Leonard Bernstein: Jewish America’s Favorite (Musical) Son

A celebrated American composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist who infused his work with his Jewish heritage


Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

American audiences of all backgrounds swelled with pride as Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) became the first native son to overcome the European hegemony over conducting positions with ranking world orchestras. Bernstein was only 26 when he captured America’s heart–and respect–by stepping into the breach created by an ailing Bruno Walter and leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a critically acclaimed concert. The previously anony¬≠mous, young assistant conductor was catapulted by that success into a career unprecedented in the history of Western music of any sort. Excelling in every venue he touched, Bernstein won praise as a conductor, pianist, teacher, and composer of a wide variety of musical forms.

Bernstein’s musical successes were as much a personal victory for him as they were a source of vicarious accomplishment for America. Bernstein had pursued his musical education over the strong objections of his father, who had urged him toward more conservative pursuits. Interestingly, despite (initially) frustrating his parents with his career choice, he did observe one important family tradition: The Jewish heritage that had been inculcated in him from his youth remained an important aspect of his personal and musical identity.

A Jewish-Themes Symphony

leonard bernstein

A year before his 1943 conducting debut, Bernstein completed his first symphony, though the work did not receive its premiere until 1944. At the conclusion of that season, the New York critics awarded Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 their highest accolade, pronouncing it the most impressive new work of the year. One wonders how the critics might have received the work if they had also appreciated its considerable Jewish musical content.

Bernstein subtitled his symphony “Jeremiah,” signaling his intent to tell the story of the prophet who had led Israel in the sixth century B.C.E.Jeremiah’s testimony is recorded in the biblical Book of Jeremiah, and in Lamentations, a series of five poetic odes written by Jeremiah as witness to the horrible destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people into Babylonian slavery. The sym¬≠phony’s three movements are labeled, not with the customary Italian titles announcing form or speed, but with the names of the three “chapters” in Jeremiah’s life: “Prophecy” (his own), “Profanation” (as the people rejected his message), and “Lamentation” (as the prophet’s warnings came true). The didactic intent of this symphony could have been satisfied with these programmatic titles, but Bernstein endowed each movement with unique Jewish musical significance as well…

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Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.

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