the day of my Grade 8 piano examination and the two events are fused in my memory. In music one can find expression of the deepest human emotions from the most tearful to the most joyful.
Anyone who has ever taken piano lessons will be enthralled by the documentary portrait Seymour: An Introduction, directed with tender appreciation and grace by actor Ethan Hawke (Boyhood). Even if you have no musical background you will find yourself moved by the subject’s endearing musical journey and philosophy of life. Now in his 80s, pianist Seymour Bernstein has lived alone in the same one-room Manhattan apartment for almost six decades. He had a brilliant international career as a concert pianist but suffered from terrible nerves and never liked the business side of fame. At age 50 he stopped performing publicly and turned instead to teaching and composing.
Engaging Seymour on the perils of stardom and success, Hawke confesses to his own doubts and severe “stage fright.” “Too many artists are not nervous enough,” Seymour responds. But being centre stage can take a terrible toll. Referring to Canada’s extraordinary piano genius Glenn Gould, Seymour laments that he was a “total neurotic mess” whose eccentricity infused his musical interpretations. Although Hawke arranges a private concert by Seymour (his first before an audience in 35 years),
the sublime notes of which are the film’s final act, he wisely mostly stays in the background allowing the gentle presence and wisdom of this unassuming man to shine through — in quiet conversations including with a New York Times writer, in sessions with students and master classes, in testing the merits of Steinway pianos.
Seymour loves his solitude and seems at peace yet there are indications he hasn’t had a simple or easy life. He describes his father as never having accepted him. His eyes well up recalling the human losses during his Korean war service even though there had also been satisfaction in being able to play classical music for the troops.
Music, Seymour believes, connects us to our deepest selves, to the “spiritual reservoir” within. There is something transcendent about its reach. “In its universal language music connects us to the stars,” he says, adding on a personal note, “I never dreamt that with my two hands I could touch the sky.”
Thanks to this wonderful film our eyes and ears can share in the blessing of Seymour’s gift.