Sunday, December 10, 2023

This Day in Classical Music History (Leonard Bernstein’s Anguished ‘Kaddish' Symphony Premieres in Israel)

Dec. 10, 1963— The third—and, it turned out, last—symphony created by Leonard Bernstein had endured a long gestation period, but when it finally premiered in Tel Aviv, with the composer himself conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, recent events had given the new work even more tragic relevance than anticipated.

Taking its name from the Hebrew prayer chanted for the dead, at the graveside, on memorial occasions and at all synagogue services, The “Kaddish” Symphony reflected the composer’s ongoing crisis of faith.

But the assassination of John F. Kennedy only a few weeks “threw me for a loop,” he wrote, inspiring him to add a late dedication to “the beloved memory” of the culture-conscious President.

I'm sure that the recently released biopic Maestro, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, will contain more than enough material about the career of this multi-talented musical Renaissance man. But it would be especially interesting to see if the film deals with The Kaddish Symphony.

Finishing the symphony proved more arduous than expected for Bernstein, who had been commissioned to write it in 1955 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

Some of the difficulty derived from his wide-ranging interests (composer, pianist, conductor, and, in the form of his televised “Young People’s Concerts,” music educator for the masses), which led him to take on multiple projects and procrastinate (“To achieve great things,” he was fond of observing, “two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”)

But the main problem seemed to be settling on a text compatible with the music conception he had in his head. Three librettists were tried and found wanting.

The most prominent of these, poet Robert Lowell, turned in verses “of a certain obscurity which would not have served the purpose of immediacy which was needed in the concert hall with a piece like that,” Bernstein said in a 1967 interview with John Gruen. (“God hung the rainbow in the sky,/the sign of his contrition and our peace./He knew man’s self-dominion would increase./We need no help from providence to die.”) 

The three poems that Lowell wrote for the occasion before Bernstein halted their collaboration did not see the light of day until 1979, when they were published in the literary magazine Plowshares.

At last, Bernstein decided to write the libretto himself, and set to work in earnest on the composition in 1961. Two years later, upon hearing at the family’s country home that he’d at last completed it, his delighted wife Felicia “jumped into the swimming pool with all her clothes on," daughter Jamie told music critic David Patrick Stearns in a 2008 article for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bernstein’s elation was short-lived, and not just because Bernstein also took on the “monstrous task” of scoring, rehearsing, preparing, revising, and translating it into Hebrew for the Tel Aviv performance. The news from Dallas on November 22 devastated him.

Kennedy’s liberalism not only paralleled Bernstein’s, but the composer and president had genuine high regard for each other. 

The President had gotten Bernstein to compose a fanfare for his inauguration. For his part, the composer thought that, “of all the political men that I have ever met, [he] was certainly the most moving and compassionate and lovable,” and kept a photo of JFK on his piano.

All of this was accentuated by shared personality traits. Graduating from Harvard within a year of each other, each was extroverted, attractive, married to a glamorous woman, and as restless in their spirituality as their ambitions.

In his autobiography, Just As I Am, the Rev. Billy Graham recalled his surprise when JFK asked short but incisive questions about the Second Coming of Christ and the world peace he would bring upon his return. 

Though Bernstein did not keep the Sabbath or observe the high Jewish holidays, he would “go from temple to temple in Manhattan and time it so he could hear the cantors that he liked,” his son Alexander told NPR's Peter Crimmins in a 2018 interview. “He knew all the rabbis. He could sing all the prayers. Could read and speak Hebrew.”

Pressed by many friends and admirers to concentrate more on composing (even after he was appointed the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 1958), Bernstein longed to create an opera about the Holocaust. He never got around to it. 

“Symphony No. 3” was probably the closest he ever came to fulfilling the ambition, and even in this case, it was a different musical form, with Wall Street Journal critic John Anderson suggesting that the 12-tone piece could just as easily be seen as “an oratorio or a monologue with music.”

As originally envisioned by Bernstein, the narrator was female—an unusual choice, given that “women are not officially supposed to say Kaddish in the old tradition,” he told an interview for Japanese TV in 1985. He wrote the part with Felicia in mind, and in fact she narrated when the symphony had its U.S. premiere in January 1964.

In the spoken-word portion that Bernstein ended up creating himself, the narrator pointedly questions at one point the justice and mercy of God:

Are You listening, Father? You know who I am:
Your image; that stubborn reflection of You
That Man has shattered, extinguished, banished.
And now he runs free—free to play
With his new-found fire, avid for death,
Voluptuous, complete and final death.
Lord God of Hosts, I call You to account!
You let this happen, Lord of Hosts!

In his anguished and angry wrestling with the Almighty, Bernstein was squarely in a Jewish tradition running from The Book of Job to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. He found such existential matters even more urgent at this point in the 20th century: While the Holocaust had involved the annihilation of the Jews, the atomic bomb raised the specter of nuclear annihilation of all humanity.

While the narrator spiritually wrestles with God for much of the 40-minute performance, Bernstein continued to wrestle with the text. “I made it over communicative….Even I am embarrassed when I hear the record here and there.” Eventually he rewrote it so that the narrator could be either male or female.

Even with all this rearranging and especially tightening, Bernstein seems to have been ambivalent about this work, explaining its movement from atonality to tonality as being paralleled by the narrator’s journey towards resolution with God.

In effect, The Kaddish Symphony represented the first in a spiritual musical trilogy springing from the violence and dislocation of the Sixties. 

Two years later, he wrote Chichester Psalms in a more life-affirming vein, and MASS—the first work performed at the opening of the JFK Center for the Performing Arts in 1971—with its eclectic mix of musical genres, challenged American values as well as, again, God.

As time went on, Bernstein came to better terms with this composition that had so unnerved him. You can see it in this YouTube clip of a 1985 performance in Japan, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. 

Just before the piece begins in earnest, you can see Bernstein with eyes closed and hands clasped, almost surely in prayer—perhaps for a good performance at this show, perhaps for the better world this composition called for, or maybe for both.

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