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8.559100 - BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 1 / Concerto for Orchestra
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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Symphony No. 1 ‘Jeremiah’ • Concerto for Orchestra ‘Jubilee Games’


Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1943 Carnegie Hall début leading the New York Philharmonic, stepping in at the last moment for an ailing Bruno Walter, surely ranks as one of the watershed events in the history of American music. It was against this background that the First Symphony (‘Jeremiah’) of Leonard Bernstein was first heard. Though initial sketches were begun in 1939 after Bernstein had moved to New York upon completion of his Harvard studies, it was a competition sponsored by the New England Conservatory of Music in 1942 that spurred the young composer to complete the work. Bernstein discovered that one of the chief judges was to be Sergey Koussevitzky, the legendary music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as mentor to the fledgling conductor. The piano score was completed in a mere ten days after learning of the competition. Amazingly, Bernstein enlisted the help of his sister Shirley and several friends, who completed the ink copy of the score while he orchestrated, keeping him primed with pots of coffee. The orchestration was completed in three days and nights. As it was too late to post the completed score by the 31st December deadline, Bernstein boarded a train to Boston and delivered it in person, only hours before the final deadline.


The symphony, however, was not selected as a winning entry, but what surely helped with its première as well as its subsequent popularity no doubt had to do with the well-documented event of 14th November, 1943: Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic début at Carnegie Hall, fronting one of the world’s venerable musical institutions. That the event has gone down in history as a critical moment in the chronicle of American music is most certainly due to the tremendous life that Bernstein breathed into the music, an interpretative passion and intensity that would mature over the years. The press lost no time in underscoring the fact that Bernstein’s début was the first time an American-born conductor led the Philharmonic. Overnight, he became the talk of the music world. Bernstein was only 27.


Not surprisingly, interest in his symphony sprung from various corners. The first performance was conducted by Bernstein with the Pittsburgh Symphony,  at the invitation of its director, Fritz Reiner, on 28th January, 1944. Koussevitzky invited Bernstein to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Jeremiah shortly thereafter, and the New York Philharmonic followed with four performances in the spring. In what was to be one of many whirlwind years for Bernstein, the symphony would win the New York Music Critics Circle Award for 1944.


The composer stated that his symphony was about a crisis in faith, an issue that would concern him for life. The biblical Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem some six centuries before Christ, centring his message on religious reform in a time of confused morality. The Prophecy first movement sets the tone of slow, solemn contemplation found throughout the entire work. The scherzo movement, Profanation, gives a feeling of the destruction of Jerusalem during the tumultuous times of the prophet. The final Lamentation is the literal cry of Jeremiah, lamenting the pillaged city. This movement, composed years earlier, captivated initial audiences as the horrors of the Nazi Final Solution were being revealed. One of Bernstein’s many works that embrace Jewish themes, the piece was dedicated to Samuel Bernstein, the composer’s father, who helped impart his faith to his son. The work uses the Ashkenazic Hebrew pronunciation of the Book of Lamentations. In Jeremiah it is certainly possible to see parallels between the prophet and the young composer/conductor/pianist, taking brave and unpopular positions despite the risk.


As it very nearly book-ends a long and illustrious career, Jubilee Games makes for an appropriate companion. Furthermore, it represents another affirmation of the composer’s Jewish faith. By 1986 Bernstein had certainly become one of the world’s most celebrated musicians. That year the Israel Philharmonic celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an extended tour of two continents. On the programme was a new work in two movements entitled Jubilee Games, commissioned by the orchestra the previous year. Bernstein commented that he hoped “one day to add another movement or two”. Opening Prayer, for baritone solo and orchestra, was written to commemorate the gala reopening of Carnegie Hall in December of the same year and was later appended to Jubilee Games. Bernstein was still not satisfied and composed Seven Variations on an Octatonic Theme in early 1989. In the tradition of Bartók’s great work, Bernstein directed the first performance of his newly-titled Concerto for Orchestra, in four movements, in Tel Aviv the following April.


The innovative first movement, Free-Style Events, involves a greater degree of improvisation than in any other Bernstein piece, and quotes the Old Testament, from Leviticus, in which Moses says:


And Thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years… shall be unto thee forty times nine years… And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim Liberty throughout the land.


Orchestral players underscore the significance of the number seven (sheva in Hebrew) by whispering or shouting the number seven times. Later, an exclamation of hamishim (fifty) is followed by fanfare signals from the brass, imitating the motifs prescribed to the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn used to mark the fiftieth year as a holy year. Several of these fanfares are heard on pre-recorded tapes. The theme and variation movement, smartly titled Mixed Doubles, is slow and sparse, contrasting tone colours with pairs of instruments invoking the second movement of Bartók’s work.


Bernstein further utilised numerical association in Diaspora Dances, opening in 18/8 time, and alluding to the practice of assigning numerical values to the Hebrew alphabet. The word hai equals the number eighteen and, translated, means “life”. He said that this unique celebration of the Hassidic spirit ranged “from the Middle East back to Central European ghettos and forward again to a New York-ish kind of jazz”. The final movement, now with the title Benediction, makes use of a melody first employed nearly a half-century before, in one of Bernstein’s Anniversaries for piano solo. The movement, and thus the work, closes with a brief blessing from the baritone, providing a fittingly appropriate traversal of Bernstein’s Jewish faith from first to last:


May the Lord bless and keep you.

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.



Sean Hickey

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