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Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish"

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Axelrod, conductor / Samuel Pisar, narrator & Kelley Nassief, soprano, Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish" Jun. 2 - 4, 2011
© Thomas May


Barber's Adagio remains among the best-known examples of music whose emotional content has been reinforced by later associations not consciously intended by its composer. Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral, the Adagio became the default choice to mark such solemn occasions as the memorials held after the 9/11 attacks. Leonard Bernstein revealed that even music at the very core of the concert repertory—music whose "message" had long since become blunted by overfamiliarity —could disclose an unforeseen contemporary relevance when he transformed the finale of Beethoven's Ninth into an "Ode to Freedom" on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

With his own Third Symphony, Bernstein created a work that already seemed uncannily attuned, from the very moment of its premiere in December 1963, to meanings he had not anticipated. The composer's choice of the Kaddish prayer as a framework for the symphony (hence its title) acquired a sudden new significance following the shock of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Yet the true scope of Bernstein's vision was, to some extent, obscured by the text he himself had crafted for the accompanying narration; Bernstein later admitted that he found it frustratingly inadequate. Samuel Pisar's extraordinarily powerful text, grounded in the suffering he experienced as a survivor of the Holocaust, has opened up an entirely new perspective on the Kaddish Symphony. Revealing dimensions of the score that had lain dormant in previous performances, Pisar adds a significant chapter to the work's reception. Even more, Pisar has posthumously reawakened interest in a side of Bernstein many critics continue to undervalue or even glibly cast aside. For all the popularity his works for the stage have enjoyed, what Bernstein achieved in his "serious" concert music is long overdue for reappraisal.

The seed for the Kaddish Symphony was planted the year after On the Waterfront, in 1955, in the form of a new commission from the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. Distractions from Bernstein's rapidly accelerating career delayed serious work on the project until the summer of 1963, when he drafted the score in a state of fevered concentration. In fact, during the frenetic decade he spent at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was able to compose just one other new composition, the much shorter Chichester Psalms of 1965 (a piece which is already anticipated by parts of the Kaddish.)

Over the intervening years Bernstein decided to create a symphonic work incorporating a significant role for a speaker. Humphrey Burton reports that the composer had been inspired by the performance given in 1958 by his wife, Chilean-born actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre (1922-1978), in the speaking role of Arthur Honegger's dramatic oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au bücher. Other works such as Schoenberg's Kol Nidre and The Airborne Symphony by his friend Marc Bliztstein, which Bernstein had premiered in 1946, provided further models for a genre that poses an unusual challenge from the outset. Creating an artful blend of music and narration becomes considerably more difficult when sustained across a large-scale work. (The late Peter Lieberson made a recent contribution to this genre in his final composition, Remembering JFK, which the National Symphony premiered in February.)

Bernstein had finished the music in short score by August 1963 but was still orchestrating it when he received word of Kennedy's assassination. For a televised musical memorial, he chose to lead the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Second Symphony (the "Resurrection"), a work to which Bernstein had already implicitly alluded in his own Kaddish: Not just by writing a choral symphony that features a vastly expanded orchestra but by interpolating his own text as well. (Mahler wrote new verses which he added to the Klopstock poem he set in the finale movement.)  He followed this with an official dedication of the Kaddish Symphony "to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy," conducting the Israel Philharmonic in the world premiere in Tel Aviv.

Earlier, however, Bernstein (who famously described himself as "a chip off the old Tanach," i.e., biblical scripture) had expressed anxieties about his decision to unveil the work in Israel, fearing that his iconoclastic text might offend the Israeli public; in the event, no serious controversy emerged. The ancient Kaddish prayer (which is in Aramaic, though the last lines of the Complete Kaddish are in Hebrew) stands at the heart of the symphony and is set in full three different times across its three movements. As Neil W. Levin writes, the prayer holds a position of central importance for Jews as "the supreme acknowledgment of God's unparalleled greatness."

Bernstein might therefore have seemed to be flirting with blasphemous provocation by juxtaposing such a sacred prayer with references to God as "angry, wrinkled Old Majesty" whose covenant is a "tin bargain." At the same time, rebellious laments that address God directly are a recognized, long-standing part of Jewish tradition. They can be found in the Bible as well as in folklore in which the deity is called to trial for forgetting his people. Bernstein clearly had these traditional precedents in mind for the Kaddish's overall structure of a dialogue that both questions and praises God and, specifically, for the central movement, titled Din-Torah, which is staged as a trial scene of "judgment by law."

Moreover, the Kaddish (the word for "holy" in Aramaic) is above all an expression of praise and worship for the Creator which contains no references whatsoever to death. Its popular association with mourning for the dead—reinforced by the dedication to Kennedy—evolved relatively late (not before the Middle Ages). Jack Gottlieb, the composer's assistant at the time, aptly remarks that Bernstein "exploits the dualistic overtones of the prayer" as paean and requiem alike. The essential novelty of Bernstein's original text was to set up a tension between praise of the wonder of creation and despair over humanity's squandering of its promise, as represented by the specter of nuclear annihilation.

That topic had, of course, taken on particular urgency in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Bernstein had been less than comfortable from the start with his own text, which he undertook after an unsuccessful attempt to collaborate with poet Robert Lowell ("and so I'm elected, poet or no poet," as he wrote to his sister). In 1977 he gave the symphony an overhaul, tightening up the score and revising his text. He also decided the Speaker could be played by a man or a woman. Bernstein had initially identified the Speaker as a female role because of his wife Felicia's inspiration (she performed it at the U.S. premiere and on his recording) and also, as he later suggested, because woman represents "that part of man that intuits God."

Even these revisions failed to satisfy, and other alternatives have been proposed since his death (including a new text by daughter Jamie Bernstein). Yet Bernstein's discovery in his final decade of Samuel Pisar's memoir Of Blood and Hope, which recounts his ordeal in the Holocaust and subsequent triumph in deeply stirring, unaffected prose, opened the composer's eyes to the possibility for a new collaboration. Bernstein sensed that he had belatedly found someone who could provide the counterweight to his music—precisely what he intuited was still lacking. (Pisar's accompanying essay details the genesis of their partnership.)  A major weakness in Bernstein's original text—a rambling, existential rant filled with Beat-flavored imagery—is that the anger it expresses seems abstract and weakly motivated. Pisar's text and performance, in contrast, root the emotions in authentic experience, thus creating the foundation needed if the catharsis toward which the music strives is to prove effective. The result has been an unexpected "afterlife" for this last of Bernstein's three symphonies.

In his musical conception, Bernstein resorts to several interlinking devices to develop the basic tension between despair and affirmation coursing through the Kaddish Symphony. For one, he gives a new face to the cliché of "darkness to light" (i.e., the paradigm of a "victorious" breakthrough from minor to major found in Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth). Bernstein updates this by pitting atonality against a dewy, almost folk-like diatonicism—well before this device, too, had become fashionable. Heavily contrapuntal textures and grinding harmonies evoke frustration or menace, yet Bernstein's polyphonic writing can also surge with exuberant energy, as in the fugato finale for chorus. Rhythm and meter reflect a similar mutability: in an especially arresting passage of the final movement, the Scherzo's quickfire pace, mocking and mercurial, gives way to rude, jazzy swagger before a consoling melody flows calmly along the basic triple meter.

Architecturally, the piece is cast in three movements, though the conventional template of four movements is embedded within this scheme: a lengthy section (simply called "Finale") concludes the third movement, counterbalancing its opening Scherzo and resolving tensions from the first movement. The symphonic model brings out yet another basic tension, namely, between the autonomous musical logic of Bernstein's thematic transformations and the essential theatricality of his plan.

The Speaker's Invocation sets the tone for the first movement; the orchestra meanwhile pronounces the core motifs that generate much of Bernstein's material. His atonality in the Kaddish is largely atmospheric, simply one among its many vocabularies. An enigmatic ascending phrase of three notes (inflected by a grace note) has a particularly brooding quality, suggesting a musical emblem of doubt, while the composer introduces a melancholy legato theme that will flower into the hopeful melody of the final movement. The chorus, hushed in the opening passage, erupts at full force in the rhythmically jagged first iteration of the Kaddish, reinforced by clapping and shouting. (Gottlieb notes that Bernstein associated this music with "David dancing ecstatically round the Holy Ark.")

Their proclamations of "Amen" segue directly into the second movement. Here Bernstein's expanded percussion comes into the foreground for the "trial scene." A brief a cappella choral cadenza mashes eight entirely separate types of music together in a moment of chaos. (Pisar later recalls this musical image in his reference to "our global Babel.") Then follows a sublime, haunting passage as the soprano soloist enters for the first time for the second setting of the Kaddish prayer—this time in a simple lullaby of stepwise notes, gently rocking in a 5/8 meter. Among the work's many Mahlerian influences is the chamber-like scoring of woodwinds, reminiscent of Kindertotenlieder. The music grows animated but then returns to its initial serenity.

The final movement encompasses a highly contrasting emotional span and features the composer's most impressive flourishes of orchestration. Despite the lullaby's comforting tonality, it recedes like a mirage and must be regained. Bernstein's scherzo makes yet another nod to Mahler, spiking its references to vernacular music with acerbic irony. The spaciously Coplandesque melody that emerges, taken up by the boys' choir, recaptures the innocence of the second Kaddish, adding to the earlier nostalgia a sense of hope.

But this still is not the goal; the final breakthrough is left to be achieved in the Finale. Another dissonant outburst tears through the orchestra, leading to a deeply introspective Adagio and the Speaker's peroration. In his version, Pisar pleads for reconciliation and a vision of "our common home" as Bernstein's spacious melody takes wing across the orchestra. The chorus enters for a third and final setting of the Kaddish in counterpoint that brims with joy. Undeterred by a forceful return of the "doubt" motif from the opening amid their jubilation, they respond with a mighty crescendo on the word "Amen."