BERNSTEIN: A Jewish Legacy

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Program Notes

ISRAELITE CHORUS, fromincidental music to The Firstborn Premiere recording

Premiere: April 29, 1958, New York City

The Firstborn, a verse drama byChristopher Fry, was produced by Roger Stevens in conjunction with theAmerica-Israel Cultural Foundation, in tribute to the state of Israel's tenthanniversary. The first public hearing of this choral work was given at anAmerican Jewish Congress fund-raising dinner at the Essex House in New York City on April 22, 1959. The music was on tape, which was how it was presentedduring its Broadway run and, later, In Israel. Sets were by Boris Aronson. (Theworld premiere of the play, with music by John Hotchkis, was in 1948 at theEdinburgh Festival) Fry's play is set in Egypt at the time of the Exodus accountof the plagues visited by God upon the Egyptians, including the death of thefirstborn Egyptian males, which finally induced the pharaoh to declare therelease of the Israelite slaves. Among the distinguished cast were AnthonyQuayle (who directed and also played the role of Moses), Katharine Cornell, TorinThatcher (as Seti, the pharaoh), Mildred Natwick, and Michael Wager, a closefriend of the composer's who persuaded Bernstein to write the music in thefirst place. In addition to the choral number, there was a solo song by thepharaoh's daughter with lute accompaniment: \Teusret's Song," words by Fry,sung live by Kathleen Widdoes. The Israelite Chorus, based on incidentsdescribed in Exodus 12, is marked "allegro ruvido" (rude, noisy), which describesthe piece precisely, with its choral canonic imitations in an Israeli hora-likedance rhythm, shofar-like horn calls, three sets of wild hand-drum rhythms, anda screaming clarinet at the end--a whoop of joy anticipating the freedom thatlies ahead for the Hebrew slaves.


Premiere recording of thepiano-vocal version

Premiere (orchestral version):May18, 1974

New York City

Conducted by the composer:

choreography by Jerome Robbins

For rehearsals of a ballet, ashort score or piano reduction is required of the composer--sometimes, as inthis case, reduced from full orchestra to two pianos, not necessarily intendedfor concert performance. This piece, however, is equally effective in both fullorchestral dress and the simpler dual keyboard format. Based on the famousYiddish play The Dybbuk, by S. Anski (Shloyme Zanvi Rappaport), Bernstein'sballet version uses Hebrew tents selected by the composer. They are sungintermittently throughout the ballet by a tenor-baritone duo representing thevoices of the two shtetl (easternEuropean market town) communities of Brinnits and Miropolye, in the Pale ofSettlement (the area in which Jews were permitted to live) within the CzaristEmpire at the turn of the 20th century. Tents used in the ballet are taken fromthe Bible--the oath of allegiance between David and Jonathan; Song of Songs; andthe curse found in Deuteronomy (27:22): and from Kaddish, the establishedJewish doxology extolling God's greatness. The excerpt recorded here opens theballet. The tent is from the havdala (distinction) ritual that concludes theSabbath--a bittersweet ceremony in its farewell to the peace and restfulness ofthe day. There is a musical reference in this opening scene to a late- folksong,Di alte kashe (the perennial question about meaning, to which the only answeris "tra di ri di ram."

PSALM 148 (1935)

Words adapted by the composer

Premiere recording: notpreviously performed in public

There was considerableconsideration given as to whether to include Bernstein's early composition onthis recording, as it gives no indication of his eventual compositional style.

Yet it does reveal the musical environment to which he was exposed as ayoungster in his family's congregation--specifically the music of Solomon Braslavsky.

In 1962 Bernstein subsidized the publication of Braslavsky's setting of one ofthe central prayers of the High Holy Day liturgy, Un'tane tokef, inappreciation of the man who had meant so much to him in his youth. We hear someof that Braslavsky influence in this Psalmsetting, which in turn refers to Weber, Mendelssohn, and other Romanticcomposers. The work begins with grave chords, a la Handel, but with Wagnerianharmonies. There is even a hint of Mahler in the Allegro agitato section. Themanuscript is dated September 5, 1935. Bernstein rediscovered the piece in the mid-1980s and even though he recognized itsVictorian excesses as well as its schoolboyish weaknesses, he expressed anaffection for its innocent sweetness.

RINA (1947)

Premiere recording of the choralversion

This piece, in a differentversion, appeared on Jewish Holiday Dances and tongs (Von), a 78-rpm recordingproduced by Corrine Chochem, which also included settings by Milhaud,Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Diamond, Eisler, Toch, Trude Rintman (who later arrangedBernstein's music for Peter Pan), Wolpe, and Kosakoff,and was conducted by Max Goberman, who subsequently conducted the originalproduction of West Side Story. No score survives. The version presented herewas transcribed from the original recording, but choral forces have beensubstituted where the original scoring included strings. The tune is knownaccording to the lyrics--yesh lanu mayim, mayim b'sason(We have water, water with joy!)--an expression of thanksgiving by earlyhalutzim--the pioneering Jewish settlers in Palestine.

THREE WEDDING DANCES, fromBridal Suite (1960)

Premiere recording

These dances are excerpted froma pi?¿ce d'occasion written for songwriter-lyricist Adolph Green and actress-comedienne Phyllis Newman upon their marriage. The suite, "in 2 parts with 3encores," was intended to be played side by side by the Greens, Bernstein'sfriends and theater colleagues. Part I opens with piano secundo playing Bach'sC-Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, while piano primosimultaneously plays "Just in Time" from the Betty Comden, Adolph Green, JuleStyne score for Bells Are Ringing. Part II, comprising the three dances, issubtitled Belt Book, and Rabbi (pare John Van Druten). The three dancescomprise The First Waltz (Canon) in which "he leads" and "she follows." Ninebars later the order is reversed, and then, five bars after that, the theme ismarked "Who is this third voice?" No.2 is a cha-cha-cha, and No. 3 is a hora(the popular Israeli dance) marked "Fast and Jewish."


from Concerto for Orchestra

Premiere recording of the finalsection in the organ version

Premiere: December 15, 1996, New York City

Kurt Ollmann, baritone, with theNew York Philharmonic, conducted by the composer

Originally conceived as OpeningPrayer, a work written to inaugurate the newly renovated Carnegie Hall, thispiece is now the concluding fourth movement--known as Benediction--of Bernstein'sConcerto for Orchestra (Jubilee Games). This is certainly consistent with the tent--thethreefold priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), part of the conclusion of theliturgy for traditional morning services. The free-floating vocal line and theserenity of the organ's sustained harmonic structure (an F-sharp mi nor triadagainst an F-sharp major triad, underpinned by a pitch of D natural) present acounterbalance to the agi
Disc: 1
1 The Firstborn: Israelite Chorus
2 Dybbuk: Invocation and Trance
3 Psalm 148
4 Reenah
5 The First Waltz (Canon)
6 Cha-cha-cha
7 Hora
8 Yevarechecha
9 Halil
10 Simchu Na
11 Arias and Barcarolles: Oif Mayn Khas'ne
12 Vayomer Elohim
13 Yigdal
14 Ilana, the Dreamer
15 Idele, the Chassidele
16 Yosi, the Jokester
17 Dina, the Tomboy Who Weeps Alone
18 Galilee: Silhouette
19 Hashkiveinu
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