About this Recording
8.559790 - BERNSTEIN, L.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2


Leonard Bernstein may well have understood symphonic form better than any other 20th-century composer—as a conductor, he was celebrated for his interpretations of symphonies from the beginning of the genre (Haydn) to its apotheosis (Mahler). And yet none of his three works bearing the word “symphony” in its title is in any way traditional. Each flaunts the conventions of the form—arguably in ways that only Bernstein might have conceived. All are “theatrical” works which manifest the central conflict at the root of nearly all of Bernstein’s major works. In 1977 he said, “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah [Symphony No. 1], I was wrestling with that problem.” In Jeremiah the crisis is joined; in the second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, it is discussed, probed and superficially resolved; in the third, Kaddish, it comes to a head and is resolved again—but with the realization that faith must be accompanied by pain.

During the summer of 1939, Bernstein composed his most ambitious work to date—a setting of text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. In late August he sent a copy of the score to his friend and mentor Aaron Copland, to whom he wrote, “Eventually the song will become one of a group, or a movement of a symphony for voice and orchestra, or the opening of a cantata or opera.” He set the song aside until, in the spring of 1942, he began composing the first movement of a symphony for a competition organized by the New England Conservatory. “I then realized that this new movement, and the scherzo that I had planned to follow it, made logical concomitants with the Lamentation. Thus the symphony came into being,” he wrote at the time of the work’s premiere.

Working out of a top-floor apartment on West Fifty-Second Street in New York City, Bernstein—assisted by his sister Shirley and several friends—scrambled to finish the orchestration and prepare a fair copy to meet the December 31 competition deadline. Sadly, the jury awarded the prize to Gardner Read’s Symphony No. 2. But Fritz Reiner invited the young composer to premiere the symphony in Pittsburgh, where Bernstein conducted the first performance in January 1944. The symphony was well received and went on to win the Music Critics Circle Award for 1943–44.

In his program note for the premiere, Bernstein wrote: “The symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebraic thematic material. The first theme of the scherzo is paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant, and the opening phrase of the vocal part in the ‘Lamentation’ is based on a liturgical cadence still sung today in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.” Long-time Bernstein assistant Jack Gottlieb, however, asserted that the influence of liturgical motives on the symphony was greater than the composer consciously knew—“a testament to his upbringing as a Jew both in the synagogue and at home.” Bernstein dedicated the work to his father.

Jeremiah opens with a slow movement, Prophecy, which—in the composer’s words—aims “to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people.” It avoids any suggestion of traditional sonata-allegro form, using motivic development rather than themes per se to generate its musical argument. The primary cell consists of three notes—a minor second followed by a perfect fifth. It first appears in its descending form in upper woodwinds in bar 4; the ascending form debuts in basses and bassoons in bar 10. It informs virtually every melodic strand in the piece. Often it sounds anguished, but it can also be gentle—as in the flute passage over gently throbbing strings that appears midway through the movement.

Profanation is a wild scherzo that seeks to give “a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people.” It is rife with the asymmetrical and mixed meters so typical of Bernstein, wherein not only are the number of beats-per-measure varied, but also the number of pulses within the beat (sometimes two, sometimes three). The motivic cell from the first movement returns, and a brief chorale-like passage heard twice in the earlier movement is refashioned into a jazzy dance motif. The concluding Lamentation opens with a declamatory recitative for the soloist. Bernstein described it as “the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonoured after his desperate efforts to save it.” But ultimately there is consolation in the form of a falling motif, in parallel thirds, introduced by flutes. It returns later, played on muted strings—first solo quartet, then tutti.

Bernstein discovered W.H. Auden’s Pulitzer Prizewinning “baroque eclogue” in six parts, The Age of Anxiety, in the summer of 1947. Stunned by “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of the English language,” he told journalists that “almost immediately the music started to sing” to him. He set out to compose a symphony which would parallel the structure of Auden’s 80-page poem—a series of conversations (with linking narrative) between three men and a woman, set mostly in a New York City bar. He would try to limn in musical terms the principal subject of Auden’s verse: the neuroses of contemporary society (i.e. the “crisis of faith”). There would be a prominent concertante part for piano (causing some to claim the symphony is really a piano concerto in all but name).

The new work, composed over a two-year period in locations as far-flung as Israel and New Mexico, was scheduled to premiere in Boston in early April 1949. But January of that year found Bernstein typically overscheduled—and the finale was not yet finished. As was so often the case, he found himself torn between the desire to compose and the need to conduct. Nevertheless, he finished The Age of Anxiety on time; it débuted in Boston on April 8, with the composer as soloist and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Koussevitzky—to whom Bernstein dedicated the work. A ballet by Jerome Robbins based on the symphony premiered in early 1950 at the New York City Ballet.

The opening Prologue is a duet for two clarinets that Bernstein adapted from music he had written for a 1939 Harvard production of Aristophanes’ The Birds (and later recycled as a musical envoi to Koussevitzky.) It leads via a descending, chromatic flute bridge into The Seven Ages, a cycle of variations that opens with a sweetly dissonant chorale for the piano. Each succeeding variation evolves out of some aspect of the preceding one. A second bridge passage (this time on piano and extending from one end of the keyboard to the other) leads to a second set, The Seven Stages. The first of these opens with a passacaglia built on a six-note theme in the bass, suggesting the influence of Britten (Bernstein had conducted the American premiere of Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1946); the spirit of Shostakovich hovers over the more playful variations.

The Dirge, which begins the second half of the symphony, commences with a bold stroke from the pianist: a tone row. Bernstein does not use it in any strict Schoenbergian sense, but it recurs throughout to maintain a feeling of angst, in spite of the composer’s own reference to the movement’s “Brahmsian romanticism.” The Masque which follows is the symphony’s most individual feature, completely and unabashedly Bernstein: a jazz frolic for piano, bass, timpani and percussion based on an unused song from On the Town. Following the premiere, the music critic of The Boston Globe declared it “a triumph of rhythmic interplay, subtle and unexpected accents, a marvellous distillation of the movement of jazz.”

The Epilogue begins with an abrupt orchestral outburst and an unusual theatrical effect: a “pianino” in the orchestra that seems to mock the soloist’s freewheeling frenzy (Bernstein said it represented “a kind of separation of the self from the guilt of escapist living”). But solo trumpet introduces a calming motif in falling fourths, and strings begin a deeply felt Adagio, which ultimately builds to a powerful climax with near-cinematic fervour (anticipating Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront, written five years later). In the original version of the symphony, the piano was silent throughout this movement until the very end, but Bernstein revised the work in 1965, giving a greater rôle to the keyboard protagonist.

Frank K. DeWald

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