One of the few celebrated 20th-century composers whose catalogue consists in large proportion of works on Jewish themes, Leonard Bernstein was a composer of symphonic works and Broadway musicals, a world-renowned conductor, and a passionate teacher.
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At the 1969 funeral of Leonard Bernstein’s father—at Temple Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts—Rabbi Israel Kazis eulogized Samuel J. Bernstein as one who was completely involved in worship by always having “his mind in contemplation, his heart in love, his voice in song and his limbs in dance.” Like father, like son. Early on, critics often were distracted by the maestro’s dancelike style as a conductor. But was this deliberate conduct? He said no, and certainly never for the show-off reasons faultfinders may have ascribed to him. His podium manner must have arisen out of a burning need to communicate the composer’s thought process to both orchestra and audience, whatever the physical means required to make it manifest.
At times it was as if he were—as in the title of one of his songs from On the Town—“Carried Away.” One is reminded of Psalm 35:10, kol atzmotai tomar’na! (All my bones shall express [the Lord’s greatness].) This is the article of faith by which Leonard Bernstein lived his life and created his works.
It is one thing to be carried away as a performer—and quite another matter as a composer. A conductor displays his art with a finished product; a composer is concerned with the yet-to-be, the making of that product. There are, of course, red-hot jazz improvisers or cantors possessed by spiritual fervor who can achieve the best of both worlds simultaneously, as creator and re-creator, and Bernstein, in his own compositions, worked mightily to realize that paradoxical state of controlled spontaneity above all else.
His earliest memory of music took place somewhere around 1926 at Mishkan Tefila (then located in Roxbury, Massachusetts), where, to quote him from a 1989 interview, “I felt something stir within me, as though I were becoming subconsciously aware of music as my raison d’être.” In fact, his first surviving completed piece was a setting of Psalm 148, which he recalled as having been written between 1932 and 1935. During the following decades he was to write some twenty works on Jewish themes—about one quarter of his orchestral works and half of his choral compositions, as well as songs and other pieces that have had broad appeal for Jews and non-Jews everywhere.
The greater part of Bernstein’s output was sparked by the interaction of his American conditioning and his Jewish heritage, as in Symphony no. 3 (Kaddish) and Chichester Psalms, both written in Hebrew-Aramaic but with a touch of his West Side Story sound. Other Jewish works are electric with American kinetic energy, even though they are concerned with events that took place “over there.” Among them, Jeremiah, his 1942 symphony written in response to early reports of German massacres of Jews, and ḥalil, his flute “rhapsody” about young lives laid waste in the Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973.
More fascinating is how some of his non-Jewish works are flavored with “Hebraisms,” including his musical comedy On the Town. Two songs from that show, “Ya Got Me” and “Some Other Time,” are redolent of an Ashkenazi prayer mode known as adonai malakh. Other examples are to be found in the finale of his Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, and in Mass, his theater piece based on the Roman Church rite, imbued with hidden Jewish symbolism.
Many people pleaded with Bernstein to write a complete synagogue service. His setting of a single prayer text from the Sabbath evening liturgy, Hashkivenu, was his only such accomplishment. However, I have come across some undated notes he jotted down about a work he was contemplating:
A Cantata on Hebrew-Yiddish Materials That Move Me
What are the Jewish roots I long for? Nostalgia for youth? Guilt towards my father? First real cultural exposure? First real music I heard (Braslavsky! [Solomon G. Braslavsky, the organist and music director during Bernstein’s youth at Temple Mishkan Tefila, and an accomplished synagogue composer previously active in Vienna.]). Seeking a larger identity—with a race or creed?—with a supernatural force? (But the latter word doesn’t account for so many “Yiddish” responses.) Seeking any identity? Common roots with siblings? Speaker (English), the singer (Heb. & Yiddish).
He concluded with prayer titles and Bible and Haggada passages: Yigdal, Shalom aleikhem, Judith, Psalms (proud humility), Song of Songs, “And it came to pass at midnight” (Vay’hi baḥatzi hallay’la), or dayenu (It would have sufficed).
It is regrettable that he never wrote that cantata, but elements from the above-cited texts do exist in various works of his.
Bernstein was an unabashed eclectic, an ecumenical lover of the world, which loved him in return. This too was part of his Jewish nature, for Judaism is based on communal experience. (Jewish prayer, for example, is largely on behalf of k’lal yisra’el—the entire people. There are many fewer Hebrew prayers for the individual.) Bernstein was fiercely loyal to lifelong friendships that took precedence over his work. On the other hand, idleness made him melancholy. Music was his fix, and he experienced it as few of us ever will. It is no accident that he identified himself so keenly with the youthful fiddler who drives his listeners to frenzied ecstasy in the Yiddish poem Af mayn khasene from Arias and Barcarolles.
I recall how drained he was after a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony in the late 1980s. He said he was “on the brink,” meaning he was transported to a place that had no beginning or end. At such enviable moments Bernstein was suspended—as in the subtitle of Anski’s classic play The Dybbuk—between two worlds. In that timeless void, he must have achieved the Hassidic ideal of spiritual fusion with the divine spirit, known as d’vekut—a kind of cosmic glue that leads one toward a sphere where mystical powers dwell, where joy is its own reward. Some of that transcendent uplift can be sensed in the opening of his Dybbuk ballet.
Bernstein may not have been traditionally observant of Judaic religious practice, but he was deeply Jewish in every other way. He once described himself as a “chip off the old tanakh” (the Hebrew acronym for the Bible). As a teenager, he even flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a rabbi. As it turned out, he did become a kind of rabbi, albeit without portfolio, and in fact, Hebrew Union College awarded him an honorary degree. He was a thoroughly imbued, inbred, and—as he labeled his “Diaspora Dances” from Jubilee Games—a “socio-cultural, geo-Judaic” Jew by being: a practitioner of and believer in tz’daka (charitable giving and sharing as an obligation); a benefactor for a host of students, endowing scholarships, providing instruments, and sponsoring talented youngsters; a fierce devotee of book learning, central to Jewish culture, and a master of wordplay as well; a champion of the State of Israel even before its founding, as performer and artistic ambassador; a musician-soldier who performed in the field during wartime conditions under threat of military attack; an eloquent sermonizer on nuclear disarmament from synagogue and church pulpits; a defender of causes for the oppressed and disenfranchised in his benefit concerts for Amnesty International and for victims of AIDS in Music for Life concerts; an inspiring teacher, in the Talmudic style, for a generation of music lovers, many of whom were first introduced to the delights of music through his televised concerts; a counselor to the troubled, and a source of Solomonic wisdom, which he freely dispensed to anyone within earshot (sometimes, truth to tell, not always welcome); and one of the few celebrated 20th-century composers whose catalogue consists in large proportion of works on Jewish themes.
No question about it, Leonard Bernstein was one of God’s blessed ones. When I was a music major in college, I wondered what it would have been like to have known Mendelssohn, Liszt, Mahler, and Gershwin. Now I know. Lenny was a bit of all of them and more. He was my mentor, and I was privileged to be in his company. May his memory be for a blessing throughout eternity.