The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah"

About the Work

Image for Leonard Bernstein Composer: Leonard Bernstein
© Richard Freed

Bernstein composed his First Symphony in 1943 and conducted the premier on January 28 of the following year in a concert of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with Jennie Tourel as his soloist. Howard Mitchell conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, with Joan Caplan as soloist, on December 8, 9 and 10, 1970; Aaron Copland conducted the most recent one, with Christa Ludwig as soloist, in the Wolf Trap concert celebrating Bernstein's 60th birthday, August 25, 1978.

The score, dedicated to the composer's father, calls for mezzo-soprano solo, piccolo, 1 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, wood block, piano, and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.

As most of the world knows, Leonard Bernstein shot up from obscurity to international celebrity literally overnight after stepping in for the indisposed Bruno Walter on very short notice to conduct a Sunday afternoon concert of the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1943. (Coincidentally, that was the 43rd birthday of Aaron Copland, a composer Bernstein had already met, exactly six years earlier, and whose music he was to champion for the rest of his life.) The concert was broadcast nationally. Bernstein was 25 years old and had just taken up the position of assistant conductor of the Philharmonic, under Artur Rodzinski; the following year was largely given over to establishing his credentials as a composer--with an unusually broad range. His next significant conducting date was with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (whose music director at that time, Fritz Reiner, had been his teacher) a little more than two months later, when he presided over the premiere of the present work; the soloist was the mezzo Jennie Tourel, who had sung his song cycle I Hate Music, with him at the piano, in a New York recital the night before that Sunday afternoon with the Philharmonic, and was to remain a close associate until her death in 1973. A few months later, on April 18, his ballet Fancy Free, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was introduced in New York, and before the year was out (December 13, 1944) his musical comedy On the Town, more or less an expansion of the scenario of Fancy Free, had its premiere in Boston. In a real sense, the symphony as much as the two stage works identified him as a composer whose surest impulses he himself did not hesitate to describe, many years later, and specifically in reference to his symphonies, as his "inner sense of theatricality." He acknowledged "a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way."

While Jeremiah is not as specifically "theatrical" as its two successors--the Second Symphony (with piano solo), after Auden's poem The Age of Anxiety (1949); the Third, Kaddish, with a solo singer, a narrator, and both adult and children's choruses, text by the composer (1963, dedicated to the memory of President Kennedy)--it is nonetheless entirely motivated by a clear and eminently sure-handed dramatic impulse. Bernstein explained that his motivation here was "not one of literalness, but of emotional quality." The three movements form a dramatic sequence: the prophet issues his solemn message; he is mocked by the people and their corrupt priests; the desolated city laments its fate.

The work is based in large part on Jewish liturgical traditions, and it is determinedly serious, even tragic, in its substance. In respect to its musical structure, it initiates a practice Bernstein was to follow in several of his large-scaled works, in which the thematic material of each new section is developed from that of the preceding one. His longtime associate and literary editor, Jack Gottlieb (himself a composer of a good deal of liturgical music), has pointed out further that the three movements of this symphony constitute "a giant sonata-form wherein the movements are, successively, the exposition, development and recapitulation."

The first movement, Prophecy, has a principal theme (first stated by the horns) that alludes to two specific liturgical sources. In his note for a performance by the composer and the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Gottlieb identified the first part of this theme as
coming from the final phrase of the . . . Amidah for festival mornings (standing silent prayer by the congregation of the "Eighteen Blessings," repeated in chant by the cantor), and the second half from the K'rovoh (poetic expansion of the "Eighteen Blessings" by the cantor)." The solemnity of the Amidah, one of the most important prayers in the entire liturgy, is mirrored in the movement, like the opening act of a three-act play. Each movement eventually utilizes both halves of the theme in various guises. . . .
The second movement, Profanation, opens with a theme derived, according to Mr. Gottlieb, from the Ashkenazic cantillation of the Prophets. The mockery of Jeremiah by the corrupt priesthood leads to a "pagan celebration" in which the cantillation is distorted into "violent, dance-like, almost jazzy rhythms"--and in the midst of which the theme of the preceding movement is heard, in the nature of a solemn warning, from the horns that had introduced it.

The symphony concludes with a Lamentation delivered in words as well as music. The musical sources here are identified by Mr. Gottlieb as "the Ashkenazic cantillation of Lamentations 1:1, the litugical penitential mode used on S'lichoth (Service of Forgiveness) and from a High Holy Day mode, and finally, free cantorial improvisation. Thematic allusions to the first movement indicate that the Prophecy has been fulfilled . . . " The Hebrew text sung by the mezzo-soprano is from the Book of Lamentations, Chapter 1, verses 1-4; Chapter 4, verses 14-15; and Chapter 5, verses 20-21; the text given here in English is from the King James Version.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she
become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and
princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks:
among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends
have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.

Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because
of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no
rest: all her prosecutors overtook her between the straits.

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned . . .

They have wandered as blind men in the streets, they have
polluted themselves with blood, so that men could not touch their
garments. They cried unto them, Depart ye; it is unclean; depart,
depart, touch not . . .

Wherefore doest thou forget us fore ever, and forsake us so
long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord . . .