Neglected Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), the world-famous conductor, composer, pianist, lecturer, larger-than-life personality;  how could I refer to him as neglected?  It seems that Bernstein’s handprints are everywhere in the world of music.  I do, however, believe some of his work is neglected.  Okay, somewhat neglected.  I might trade valuable appendages to be as “neglected” as the symphonies of Leonard Bernstein.  But compared to the audience there is for West Side Story, On The Town, or Fancy Free, his symphonies have a small following.

Leonard Bernstein

In May, I wrote a post about Bernstein’s music for Candide which can be read at “Time to Make Our Garden Grow”.  Almost all of Lenny’s compositions have a literary connection. His three symphonies all have programmatic elements.  In fact, all three deal with crisis of faith, man’s faith in God, in himself, and a painful renewal of that faith.  The first symphony, Jeremiah, takes its cue from the story of the biblical prophet.  The second, The Age of Anxiety, uses the W.H. Auden poem as its literary inspiration.  The third symphony is a “Kaddish”, a Hebrew hymn of praise to God most closely associated with memorials for the dead.  Not quite as flashy as the Sharks and Jets dancing about, but all are very moving pieces. The work most familiar to me is his Symphony No 1, Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was premiered on January 28, 1944 with Bernstein himself conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This was a mere three months after Bernstein’s legendary conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, substituting for an ill Bruno Walter on November 14, 1943.  (Lenny was already on quite a roll.)  This symphony has only three movements, with the mezzo-soprano soloist being featured in the last.

Leonard Bernstein wrote the following about the symphony, quoted from the New York Philharmonic Program Notes, 29 March 1944:

In the summer of 1939 I made a sketch or a Lamentation for soprano and orchestra.  This sketch lay forgotten for two years, until in the spring of 1942 I began a first movement of a symphony.  I then realized that this new movement, and the Scherzo that I planned to follow it, made logical concomitants with the Lamentation.  Thus the Symphony came into being, with the Lamentation greatly changed, and the soprano supplanted by a mezzo-soprano.  The work was finished on 31 December 1942, and is dedicated to my father.

The symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material… As for programmatic meanings, the intention is again not one of literalness, but of emotional quality. Thus the first movement (Prophecy) aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people; and the Scherzo (Profanation) to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people.  The third movement (Lamentation), being a setting of poetic text, is naturally a more literary conception.  It is the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it.  The text is from the book of Lamentations.  

Here is the complete work.  The painting in the video is “The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning the Destruction” by Rembrandt.  I think that was painted in 1630, but don’t quote me on that.  Art History was not my best subject in school.

Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah

The finale offers only consolation, not a solution to man’s crisis of faith.  We have to wait until the “Kaddish” to find some sort of renewal of faith in Bernstein’s symphonic output.  I hope Lenny found some peace for himself before he left this world.  His career surely gave a lot of joy to audiences everywhere.



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