by Swami Tathagatananda
Our dear brother John Schlenck led an ideal life. This ideal and dedicated life created a deep impact on all our minds. I do not know how he came in contact with Vedanta, but after finishing college, he came to this Society at the age of twenty-two. He couldn’t travel by plane. So he had to come by train. Since the age of twenty-two till he turned seventy-eight, he was with us. When my name was suggested for assistant at the Vedanta Society of New York in 1975, John went to India that year and then he came to my institution in Madras (RKM Students Home). I saw him again in Vrindavan at a festival. Once during my time in New York, John decided to live in India permanently. But Swami Atmasthanandaji (Revered President Maharaj) persuaded him to return to New York.
He was a truly dedicated worker. You will be surprised to know that although he was a musician, he did not get a chance to perform in our choir during his early years at the Society. Many years later, when Swami Pavitranandaji was older, he invited John to sing songs in the choir. However, beginning in 1961 he would organize music for an annual celebration of Vivekananda on the 4th of July at the country property of fellow members. Altogether he wrote or selected music for this event for 52 years up until 2013.
During his stay at the centre, John kept himself busy with shopping, cleaning, cooking, answering the door bell, all the secretarial work, snow shoveling, vacuuming, taking care of the garden and other chores. He lived on the top floor and had to climb several stairs to go up and down, taking care of the building and answering the door. This was difficult as our building doesn’t have any elevator. So he went to the Atlanta Centre and after staying there for eighteen months or so, fell down and had a stroke and passed away within a couple of days after this incident.
Of course, his main source of inspiration was music. He produced many cassettes and later CDs based on his musical scores. He went to Russia three times to record live performances of his music because it was less expensive there. He used to accompany dance classes in various dance schools in New York for many years. When his sister, Mrs Josephine Schlenck Gumbiner set up a large trust for him (to the tune of $500,000.00), John quit accompanying and focused on composing and rendering professional quality musical concerts in the service of Vedanta.
The following descriptions are of two concerts for which John Schlenck composed the music and financed the performances. They are adapted excerpts from my book on the history of the Vedanta Society of New York.1
The centennial celebration of the Parliament of World Religions was held from 28 August to 4 September, 1993, in Chicago. A performance of Seek the Eternal: An Interfaith Cantata Celebrating the Spiritual Life was given on the evening of 1 September. The hour-long work was performed by a chorus of twenty three accompanied by an orchestra of seventeen. This performance (by a Jewish chorus in a Catholic church of a musical work by a Vedantist composer drawing on texts from major religious traditions) celebrated the spirit of the Parliament and of Swami Vivekananda.
On 16 October 1994, the Vedanta Society of New York gave its last public homage to Swami Vivekananda during its centenary celebrations. The New York Concert Singers and Orchestra performed A Mission to the World under the direction of Judith Clurman at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, with well-known music commentator Martin Bookspan as narrator. In all, seventy-eight performers participated and the concert was immensely successful. For an entire month, the full-sized portrait of Swami Vivekananda in his Chicago pose was displayed on a large billboard outside the hall.
John Schlenck’s loving nature, dedicated life and integrity of character are exemplary. We remember him as a great friend and as a tireless, dedicated worker of our Society. His integrity of character can be understood through his dedicated life. We had three weekly classes for the public. Apart from that we had four classes in the library for our inmates. Our dear brother John attended meticulously all these classes from his early days. This itself speaks highly of his character. He lived a glorious life and had a glorious death.
John Schlenck, a composer of music, was resident at the Vedanta Society of New York for many years, serving as Secretary, librarian and music director. Later, while living at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, he was the Coordinating Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications.
A native of Indianapolis, John Schlenck graduated from the Eastman School of Music in 1957 with a major in composition and a Performer’s Certificate in Piano. In his final year he performed his own piano concerto with the Eastman Rochester Symphony Orchestra. Moving to New York City in 1957, he earned his living as an accompanist, serving for many years on the musical staff of the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey Dance Schools. His interest in philosophy led him to the Vedanta Society of New York, where he served as music director from 1961 to 2013. This association led him to a study of Indian music and the incorporation of Indian elements into many of his compositions. Over the years he has composed many songs and several cantatas and oratorios based on Vedantic and other spiritual texts, as well as symphonies, concertos, solo and chamber works. Also an editor and writer, he has edited the journal American Vedantist for many years and has contributed many articles and editorials. During his stay at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, he was in charge of the Center’s music programme and occasionally delivered lectures.2
1 Swami Tathagatananda, The Vedanta Society of New York: A Brief Survey.
2 americanvedantist.org and johnschlenckmusic.com (courtesy : Sri Debashis Sengupta of the RMIC).
* Swami Tathagatananda is a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He is also the spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York.