Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Symphony No. 1 'Jeremiah' Concerto for Orchestra 'JubileeGames'
Leonard Bernstein's legendary 1943 Carnegie Hall debutleading the New York Philharmonic, stepping in at the last moment for an ailingBruno Walter, surely ranks as one of the watershed events in the history ofAmerican music. It was against this background that the First Symphony('Jeremiah') of Leonard Bernstein was first heard. Though initial sketches werebegun in 1939 after Bernstein had moved to New York upon completion of hisHarvard studies, it was a competition sponsored by the New England Conservatoryof Music in 1942 that spurred the young composer to complete the work.Bernstein discovered that one of the chief judges was to be SergeyKoussevitzky, the legendary music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra aswell as mentor to the fledgling conductor. The piano score was completed in amere ten days after learning of the competition. Amazingly, Bernstein enlistedthe help of his sister Shirley and several friends, who completed the ink copyof the score while he orchestrated, keeping him primed with pots of coffee. Theorchestration was completed in three days and nights. As it was too late topost the completed score by the 31st December deadline, Bernstein boarded atrain to Boston and delivered it in person, only hours before the finaldeadline.
The symphony, however, was not selected as a winning entry,but what surely helped with its premi?¿re as well as its subsequent popularityno doubt had to do with the well-documented event of 14th November, 1943:Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic debut at Carnegie Hall, fronting oneof the world's venerable musical institutions. That the event has gone down inhistory as a critical moment in the chronicle of American music is mostcertainly due to the tremendous life that Bernstein breathed into the music, aninterpretative passion and intensity that would mature over the years. Thepress lost no time in underscoring the fact that Bernstein's debut was thefirst time an American-born conductor led the Philharmonic. Overnight, hebecame the talk of the music world. Bernstein was only 27.
Not surprisingly, interest in his symphony sprung fromvarious corners. The first performance was conducted by Bernstein with thePittsburgh Symphony, at theinvitation of its director, Fritz Reiner, on 28th January, 1944. Koussevitzkyinvited Bernstein to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Jeremiah shortlythereafter, and the New York Philharmonic followed with four performances inthe spring. In what was to be one of many whirlwind years for Bernstein, thesymphony would win the New York Music Critics Circle Award for 1944.
The composer stated that his symphony was about a crisis infaith, an issue that would concern him for life. The biblical Jeremiah preachedin Jerusalem some six centuries before Christ, centring his message onreligious reform in a time of confused morality. The Prophecy first movementsets the tone of slow, solemn contemplation found throughout the entire work.The scherzo movement, Profanation, gives a feeling of the destruction ofJerusalem during the tumultuous times of the prophet. The final Lamentation isthe literal cry of Jeremiah, lamenting the pillaged city. This movement,composed years earlier, captivated initial audiences as the horrors of the NaziFinal Solution were being revealed. One of Bernstein's many works that embraceJewish themes, the piece was dedicated to Samuel Bernstein, the composer'sfather, who helped impart his faith to his son. The work uses the AshkenazicHebrew pronunciation of the Book of Lamentations. In Jeremiah it is certainlypossible to see parallels between the prophet and the youngcomposer/conductor/pianist, taking brave and unpopular positions despite therisk.
As it very nearly book-ends a long and illustrious career,Jubilee Games makes for an appropriate companion. Furthermore, it representsanother affirmation of the composer's Jewish faith. By 1986 Bernstein hadcertainly become one of the world's most celebrated musicians. That year theIsrael Philharmonic celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an extended tourof two continents. On the programme was a new work in two movements entitledJubilee Games, commissioned by the orchestra the previous year. Bernsteincommented that he hoped \one day to add another movement or two". OpeningPrayer, for baritone solo and orchestra, was written to commemorate the galareopening of Carnegie Hall in December of the same year and was later appendedto Jubilee Games. Bernstein was still not satisfied and composed SevenVariations on an Octatonic Theme in early 1989. In the tradition of Bartok'sgreat work, Bernstein directed the first performance of his newly-titledConcerto for Orchestra, in four movements, in Tel Aviv the following April.
The innovative first movement, Free-Style Events, involves agreater degree of improvisation than in any other Bernstein piece, and quotesthe 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 yeshall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim Liberty throughout the land.
Orchestral players underscore the significance of the numberseven (sheva in Hebrew) by whispering or shouting the number seven times.Later, an exclamation of hamishim (fifty) is followed by fanfare signals fromthe brass, imitating the motifs prescribed to the shofar, the traditional ram'shorn used to mark the fiftieth year as a holy year. Several of these fanfaresare heard on pre-recorded tapes. The theme and variation movement, smartlytitled Mixed Doubles, is slow and sparse, contrasting tone colours with pairsof instruments invoking the second movement of Bartok's work.
Bernstein further utilised numerical association in DiasporaDances, opening in 18/8 time, and alluding to the practice of assigningnumerical values to the Hebrew alphabet. The word hai equals the numbereighteen and, translated, means "life". He said that this unique celebration ofthe Hassidic spirit ranged "from the Middle East back to Central Europeanghettos 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-centurybefore, in one of Bernstein's Anniversaries for piano solo. The movement, andthus the work, closes with a brief blessing from the baritone, providing afittingly 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 graciousunto you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give youpeace.