The Reason For Life

Andre Kostelanetz - Silvermine, Connecticut
Broadcast during the 1950s
Andre Kostelanetz

On Easter Sunday, 1945, the last year of the war, my wife and I were in Marseilles. We had just arrived for four days’ rest, after a tour of entertaining the troops in Burma. It was a wonderful morning, sparkling but not too warm. There were no tourists, of course, and we decided to drive along the Riviera to Vence and call on Matisse. We had never met the painter, but we knew well his son Pierre in New York.

We found Matisse living in a small house, with a magnificent, sweeping view beyond his vegetable garden. In one room, there was a cage with a lot of fluttering birds. The place was covered with paintings, most of them obviously new ones. I marveled at his production, and I asked him, “What is your inspiration?”

“I grow artichokes,” he said. His eyes smiled at my surprise and he went on to explain: “Every morning, I go into the garden and watch these plants. I see the play of light and shade on the leaves, and I discover new combinations of colors and fantastic patterns. I study them. They inspire me. Then I go back into the studio and paint.”

This struck me forcefully. Here was perhaps the world’s most celebrated living painter. He was approaching 80, and I would have thought that he had seen every combination of light and shade imaginable. Yet every day he got fresh inspiration from the sunlight on an artichoke; it seemed to charge the delicate dynamo of his genius with an effervescent energy almost inexhaustible.

I wondered what might have happened if Matisse had never taken that morning stroll in the garden. But such a withdrawal is not in his character. Sometimes a man builds a wall around himself, shutting out the light. Not Matisse. He goes out to meet the world, discovers it and seems to soak up the discoveries in his very pores.

In such a process, man inhales the chemicals of inspiration, so to speak. As a musician, inspiration is vital to me, but I find it hard to define what it is. It is more than just drinking in a view or being in love. It is, I think, a sense of discovery, a keen appetite for something new. There goes with it a certain amount of discipline, of control, coupled with a reluctance to accept a rigid, preconceived pattern. Someone has described this whole feeling as a divine discontent.

The source of this capacity for thrilling, explanatory wonder at life rests, I believe, above man himself in something supreme. I sense this in regarding nature, which stimulates me in all my creative work. There are a host of things about the universe which I do not clearly understand, any more than I can understand, for example, the technicalities of the process by which we can be heard and seen in this new dimension, the miraculous television screen. Such finite things as these inventions were inconceivable mysteries a few years ago. The reason for life may be obscure to me, but that is no cause to doubt that the reason is there. Like Matisse with his artichoke, I can regard the infinite number of lights and shades of a piece of music and know that this is true.

Orchestra conductor Andre Kostelanetz was known for his arrangements of classical works and Broadway show tunes, forming the basis for what became known as “easy listening" music. Born in Russia, he moved to the United States in 1922 and lived here until his death in 1980.