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

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

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The Kaddish Symphony

Shortly after the premiere of the "Jeremiah" Symphony, Bernstein accepted a commission from the Park Avenue Synagogue to compose a setting of liturgy for the Sabbath service. His "Hashkivenu" for cantor, mixed chorus, and organ was completed in 1945. An impressive work--at times melodious and haunting, at other times dramatic and demanding--it is Bernstein's only work "for the synagogue." Since its premiere, its rare performances have been primarily on the concert stage. "Hashkivenu" was also the last "Jewish" work Bernstein wrote for many years. Then, in 1961, Bernstein began work on his third symphony, another programmatic work that he subtitled "Kaddish"...

The Kaddish Symphony is scored for speaker (again a female), soprano solo, adult mixed choir, boys choir, and orchestra. Bernstein wrote the speaker's text himself and envisioned an era in which humankind was distanced from God and on the verge of self-destruction.  The speaker decides to recite Kaddish, her own Kaddish, fearing that there will be no one left alive to say it after her. She chides God for having promised never to destroy the world only to allow His children to do it for Him. God is alternately her father and her paramour (just as the rabbis understood a "masculine" God as the romantic partner of the "feminine" people of Israel). And she is all of humankind--a disobedient child and an angry lover. She calls God to a Din-Torah (a Torah judgment) for breaking Divine promises, but ultimately reconciles herself to Him and allows herself to again speak His praise.

Bernstein's "libretto" is as replete with Jewish tradition as any text could be. Although all of the imagery derives from the Bible (and is thus accessible to all, albeit in its "Old Testament" form), the speaker's identity and passions are driven by Jewish history and philosophy, and the Kaddish itself is a uniquely Jewish text. Yet there is not a note of "Jewish" music anywhere in the symphony. Indeed, in this composition, Bernstein made his only forays into an exploration of the possibilities of 12-tone music, a major leap outside the boundaries of accustomed Western practice and Jewish tradition...

Bernstein's Mass

Bernstein's 1971 Mass appears to be as far from "Jewish" music as a composer could get. The unorthodox work, commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was vilified for its theological irreverence and, ironically, was criticized for being too obviously in the consistent musical style of Leonard Bernstein. The composer described the work as "a theater piece for singers, players, and dancers" and scored it for soloist (celebrant), mixed chorus, boys chorus, orchestra, marching band, and electric guitar. In addition to the musicians and dancers who appeared on stage, the work opened with a prerecorded tape of mixed choral singers and percussion played over loudspeakers positioned among the members of the audience. With so many forces and art forms at work, this "blasphemous" work was clearly confusing to traditional Catholics and had many Jews wondering what "their Lenny" was trying to prove.

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Marsha B. Edelman

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.