About this Recording
8.559742 - BERNSTEIN, L.: Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish" / Missa Brevis / The Lark (São Paulo Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Missa Brevis • Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ • The Lark


In the original version of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, the speaker—reciting words that no doubt came directly from the composer’s heart—proclaims, “As long as I sing, I shall live.” Singers, both solo and choral, figure prominently in many of Bernstein’s works; clearly he considered the human voice one of the most expressive instruments in a composer’s arsenal. This program features three examples of his vocal art.

Bernstein first considered turning the choruses he composed as incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s The Lark into an independent work shortly after they were written. In late October 1955, he wrote his brother, Burton: “We just returned from Boston where The Lark had its première and it seems to be a large hit…My music sounded good as hell, with marvellous voices (on tape…) but still it sounded pretty. I think there’s the kernel of a short Mass there, and I may expand it into one for the Juilliard commission.” But it wasn’t until 33 years later, on the occasion of Robert Shaw’s retirement as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, that Bernstein adapted the Lark music into his Missa Brevis. In collaboration with a young protégé, George Steele, he expanded his original sketches for the work. He added portions to the Gloria in order to include the full text and made other adjustments to the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem—thus qualifying the work for liturgical use.

The piece is scored for mixed chorus a cappella (divided into as many as eight parts), solo countertenor, bells and “incidental percussion” (the exact nature of which is left somewhat to the discretion of the conductor). Open fifths at the beginning of the Kyrie immediately establish the quasi-medieval character which continues throughout the work. Traditional triads with added seconds and sixths, however, add contemporary “bite” to the harmonic texture. The countertenor soloist often evokes the flowing lines of medieval chant.

Bernstein belatedly composed his Third Symphony, Kaddish, to fulfil a joint commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra celebrating the orchestra’s 75th anniversary in 1955. The mid-fifties were a remarkably busy time for Bernstein—between 1953 and 1957 he composed a film score, incidental music for The Lark, three musicals and a violin concerto. He also assumed musical directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, so the delay in composing the symphony was not surprising. He began work in earnest during the summer of 1961 on Martha’s Vineyard, and continued during the summer of 1962 at the MacDowell Colony. He had just completed the orchestration when the tragic events of November 22, 1963, determined the work’s dedication: “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” The Boston Symphony graciously allowed the Israel Philharmonic to present the world première under Bernstein’s direction in Tel Aviv on December 10, 1963. Charles Munch, at his first guest appearance with the Boston Symphony since retiring as musical director, conducted the U.S. première in February 1964.

Kaddish is perhaps the least performed and the most misunderstood of Bernstein’s three symphonies. Full appreciation begins with abandoning all pre-conceived notions of what a “symphony” is. Theatrical and oratorio-like, the work features not only orchestra, mezzo-soprano soloist, mixed choir and boys’ choir, but a prominent speaker’s role as well. It was, in fact, a performance by his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, in Arthur Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake (in 1958) that inspired Bernstein to compose a work in a similar narrative vein.

A complete setting of the Kaddish prayer figures in each of the symphony’s three movements. The traditional text, a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew, is recited as part of the morning service at synagogues; it is sometimes called the “Mourner’s Kaddish” because it is also prayed at funerals—even though the words do not refer to death. Bernstein wrote the speaker’s text himself after an initial effort to set poems written for him by Robert Lowell and a subsequent attempt to collaborate with a young Jewish poet, Frederick Seidel, came to naught.

Although it does not conform to traditional ideas of symphonic form or development, the symphony is a marvel of motivic manipulation. Much of the material is based on three ideas introduced at the outset: a three-note rising figure (a minor second followed by a minor sixth); a four-note sequence of rising minor sevenths; and a broad, four-measure phrase which Bernstein dubbed the “Kaddish tune.” Appearing in all three movements, these ideas serve as a unifying device. Bernstein also uses two tone rows in the piece—albeit only melodically (Kaddish is decidedly eclectic in its mixture of tonality and atonality). The first comes during the initial Kaddish in a wild, mixed-meter section the composer related to David’s dance before the Ark of the Covenant. The second, based on a chain of fourths, features in an anguished, angry orchestral outburst in the second movement that culminates in literal musical chaos: eight separate groups singing eight different ideas in eight different tempi quite independently of each other.

The Kaddish setting which follows is a haunting lullaby for soprano. The unusual quintuple meter recalls Tchaikovsky’s similar transformation of the waltz in his Fifth Symphony. Although the prayer text asserts that God is “beyond all…consolations,” Bernstein’s music surely provides heavenly musical comfort (the composer referred to this section as the “Pietà”). Strings, harp, woodwinds (including alto flute and bass clarinet), celesta and glockenspiel dominate the orchestration, with brass used only to reinforce climaxes. The movement concludes with a delicately pianississimo C-major chord—a salient statement in this occasionally violent work.

In the Scherzo which opens the final movement, Bernstein develops the three-note motive and the Kaddish tune until, almost imperceptibly, they morph into an expansive, nearly Brahmsian melodic line—the symphony’s “big tune”—marked “singing and warm” in the score. The gossamer orchestration adds to the dream-like effect, and as the speaker describes God’s children singing His praises “from corner to corner,” the boys’ choir enters with a five-part round.

An orchestral outburst at the beginning of the Finale leads to an impassioned passage for strings, which is followed by a combination of the Kaddish tune with the three-note motive in woodwinds. The Brahmsian melody returns on strings—six measures repeated underneath the speaker’s consoling text by solo octet. The concluding choral fugue, energetic and joyous, is a contrapuntal tour-de-force. It builds to a series of overlapping Amens underneath which the “big tune” makes a triumphant return.

Revising the work in 1977, Bernstein made significant changes and cuts to the narrator’s part. Most importantly, he rewrote it so that it could be recited by either a man or a woman (the first version, with its references to the “Lily of Sharon” and “Daughter of Zion,” required a female narrator). He also had more of the remaining text spoken over music—thus reducing the length of the entire work. Because this recording reverts to the original narrative text, conductor Marin Alsop has also returned—for the most part—to Bernstein’s original score.

Bernstein was working with Lillian Hellman on Candide when she asked him to compose incidental music for her adaptation of L’Alouette, Jean Anouilh’s play about Joan of Arc. After its Boston tryout, the play moved to Broadway where it ran for 229 performances with stars Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer and Boris Karloff. The score consists of eight choruses for seven solo voices (including countertenor or boy alto), accompanied by bells and a small drum. The music was pre-recorded for the original production by members of Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica, a pioneering early music group. Bernstein complained about this arrangement, although not for musical reasons; he himself conducted the singers at the recording sessions held at Carnegie Hall. But he felt that because the producer had not rented adequate playback equipment the music “grizzled a bit.” Nevertheless, the music found favour: theatre critic Brooks Atkinson noted that “Leonard Bernstein’s musical recreation of Joan’s medieval voices gives the play a new dimension,” and choral conductor Robert Shaw wrote the composer to say the choruses were “absolutely (and variously) captivating and exciting pieces.”

Three of the eight movements are in French and folk-like in character. Spring Song is based on Revecy venir du printams by Claude Le Jeune (1528–1600), and the appropriately martial Soldier’s Song (enhanced by drum and whistling) derives from a French folksong, Vive la Grappe. In the Court Song, the first soprano sings a melismatic, troubadour-like melody over a drone bass (“Husband, fie upon your love! For I have a lover, elegant and handsome…”). The remaining five movements, in Latin, are more austere in their tone. Most use text from the liturgy; the prelude begins with a quote from Psalm 39 (“Hear my prayer, O Lord.”).

In the published edition, the three French choruses are gathered together at the beginning, followed by the Latin ones. This recording, however, features a concert version, with added narration culled directly from Hellman’s adapted text, which sets the choruses in a dramatic context and allows them to be heard in the same order in which they appear in the play.

Frank K. DeWald

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