Leonard Bernstein's 'Kaddish' Symphony: A Crisis Of Faith

Sep 29, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 2:46 pm

I can't think of anything I loved more than talking to Leonard Bernstein. Or, more accurately, listening to him talk — about music or any topic under the sun. I remember a long discourse we had about one of my favorite books, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Bernstein's summarizing statement: "Well, of course, every author spends his whole life writing the same book."

That phrase has come back to me throughout my life and I've come to believe that it is applicable to all artists, especially Bernstein himself. There are certain fundamental, existential questions each of us grapples with throughout our lives. Artists have the opportunity to explore these questions publicly, with their creations as the conduit.

The music of Bernstein is a clear and dramatic manifestation of Leonard Bernstein the human being: complex, gregarious, deeply reflective, conflicted, loving, kind, embracing, fun and much more. For me, there is an extraordinary universality in his music, as there was in the man himself.

Bernstein's Third Symphony, "Kaddish," premiered in 1963, just weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated. Bernstein was a supporter and friend of the Kennedys and was devastated by the tragic event. He dedicated "Kaddish" — this prayer for the dead that never mentions death — to Kennedy's memory. And that sums up Bernstein for me: The surface was accessible, approachable, almost simple, yet the inherent paradox and complexity of thought below that surface was astounding.

This symphony is a vehicle — the Kaddish prayer a vehicle — for Bernstein to explore his lifelong issues of personal faith, the elusive concept of peace and the conflict arising from our great human potential for, and attraction to, destruction.

Bernstein chose a woman to be the narrator in the symphony (in his original version) and it immediately grabs our attention because the role of women is historically subservient. Not only is a woman narrating the holy prayer, she is humanizing God. She questions and challenges him, even ascribes human emotion to him and she offers to say the Kaddish for him: "Oh my Father, ancient, hallowed, lonely, disappointed Father. Betrayed, rejected ruler of the universe. I will say this final Kaddish for you."

The question of faith is woven through every Bernstein piece — even when there is no obvious religious component. For Bernstein, the crisis of the 20th century was a crisis of faith. What can we believe in when mankind has the desire and capability to destroy itself? He conveys this crisis musically by pitting atonality against tonality. For Bernstein, atonality captured the musical end of civilization.

The "Kaddish" symphony opens with choristers humming — the humming of the universe. And then Bernstein builds a 12-tone row representing conflict and crisis (hear the excerpts on this page). The chorus, acting something like a traditional Greek chorus, sings the actual texts from the traditional Kaddish, embellished with stomps and hand claps.

The title of the second movement, "Din Torah," means judgment, but instead of God judging us, Bernstein turns the tables and it is the human who questions and judges God. After the narrator's introduction, the percussion starts with seemingly random bangings and the Kaddish theme is hummed. Later, after a confrontation between man and God, there is a complete breakdown and the music climaxes in a chaotic, polytonal choral cadenza — different meters, different tempi. Is anyone in charge?

The third movement contains the climax of the piece. Bernstein starts this Scherzo by bringing back every theme and manipulating each one in every way imaginable. The metaphor is clear. Especially with the narration: "So this is the kingdom of heaven, Father, just as you planned it ... Every immortal cliché in place ... but something is wrong."

After showing God the problems in the world, the narrator helps God believe in a new arrangement, where God and man understand the fragile interdependence needed for both to survive. The music builds to the entrance of a boy choir singing the phrase "Magnified and sanctified be His great name, amen" in Hebrew. The voices of children play pivotal roles in many of Bernstein's compositions (including Chichester Psalms and Mass) and represent hope for humanity.

Though there is a resolution to the struggle, the music does not end triumphantly. Instead, it closes in a final Kaddish, sung by a full choir, with a final dissonant chord, filled with suspense, suggesting that all is still not right in this world. Peace continues to elude us.

I often wonder how Bernstein would have reacted to 9/11 and the ongoing violence and strife in this 21st Century. He spent his life championing peace, compassion, mutual respect and, above all, humanity. I know it would have broken his heart and I'm relieved that he didn't have to witness it. But then I think of how much we need him and miss him — this musician who changed the world.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



In 1963, just weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein premiered his third symphony, "Kaddish," and dedicated it to the slain president.

: I want to pray.

SIMON: Leonard Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre was the narrator in this 1964 recording.

: I want to say Kaddish.

SIMON: Kaddish - a prayer. For Leonard Bernstein, his third symphony was a vehicle to deliver that prayer and explore issues of personal faith and concepts of peace in a world filled with strife. This weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is performing the work, led by music director Marin Alsop. The maestra joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being back with us, Marin.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Help us understand this piece. Set it up a bit. How does Leonard Bernstein convey themes of conflict and crisis through music?

ALSOP: Well, for Leonard Bernstein, the most pressing issue of the 20th century was a crisis of faith. Not necessarily religion-based faith, but a faith in humanity. And he represents this crisis in music in terms of atonality versus tonality. The music that comes in is a 12-tone row, meaning it has no tonal center, and that sets up the crisis.


SIMON: And later in this movement it builds to something that sounds like a Greek chorus. Let's listen to that.


ALSOP: It's interesting to hear the chorus. The chorus is always singing the actual texts from the Kaddish, the prayer. And they reflect the narrator's approach to God always. So, in a way it's like a Greek chorus commenting on the action. But do you hear on the recording, you can hear the hand clapping and the stomps. So, Bernstein adds that to it. And he's still playing with this idea of atonality. When you hear that, it's jazzy atonality now.

SIMON: The second movement is called "Din Torah" meaning the judgment. And help take us through that.

ALSOP: Well, for me, the fascinating thing about this piece and about so many of Bernstein's works is that he's turning the typical way of looking at something on it head. So, the judgment day, which is usually, you know, all hellfire and brimstone and everything going wrong for mankind, instead of being subservient and down on our knees as human beings, we're standing up - in Bernstein's version - and speaking back to God. And it becomes really a questioning of God's actions. And for Bernstein, this was very, very important. I mean, trying to get his arms around why and how people could act in such destructive, violent ways in the name of God under the guise of religion was something he could not comprehend.

So, there's a confrontation in this piece between man and the silent God accusing him of violating His promise with mankind. The narration, which Bernstein wrote, is: Are you listening, Father? You know who I am. Your image, that stubborn reflection of you. Why have you taken away your rainbow? Tin God. Your bargain is tin. It crumples in my hand. And where is the faith now? Yours or mine?


ALSOP: And the idea that man and God are inherently intertwined - without man there is no God; without God there is no man. This brings us to a complete chaotic breakdown in the piece, and there's this massive cadenza for the chorus - completely atonal.


SIMON: This sounds like the end of the world. This sounds like the end of all sense, of understanding, of coherence of things heading together in a way that we can understand it, but then it settles down and we hear a lullaby.

ALSOP: Well, this is, I mean, this is Bernstein's genius for me. It goes from this incredibly complex, almost unintelligible statement to the most beautiful, simple, gorgeous melody. And this is where man says to God, you know, put your head down on my shoulder. Why don't you take a rest. You must be very tired. And Bernstein captures that in this beautiful solo for the soprano voice. It really is like a lullaby to God.


SIMON: That's Jennie Tourel, the mezzo-soprano, in this 1964 recording conducted by the maestro, Leonard Bernstein.

ALSOP: It's an absolutely incredible moment, I think, that capturing that simplicity. At the end of the movement, the narration comes back and the speaker says: Sleep my Father. Rest your anger. I mean, it's amazing how, you know, man is speaking to God. Dream softly. Let me invent your dream, dream it for you as gently as I can. And perhaps by dreaming I can help you find your image again and love him again. I'll take you to your favorite star. The world most worthy of your creation. And, hand in hand, like eager children, we'll watch in wonder, wide-eyed, the workings of perfectedness.

SIMON: Let's listen, if we can, to a bit of the third movement. Music begins kind of playfully.


SIMON: Immortal cliche - what a phrase. What's wrong with God's creation?

ALSOP: Well, you know, how can we think that things are perfect when we don't believe in humanity and we don't respect humanity and we've made some kind of bargain with this concept of religion? And, you know, for Bernstein, it was all about hypocrisy and not having faith in each other and respecting each other.


ALSOP: In the scherzo movement, which brings back all of these crazy themes from the piece, the narrator's talking about how God needs to believe in mankind. And this builds to a climax and then the children's choir enter. The boy is singing, and for Bernstein children always represented faith and hope.


ALSOP: The narrator wakes God and God then has to confront the reality of this image. And for Bernstein, it's coming to some sort of compromise, some negotiation with God. I mean, only Bernstein would enter into negotiations with God. And the narrator says: Good morning, Father. He wakes up God. Good morning, Father. We can still be immortal, You and I, bound by our rainbow. You can no longer afford my death. For if I die, you die with me. And as long as I live I shall continue to create you, Father, and you, me. So, that's really the bargain that Bernstein is negotiating with God.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. You, of course, knew Leonard Bernstein very well. You're his pupil, his protege, his friend. How does "Kaddish" reflect the man he was, the creative force that he was?

ALSOP: He was a complicated and simple human being on many levels. He was a man filled with passion and compassion and belief in humanity. But he was also a very conflicted human being. And he had enormous worry, enormous concern about the future of our human race. I often think I'm glad he's not around to see some of the violence that has occurred in this 21st century, but it's a shame because we really need him here to remind us that the most important thing is to believe in each other and believe in humanity.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They're currently performing Bernstein's "Kaddish Symphony No. 3."

ALSOP: Great to talk to you, Scott. Thank you.


SIMON: You can read Marin Alsop's essay and on "Kaddish" on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.