Perhaps no leader in modern history has been a greater advocate for creative culture than John F. Kennedy, who believed that art can “nourish the roots of our culture” and made every effort to stand behind this conviction with the political and personal power of example. His assassination plummeted millions into a depth of grief never before seen on such a large scale, but artists were particularly devastated by his violent removal from the world — a collective devastation best channeled by composer Leonard Bernstein’s touching tribute to JFK, and one which transcended the borders of the United States, for it forced the universal human spirit to face its darkest tendencies.
Among the artists most shattered by the loss was the Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pau (Pablo) Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973), considered by many the greatest cellist of all time.
In November of 1961, Casals received an invitation from President Kennedy to participate in a chamber music concert at the White House. A man of strong political conviction and idealism himself, he had became a symbol of resistance to Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in his native Spain. Although he had played at the White House more than half a century earlier for Theodor and Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1940s he decided to put his art behind his vehement opposition to Franco’s regime and refused to perform in countries that recognized the Spanish despot’s ultranationalist government. But Casals made an exception for JFK in a heartbeat, for he saw the president as a beacon of light for democracy, art, and the human spirit.
So moved was President Kennedy by both the gesture and the performance that he invited Casals to play privately for him and the First Lady. He wrote:
Dear Maestro Casals,
Mrs. Kennedy and I can never express our full appreciation for what you did last night… It was an evening that made us feel humble and it was an evening that agave inspiration and encouragement to lovers of music throughout this country.
Two years later, in the fall of 1963, President Kennedy found a way to express his appreciation by announcing that Casals was to receive the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom — a rare honor for a foreigner — and invited the great cellist for a second visit to Washington to receive the medal. Days before the designated date, JFK was murdered.
Casals, who had lived through two World Wars and gruesome dictatorial violence in his homeland, was unspeakably devastated by the assassination — for the tragic ugliness of the particular loss, but perhaps even more so for what it came to symbolize for him as a larger reflection on humanity.
In Joys and Sorrows (public library) — his magnificent autobiography, which also gave us Casals on creative vitality and how working with love can prolong life — the beloved cellist writes of this “monstrous madness”:
I have seen much of suffering and death in my lifetime, but I have never lived through a more terrible moment. For hours I could not speak. It was as if a beautiful and irreplaceable part of the world had suddenly been torn away.
With the nuance that springs from a sensitive intellect and nine decades of life, Casals considers the ceaseless dance of cause and effect that shapes the course of events and its mournful what-ifs:
Who knows what might have happened had President Kennedy lived? No single man, of course, controls the fate of all nations, and yet during his brief time as President one felt how his hand moved to heal the wounds and conflicts of the world. What savage strife we have witnessed since his death! Had he not died, how many of those who have perished in the towns and jungles of Vietnam might also be alive?
Two centuries after Kierkegaard’s lamentation about the violence of compulsive busyness, Casals suggests that this impulse for violence stems from our lost ability to see the miraculous in the mundane — to see, above all, life as a marvel and each other as manifestations of that marvel:
In the confusion that afflicts the world today, I see a disrespect for the very values of life. Beauty is all about us, but how many are blind to it! They look at the wonder of this earth — and seem to see nothing. People move hectically but give little thought to where they are going…
Each second we live in a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two makes four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children.
Joys and Sorrows is an enormously beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Leonard Bernstein’s reflections on the only true antidote to violence, written in the wake of JFK’s assassination, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on what the Ancient Greek notion of agape can teach us about building a world of nonviolence and love, then revisit JFK’s unforgettable speech on the artist’s role in society.