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ClassicsOnline Home » BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 3, 'Kaddish' / Chichester Psalms
Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish"
"Every son, at one point or other, defies his father, fights him, departs
from him only to return to him - if he is lucky - closer and more secure than
before… All our great Judaic personalities of the past, including Abraham, who
founded Judaism, and Moses and the prophets, all argued with God. They argued
with God the way you argue with somebody who’s so close to you that you love
so much, that you can really fight. You know how the more you love someone,
the more you can get angry with them, and when you have a reconciliation, the
more close you become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of
this piece." (Leonard Bernstein)
One of the iconic musical figures of our age, Leonard Bernstein left a singular
legacy as a composer of classical symphonies and Broadway shows, a compelling
conductor, and a uniquely gifted communicator.
Also central to his creative outlook and artistic identity was the highly
individual way in which he expanded fundamental elements of his Jewish heritage
to communicate universal values and concerns.
It is in his Kaddish, Symphony No. 3, perhaps more than in any other
of his compositions, that Bernstein brings together his Jewish spiritual roots
and his lifelong concern for the plight of a floundering humanity.
Born in the crucible of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation,
this work seems just as timely today, when humanity faces daunting challenges
ranging from terrorism to AIDS, and grapples with the same consequences of misunderstanding
that so troubled the composer. Bernstein's plea for peace and reconciliation
resounds louder than ever in our own ears.
Never completely satisfied with this intensely personal cri de coeur,
which he dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated as
it was being completed, the composer constantly reworked the piece for 14 years.
His final authorized version of 1977 is the basis of this Milken Archive CD.
The disc also includes Chichester Psalms, another Bernstein work of
Judaic inspiration firmly established in the mainstream classical repertoire.
Gerard Schwarz conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir,
with Willard White as the speaker and soprano Yvonne Kenny, on these all-new
Prayer and Poetry
Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish has probably introduced more members of
the general public to Jewish liturgy in its original language than any other
An intensely dramatic, theatrical concert piece, it is based on two aspects
of Judaism: one liturgical - the Kaddish ("sanctification"),
a prayer of praise and affirmation recited during every communal Jewish worship
service; and one literary-poetic - the Hassidic image of a candid dialogue with
"The Kaddish prayer embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God's
unparalleled greatness," explains Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil
Levin in his extensive essay accompanying the CD. "It is the ultimate expression
of unqualified glorification, praise and worship of God."
In his essay, Dr. Levin traces the historical development of this prayer and
explains its various roles within the liturgy: to mark divisions between portions
of the service, to celebrate the conclusions of study sessions and, in perhaps
its best-known but by no means primary usage, as an affirmation of faith by
those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a death.
Except for a congregational response and the concluding sentence, the language
of the kaddish is Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews for approximately
1,500 years following the Babylonian captivity (6th - 5th century B.C.E.).
Leonard Bernstein built the Kaddish Symphony around an impassioned
narration and three settings of the kaddish prayer: first in an agitated
tone by the chorus, secondly as a soaring soprano lullaby, and then in a fugal
He compiled the narration himself, and asserted that the speaker represented
his own voice. Expressing both a crisis of faith and his ultimate hope for the
redemption of humanity, the composer focuses on the issues of mankind's ultimate
survival - the threats of mutual destruction and of spiritual and moral decline
arising from ignorance and intolerance.
He fears the death of humanity as mankind stands on the brink of an ultimate
cataclysm, in which the special relationship between God and man that is the
cornerstone of God's covenant with the Jewish people is in jeopardy. Each partner
in this reciprocal bond must restore faith in the other, or there will be one,
This dialogue between man and God stands at the very center of Bernstein's
conception. In his view, all mankind, not only the Jewish people, must rethink
its relationship with God, and God must consider the dangerous brink to which
humanity has come.
Arguing with God
As the Kaddish Symphony unfolds, man is at times furious with God,
but is also supplicating and humble; ultimately, faith wins out and the bond
emerges stronger for having been tested. As Bernstein himself put it: "…All
our great Judaistic personalities of the past, including Abraham, who founded
Judaism, and Moses and the prophets, all argued with God… You know how the more
you love someone, the more you can get angry with them, and when you have a
reconciliation, the more close you become than ever. Something like that happens
in the course of this piece."
An "altercation with the Almighty" might seem audacious if not downright
blasphemous, but Neil Levin reminds us that "confrontations and disputations
with God by men of intense faith are well rooted in a number of Jewish religious,
folk, and literary traditions." They flowered especially in 18th- and 19th-century
Hassidic thought, with its emphasis on serving God through love and ecstatic
joy rather than fear.
One of the most charismatic Hassidic leaders, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (ca.
1740–1810), was hailed for his legendary confrontations with God, which often
were embodied in folk songs, the most famous of which is "A din torah mit
got" (a "court session" with God"), or "The Kaddish
of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev." (Incidentally, this song was performed
by the famous American black baritone Paul Robeson, the legendary American opera
tenor Jan Peerce, and other luminaries.)
This imaginary, poetically convened "trial" in which Levi Yitzhak
argued the case of the Jewish people's plight before God and demanded Divine
intervention clearly informed Bernstein's overall dramatic conception of the
Kaddish Symphony; the second movement is in fact entitled Din Torah.
One cannot help but relate Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony to the High
Holy Days, for just as man, during this period of intense reflection and self-examination,
is required to call himself to account for his thoughts and actions during the
preceding year, Leonard Bernstein, in this work, calls God to account for the
predicament humanity finds itself in, and implores both man and God to renew
their ancient covenant before it is too late.
Bernstein considered the Kaddish Symphony the most striking example
of his own 12-tone writing, which co-exists in this work with jazz inflections
and characteristics of his idiosyncratic, more accessible style. The tortuous
12-tone idiom eventually yields to a simpler tonality which, the composer acknowledged,
was meant to express the resolution of conflict and the re-affirmation of faith.
Scored for large orchestra with an unusually large and diverse battery of
percussion, the Kaddish Symphony was jointly commissioned by the Koussevitzky
Music Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but received its world premiere
in Tel Aviv in 1963 as a memorial for President Kennedy, with the composer leading
the Israel Philharmonic, mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel and actress Hanna Rovina.
Charles Munch conducted the Boston Symphony in the American premiere the following
month, also with Jennie Tourel but with Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein's wife,
as the speaker.
The companion work on this Milken Archive disc is Bernstein's well-known Chichester
Psalms, an alternately exuberant and lyrical setting of Psalm texts for
chorus, boy soloist and orchestra that has been performed countless times worldwide
since its 1965 premiere.
Commissioned in an ecumenical spirit by England's Chichester Cathedral, it
is often programmed to point up the connection between Jewish and Christian
liturgical traditions. From the outset, the composer was granted broad artistic
freedom, encouraged in his conviction that the text had to retain the original
Hebrew, and was even urged to incorporate characteristics of his Broadway scores.
Indeed, the rhythmic thrust, jazzy inflections and melodic expansiveness of
West Side Story are clearly evident in this work.
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BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 3, 'Kaddish' / Chichester ...