About this Recording
8.559407 - BERNSTEIN: Jewish Legacy (A)
English 

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
A JEWISH LEGACY

 

About the Composer

At the 1969 funeral of Leonard Bernstein's father — at Temple Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts — Rabbi Israel Kazis eulogized Samuel J. Bernstein as one who was completely involved in worship by always having "his mind in contemplation, his heart in love, his voice in song and his limbs in dance". Like father, like son. Early on, critics often were distracted by the maestro's dancelike style as a conductor. But was this deliberate conduct? He said no, and certainly never for the show-off reasons faultfinders may have ascribed to him. His podium manner must have arisen out of a burning need to communicate the composer's thought process to both orchestra and audience, whatever the physical means required to make it manifest.

At times it was as if he were — as in the title of one of his songs from On the Town — 'Carried Away'. One is reminded of Psalm 35:10, kol atzmotai tomar'na! (All my bones shall express [the Lord's greatness].) This is the article of faith by which Leonard Bernstein lived his life and created his works.

It is one thing to be carried away as a performer — and quite another matter as a composer. A conductor displays his art with a finished product; a composer is concerned with the yet-to-be, the making of that product. There are, of course, red-hot jazz improvisers or cantors possessed by spiritual fervor who can achieve the best of both worlds simultaneously, as creator and re-creator, and Bernstein, in his own compositions, worked mightily to realize that paradoxical state of controlled spontaneity above all else.

His earliest memory of music took place somewhere around 1926 at Mishkan Tefila (then located in Roxbury, Massachusetts ), where, to quote him from a 1989 interview, "I felt something stir within me, as though I were becoming subconsciously aware of music as my raison d'être ". In fact, his first surviving completed piece was a setting of Psalm 148, which he recalled as having been written between 1932 and 1935. During the following decades he was to write some twenty works on Jewish themes — about one quarter of his orchestral works and half of his choral compositions, as well as songs and other pieces that have had broad appeal for Jews and non-Jews everywhere.

The greater part of Bernstein's output was sparked by the interaction of his American conditioning and his Jewish heritage, as in Symphony no. 3 ( Kaddish ) and Chichester Psalms, both written in Hebrew-Aramaic but with a touch of his West Side Story sound. Other Jewish works are electric with American kinetic energy, even though they are concerned with events that took place "over there". Among them, Jeremiah, his 1942 symphony written in response to early reports of German massacres of Jews, and Halil, his flute "rhapsody" about young lives laid waste in the Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973.

More fascinating is how some of his non-Jewish works are flavored with "Hebraisms", including his musical comedy On the Town. Two songs from that show, 'Ya Got Me' and 'Some Other Time', are redolent of an Ashkenazi prayer mode known as adonai malakh. Other examples are to be found in the finale of his Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, and in Mass, his theater piece based on the Roman church rite, imbued with hidden Jewish symbolism.

Many people pleaded with Bernstein to write a complete synagogue service. His setting of a single prayer text from the Sabbath evening liturgy, Hashkivenu, was his only such accomplishment. However, I have come across some undated notes he jotted down about a work he was contemplating:

A Cantata on Hebrew-Yiddish Materials That Move Me

What are the Jewish roots I long for? Nostalgia for youth? Guilt towards my father? First real cultural exposure? First real music I heard (Braslavsky! [Solomon G. Braslavsky, the organist and music director during Bernstein's youth at Temple Mishkan Tefila, and an accomplished synagogue composer previously active in Vienna. ]). Seeking a larger identity — with a race or creed? — with a supernatural force? (But the latter word doesn't account for so many "Yiddish" responses.) Seeking any identity? Common roots with siblings? Speaker (English), the singer (Heb. & Yiddish).

He concluded with prayer titles and Bible and Haggada passages: Yigdal, Shalom aleikhem, Judith, Psalms (proud humility), Song of Songs, "And it came to pass at Midnight" ( Vay'hi bahatzi hallay'la ), or dayenu (It would have sufficed).

It is regrettable that he never wrote that cantata, but elements from the above-cited texts do exist in various works of his.

Bernstein was an unabashed eclectic, an ecumenical lover of the world, which loved him in return. This too was part of his Jewish nature, for Judaism is based on communal experience. (Jewish prayer, for example, is largely on behalf of k'lal yisra'el — the entire people. There are many fewer Hebrew prayers for the individual.) Bernstein was fiercely loyal to lifelong friendships that took precedence over his work. On the other hand, idleness made him melancholy. Music was his fix, and he experienced it as few of us ever will. It is no accident that he identified himself so keenly with the youthful fiddler who drives his listeners to frenzied ecstasy in the Yiddish poem Af mayn khasene from Arias and Barcarolles.

I recall how drained he was after a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony in the late 1980s. He said he was "on the brink", meaning he was transported to a place that had no beginning or end. At such enviable moments Bernstein was suspended — as in the subtitle of Anski's classic play The Dybbuk — between two worlds. In that timeless void, he must have achieved the Hassidic ideal of spiritual fusion with the divine spirit, known as d'vekut — a kind of cosmic glue that leads one toward a sphere where mystical powers dwell, where joy is its own reward. Some of that transcendent uplift can be sensed in the opening of his Dybbuk ballet.

Bernstein may not have been traditionally observant of Judaic religious practice, but he was deeply Jewish in every other way. He once described himself as a "chip off the old tanakh " (the Hebrew acronym for the Bible). As a teenager, he even flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a rabbi. As it turned out, he did become a kind of rabbi, albeit without portfolio, and in fact, Hebrew Union College awarded him an honorary degree. He was a thoroughly imbued, inbred, and — as he labeled his "Diaspora Dances" from Jubilee Games — a "socio-cultural, geo-Judaic" Jew by being: a practitioner of and believer in tz'daka (charitable giving and sharing as an obligation); a benefactor for a host of students, endowing scholarships, providing instruments, and sponsoring talented youngsters; a fierce devotee of book learning, central to Jewish culture, and a master of wordplay as well; a champion of the State of Israel even before its founding, as performer and artistic ambassador; a musician-soldier who performed in the field during wartime conditions under threat of military attack; an eloquent sermonizer on nuclear disarmament from synagogue and church pulpits; a defender of causes for the oppressed and disenfranchised in his benefit concerts for Amnesty International and for victims of AIDS in Music for Life concerts; an inspiring teacher, in the Talmudic style, for a generation of music lovers, many of whom were first introduced to the delights of music through his televised concerts; a counselor to the troubled, and a source of Solomonic wisdom, which he freely dispensed to anyone within earshot (sometimes, truth to tell, not always welcome); and one of the few celebrated 20th century composers whose catalogue consists in large proportion of works on Jewish themes.

No question about it, Leonard Bernstein was one of God's blessed ones. When I was a music major in college, I wondered what it would have been like to have known Mendelssohn, Liszt, Mahler, and Gershwin. Now I know. Lenny was a bit of all of them and more. He was my mentor, and I was privileged to be in his company. May his memory be for a blessing throughout eternity.

Jack Gottlieb

---

 

Program Notes

 

Israelite Chorus, from incidental music to The Firstborn
Premiere recording
Premiere: 29 April 1958, New York City

The Firstborn, a verse drama by Christopher Fry, was produced by Roger Stevens in conjunction with the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, in tribute to the State of Israel's tenth anniversary. The first public hearing of this choral work was given at an American Jewish Congress fund-raising dinner at the Essex House in New York City on 22 April 1958. The music was on tape, which was how it was presented during its Broadway run and, later, in Israel. Sets were by Boris Aronson. (The world premiere of the play, with music by John Hotchkis, was in 1948 at the Edinburgh Festival.) Fry's play is set in Egypt at the time of the Exodus account of the plagues visited by God upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn Egyptian males, which finally induced the pharaoh to declare the release of the Israelite slaves. Among the distinguished cast were Anthony Quayle (who directed and also played the role of Moses), Katharine Cornell, Torin Thatcher (as Seti, the pharaoh), Mildred Natwick, and Michael Wager, a close friend of the composer's who persuaded Bernstein to write the music in the first place. In addition to the choral number, there was a solo song by the pharaoh's daughter with lute accompaniment: 'Teusret's Song', words by Fry, sung live by Kathleen Widdoes. The Israelite Chorus, based on incidents described in Exodus 12, is marked "allegro ruvido" (rude, noisy), which describes the piece precisely, with its choral canonic imitations in an Israeli hora-like dance rhythm, shofar-like horn calls, three sets of wild hand-drum rhythms, and a screaming clarinet at the end — a whoop of joy anticipating the freedom that lies ahead for the Hebrew slaves.

 

Invocation and Trance, from Dybbuk
Premiere recording of the piano-vocal version
Premiere (orchestral version): 16 May 1974, New York City
Conducted by the composer;
Choreography by Jerome Robbins

For rehearsals of a ballet, a short score or piano reduction is required of the composer — sometimes, as in this case, reduced from full orchestra to two pianos, not necessarily intended for concert performance. This piece, however, is equally effective in both full orchestral dress and the simpler dual keyboard format. Based on the famous Yiddish play The Dybbuk, by S. Anski (Shloyme Zanvl Rappaport), Bernstein's ballet version uses Hebrew texts selected by the composer. They are sung intermittently throughout the ballet by a tenor-baritone duo representing the voices of the two shtetl (eastern European market town) communities of Brinnits and Miropolye, in the Pale of Settlement (the area in which Jews were permitted to live) within the Czarist Empire at the turn of the 20th century. Texts used in the ballet are taken from the Bible — the oath of allegiance between David and Jonathan; Song of Songs; and the curse found in Deuteronomy (27:22); and from Kaddish, the established Jewish doxology extolling God's greatness. The excerpt recorded here opens the ballet. The text is from the havdala (distinction) ritual that concludes the Sabbath — a bittersweet ceremony in its farewell to the peace and restfulness of the day. There is a musical reference in this opening scene to a late-19th century Yiddish folksong, Di alte kashe (the perennial question about meaning, to which the only answer is " tra di ri di ram ").

 

 

Psalm 148 (1935)
Words adapted by the composer
Premiere recording; not previously performed in public

There was considerable consideration given as to whether to include Bernstein's early composition on this recording, as it gives no indication of his eventual compositional style. Yet it does reveal the musical environment to which he was exposed as a youngster at his family's congregation — specifically the music of Solomon Braslavsky. In 1962 Bernstein subsidized the publication of Braslavsky's setting of one of the central prayers of the High Holy Day liturgy, Un'tane tokef, in appreciation of the man who had meant so much to him in his youth. We hear some of that Braslavsky influence in this Psalm setting, which in turn refers to Weber, Mendelssohn, and other Romantic composers. The work begins with grave chords, à la Handel, but with Wagnerian harmonies. There is even a hint of Mahler in the Allegro agitato section. The manuscript is dated 5 September 1935. Bernstein rediscovered the piece in the mid-1980s, and even though he recognized its Victorian excesses as well as its schoolboyish weaknesses, he expressed an affection for its innocent sweetness.

 

Rina (1947)
Premiere recording of the choral version

This piece, in a different version, appeared on Jewish Holiday Dances and Songs (Vox), a 78-rpm recording produced by Corrine Chochem, which also included settings by Milhaud, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Diamond, Eisler, Toch, Trude Rittman (who later arranged Bernstein's music for Peter Pan ), Wolpe, and Kosakoff, and was conducted by Max Goberman, who subsequently conducted the original production of West Side Story. No score survives. The version presented here was transcribed from the original recording, but choral forces have been substituted where the original scoring included strings. The tune is known according to the lyrics — yesh lanu mayim, mayim b'sason (We have water, water with joy!) — an expression of thanksgiving by early halutzim — the pioneering Jewish settlers in Palestine.

 

Three Wedding Dances, from Bridal Suite (1960)
Premiere recording

These dances are excerpted from a pièce d'occasion written for songwriter-lyricist Adolph Green and actress comedienne Phyllis Newman upon their marriage. The suite, "in 2 parts with 3 encores", was intended to be played side by side by the Greens, Bernstein's friends and theater colleagues. Part I opens with piano secundo playing Bach's C-Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, while piano primo simultaneously plays 'Just in Time' from the Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne score for Bells Are Ringing. Part II, comprising the three dances, is subtitled Bell, Book, and Rabbi ( pace John Van Druten). The three dances comprise The First Waltz (Canon) in which "he leads" and "she follows". Nine bars later the order is reversed, and then, five bars after that, the theme is marked "Who is this third voice?" No. 2 is a cha-cha-cha, and No. 3 is a hora (the popular Israeli dance) marked "Fast and Jewish".

 

Y'varekh'kha
from Concerto for Orchestra
Premiere recording of the final section in the organ version
Premiere: 15 December 1986, New York City
Kurt Ollmann, baritone, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by the composer

Originally conceived as Opening Prayer, a work written to inaugurate the newly renovated Carnegie Hall, this piece is now the concluding fourth movement — known as Benediction — of Bernstein's Concerto for Orchestra (Jubilee Games). This is certainly consistent with the text — the threefold priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), part of the conclusion of the liturgy for traditional morning services. The free-floating vocal line and the serenity of the organ's sustained harmonic structure (an F-sharp minor triad against an F-sharp major triad, underpinned by a pitch of D natural) present a counterbalance to the agitated aural environment of Bernstein's setting of Vayomer elohim, also included on this recording.

 

Halil (Flute): Nocturne for Flute, Percussion and Pia no
Premiere recording of the chamber version
Premiere (orchestral version): 27 May 1981
Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer

The composer's program note says, "This work is dedicated 'To the Spirit of Yadin and to His Fallen Brothers'. The reference is to Yadin Tannenbaum, a nineteen-year-old Israeli flutist who, in 1973, at the height of his musical powers, was killed in his tank in the Sinai." Bernstein was reluctant to reveal that the pyrotechnical cadenza section depicted the slaughter of the Israeli soldier, but critics were quick to note this programmatic aspect of the work. As with many composers, Bernstein recycled musical materials when they suited his needs. Halil, for example, uses rejected material from his Dybbuk and from music written for the fiftieth anniversary of the CBS network. But it is all organic, and as Bernstein notes, the work is "like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolation of art, love and the hope for peace. It is a kind of night-music, which, from its opening 12-tone row to its ambiguously diatonic final cadence, is an on-going conflict of nocturnal images: wish-dreams, nightmares, repose, sleeplessness, night-terrors and sleep itself, Death's twin brother. I never knew Yadin Tannenbaum, but I know his spirit."

 

Simhu na (1947)
Premiere recording of the choral-piano version

This is a setting of a well-known Hebrew song by Matityahu Weiner (words and music), which, like so many other songs of the early idealistic adherents of the Zionist movement who came to Palestine to settle in and rebuild the land, has achieved folksong status. This arrangement was done for the Pacific Symphonetta and Chorus at the invitation of dancer Corrine Chochem for her album Four Horah Dances (Alco Records) and was conducted by film composer Victor Young. The original 78-rpm recording also included settings by Jewish composers Milhaud, Diamond, and Toch. The piano-choral transcription from that recording was realized in 1954. The sheet music indicates that this was accomplished by R.K., the initials of Reuven Kosakoff (1898–1987), a composer devoted to Jewish-related works. No original score survives.

 

Af mayn khasene (At My Wedding), from Arias and Barcarolles
Poem by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal
Premiere: 9 May 1988, New York City
Mordechai Kaston, baritone; the composer and Michael Tilson Thomas, piano

Bernstein's choice of this Yiddish poem alludes, perhaps subconsciously, to his early conflict with his father over his career choice. Like the elders in the poem, Sam Bernstein was initially dubious about his son's musical aspirations. The poem's main appeal to the composer had to be its depiction of music's magical and youthful power to transform hidebound elders into frenzied enthusiasts. As it turned out, the father eventually embraced his son's music making. Of particular interest is the composer's commentary in the piano parts. At the words nor a vunder (what a wonder), the organ-like piano parts are marked "pp, a vision". At a lebediker bronem (a living wellspring), the cadence is annotated with the word "amen". At un dos fidele hot gekusht (and the little fiddle kissed), piano primo is marked "fiddly" against piano secundo's descriptive "waltzer", while the last bar carries the indication "ff frantic".

 

Vayomer elohim (ca. 1989)
Premiere recording; not previously performed in public

This setting was found posthumously among Bernstein's papers in a folder marked "1989", but the musical atmosphere suggests his style in Dybbuk (1974). Only ten bars long, this rumination on the mystery of creation is, by extension, a tone painting of artistic creativity, suggesting something formed out of nothingness.

 

Yigdal (1949)
Premiere recording

In 1950, an important anthology of Jewish songs, The Songs We Sing, was published by the United Synagogue of America (the lay umbrella organization of the Conservative movement). The collection was compiled and edited by Harry Coopersmith, an influential Jewish music educator and music director of the Board of Jewish Education in New York City. Bernstein's setting, as a round, of an excerpt from this well-known hymn appears in section 3, entitled "Favorite Songs — Old and New". Some instrumental touches have been added for this recording to augment the accompaniment.

 

Four Sabras (ca. 1950)
Premiere recording; not previously performed in public

The sabra is a cactus-type plant with tough thorns on the outside and sweet flesh inside. In common usage, it is applied to native-born Israelis. The Sabras in this piece are: 1) Ilana, the Dreamer ; 2) Idele, the Hassidele (little Jew, the little Hassid); 3) Yosi, the Jokester ; and 4) Dina, the Tomboy Who Weeps Alone.

On the cover page of the original manuscript, the title is given as Six Sabras, with an indication of two possible additions — a kibbutznik (member of a collective agricultural settlement) and an [Israeli] boy scout, without names — but these two pieces were not composed. Some detective work has been necessary in order to determine even the approximate date of composition. The title page is stamped ISRAELI MUSIC PUBLICATIONS (IMP), suggesting that the piece might have been requested by that publisher — possibly as a set of children's piano pieces — or, conversely, that it was simply a handy piece of paper found by Bernstein when he was conducting in Israel in 1948. He was there again in 1950, briefly in 1953, and then not until 1957. In any case, it can be established that these vignettes were written prior to 1956, since lIana, the first portrait, became 'Candide's Lament' in Bernstein's celebrated score for Candide. (It was also known as a piano piece written for an anniversary occasion for a friend, Cesarina Riso.) No. 2, Idele, recalls Mussorgsky's Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, from Pictures at an Exhibition. Bernstein's version of Samuel Goldenberg is a rav — a rabbinical-type teacher who Talmudically intones lessons to Bernstein's version of Schmuyle — known as Idele (Yudel, the name of Bernstein's paternal grandfather). Idele is otherwise distracted — i.e., the pianist's right hand — while the rav continues to drone on in the left hand. No. 3, Yosi, may refer to a friend of Bernstein's, Yossi Stern, an Israeli artist known for his incisive cartoons. The rhythms are reminiscent of the "jump" sequence from West Side Story's 'Dance at the Gym'. The middle lento section of No. 4, Dina, found a later echo in the score for On the Waterfront.

 

Silhouette (Galilee) (1951)
Words by Bernstein
Premiere: 13 February 1955, Washington, D.C.
Katherine Hanse, soprano; Evelyn Swarthout, piano

Bernstein wrote this piece in honor of the forty-first birthday of his friend mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel. The song incorporates an old Lebanese folksong, the Arabic words of which are paraphrased in the lyrics: "The boys in the dark olive groves assemble." Bernstein can be heard singing this tune in the 1967 film Journey to Jerusalem.

 

Hashkivenu (1945)
Premiere recording

The liturgical text hashkivenu is recited at all evening services, with some text variation between the weekday recitation and that on Sabbaths and other holy days. The version here is for Sabbath eve, and Bernstein's three-part division in the music is dictated by the text's structure. The words are meditative in the first and third sections, and vociferously dramatic in the middle. The outer parts concern the hoped-for mood of peace upon retiring for the evening — the first in the form of an invocation, the second as a benediction. These have been set with the same simple expressive melody, almost a plainchant in the Phrygian mode, and stated as a twofold canon. Despite the contrapuntal texture, this creates a stasis, resulting in a heterophony that symbolically mirrors the stability of peace. Although the arch (middle) section is rhythmically vigorous, the harmonic content remains relatively static. The tripartite formal division establishes the contrast between outer and inner designs. Within the adagio phrases on either end, supporting pillars to the architectural plan, each of the three sections is further subdivided into three sections, delineated by tempo markings. This setting was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman for the annual service of new music at New York 's Park Avenue Synagogue, where it was premiered in 1945 by Cantor Putterman with the expanded synagogue choir conducted by Max Helfman and Isidor Geller as organist. As part of a letter to his secretary, Helen Coates, dated 3 March 1945, Bernstein wrote a poem entitled: "On Not Having an Idea in My Head for a Setting of Hashkiveinu!"

Oh deign, foolish Muse
To sit upon my shoulder,
I've got to sing a Blues
Ere I am one week older.
The trouble of the Jews
In my dear guts does smolder
But sparkless is the fuse:
My writing arm grows colder.
I ask not, stupid Muse,
For a Tristan and Isolde,
Just a small Berceuse —
But ere I'm one week older!!!

Evidently the composer was answered by his Muse, since the work was premiered ten weeks later.

Jack Gottlieb

 


Close the window