Symphony No. 3: Kaddish
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Judaic liturgy has formed the basis for no small number of classically oriented concert works by American composers in the 20th century, and that list of composers includes some of the most easily recognizable names. Most such works, however, have reposed in relative obscurity following initial performances, almost as if they were “secrets” awaiting discovery by a venture such as the Milken Archive. When intensive repertoire research for the Archive was begun in the early 1990s, it was confirmed that, at most, only two serious works founded on Jewish liturgy could be said either to have entered the realm of so-called mainstream repertoire in the classical concert world or at least to have attracted general awareness: Ernest Bloch’s Avodat Hakodesh, or Sacred Service (1933); and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3: Kaddish (Even a full-length Sabbath service with symphony orchestra by so prominent a composer as Darius Milhaud, for example—which, like Bloch’s, can be viewed in some respects as a virtual oratorio for general audiences—was unknown to most of the knowledgeable music world, not to mention major conductors, and even Milhaud aficionados were unaware of his string quartet based entirely on Hebrew liturgical motifs.)
Whereas Bloch’s work—a setting of the Reform Sabbath eve liturgy—was conceived for actual worship and belongs at least partly to the orbit of sacred music, notwithstanding its equal merit as a universal artistic and humanistic expression, the Kaddish Symphony is a wholly nonsynagogal work, written exclusively for concert rendition and infused with theatrical parameters. Perhaps partly (if ironically) because this symphony falls outside the umbrella of sacred music, and certainly owing in no small measure to Bernstein’s public persona coupled with the initial publicity surrounding the work, it is safe to imagine that it is the Kaddish Symphony that has introduced the broadest segments of the concertgoing public to any substantive aspect of Jewish liturgy in its original language—in this case, the prayer text, doxology, and affirmation of faith known as kaddish, which can only loosely be translated as “sanctification.”
Apart from a congregational response and the concluding sentence of the full kaddish text, which constitutes a petition for Divinely fashioned peace and which was probably included at a later date, the language of kaddish is Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews for approximately 1,500 years following the Babylonian captivity (6th–5th century B.C.E.). Overall, kaddish embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God’s unparalleled greatness. It is the ultimate expression of unqualified glorification, praise, and worship of God throughout all eternity. Varying forms of the text are recited at specifically assigned points throughout the liturgy of every prayer service at which a quorum of ten (a minyan) is present.
Originally, kaddish was not related to the liturgy per se, but was recited at the conclusion of rabbinic discourses or lessons, perhaps as a way of dismissing the assembly with an allusion to messianic hope as well as to supreme faith. Because those discourses were delivered in Aramaic, the kaddish text, too, was composed in that daily language. It developed around its central communal response, y’he sh’me rabba m’varakh l’alam ul’almei almaya (May His great Name be worshipped forever, for all time, for all eternity), which derives from Daniel 2:20. Later, the kaddish was introduced into the liturgy to signal the conclusion of sections of a service, to divide such sections, or to conclude biblical readings or talmudic quotations. As the liturgical tradition developed, various forms of the kaddish—its full recitation as well as versions either omitting certain parts or containing alternate passages—were assigned to different specific roles in the liturgical order. These various kaddish recitations and their individual text variants include kaddish d’rabbanan (scholars’ kaddish), recited after the reading of talmudic or midrashic passages; kaddish shalem (the full kaddish text), recited by the reader or prayer leader at the end of a major section of a service; ḥatzi kaddish (half kaddish, recited by the prayer leader between sections of a service); and kaddish yatom (mourners’ kaddish), recited by mourners and observers of a yortsayt (anniversary of a death) after a service and following recitation of certain Psalms. An expanded form of the mourners’ kaddish is recited at the cemetery following a burial and is known as kaddish l‘atḥaddata.
Recitation of kaddish (the kaddish yatom version) in memory of parents and siblings is certainly one of its assigned roles. The oldest evidence of this, however, is found no earlier than in a 13th-century prayerbook, even though Sofrim (a minor supplementary tractate of the Talmud) contains a reference to the pronouncement of kaddish at burials (19:12). But the kaddish text itself is in no way a “prayer for the dead,” and even kaddish yatom concerns neither mourning nor death. Nor should that memorial function be construed as the primary role among its others. In fact, the direct role of kaddish vis-á-vis mourners may well have arisen as an indirect consequence of another, related practice, whereby mourners were assigned to study or participate in study of a sacred text. Such study was deemed an appropriate way of honoring deceased parents, and was also first mentioned in Sofrim (19:12). In that case, the leader (not the mourners themselves) would have recited a concluding kaddish—not for the departed ones, but simply to conclude the study session. According to that scenario, memorial recitation of kaddish directly by mourners and observers of yortsayt grew from the custom of memorial study, and was instituted as an independent obligation only later.
Eventually, and without prejudice to the other, wider roles of kaddish in regular daily prayer services, the specific mourners’ kaddish acquired an identity and raison d’é‚tre of its own. Various mystical, poetic, and allegorical purposes were attached to its daily recitation during the eleven-month mourning period for parents, and annually on the yortsayt. Although such supernaturally driven interpretative justifications are for the most part no longer accepted literally within the contexts of modern mainstream theological sensibilities, in earlier periods some believed that kaddish recitation had the power to redeem the souls of departed ones, to facilitate their “rescue” from suffering in the hereafter, and to mediate punitive torments. It has also been proposed that kaddish was adopted as a mourner’s prayer because of a reference to messianic resurrection, which is found in a passage near the beginning that was later discarded in versions other than kaddish l’atḥaddata. Another messianic reference (unrelated to resurrection) remains, however, in the kaddish text of the Sepahrdi rite as well as among Hassidim (nusaḥ ari).
More rationally grounded, sophic, psychologically reasoned, and currently acceptable interpretations are generally less tinged with eschatological concerns, and can be tied in principle to the concept of tzidduk hadin (justification)—viz., acceptance, of God’s judgment. In this context, a mourner’s almost defiant pronouncement of kaddish confirms his steadfast worship of God and undiminished acknowledgment of His ultimately benevolent supremacy even in the face of death and grief.
Bernstein’s third symphony is built around intonations as well as dramatic recitations of the words of kaddish, which serve a dual role in this spiritual exploration.
Kaddish functions here in its broadest sense: confirmation of absolute, unswerving faith in God’s incomparable, even if incomprehensible, quintessence of greatness—and, by extension in this personal interpretation, faith in the Divine manifestation and spark within man. Simultaneously, kaddish here is also partly a kaddish yatom—not yet an actuality, but a warning, a potential consequence, almost a threat. For in this worldview, mankind stands on the brink of a cataclysm, an ultimate crisis of reciprocal faith, and therefore an ensuing ultimate mourning—for Creation, for mankind, even for God. The necessarily two-way relationship between God and man is in jeopardy. If God does not return man’s faith in Him with His own Divine faith in His own special creature, man, whom, Scripture relates, He created “in his own image,” there may be one final kaddish. “I want to say kaddish, my own kaddish,” the voice of mankind proclaims urgently in the invocation. “There may be no one to say it after me.”
On yet another level, one may find a deliberate ambiguity about what the words of kaddish are meant to signify in the context of this encounter with God. Are they spoken to reassure us that faith and doubt, far from being mutually exclusive, might actually reinforce each other? Or is kaddish recited here out of fear—fear of an impending final mourning? Will that mourning be for man or for God? Will God find Himself reciting kaddish in memory of the mankind He fashioned but then allowed to destroy itself? Do the words of kaddish in this symphony justify, even legitimize man’s grouse with the supreme Master of the universe—the repository of perfection—or are these words only to appease God in the context of man’s brazen accusations? Does this kaddish nonetheless become a binding force in a rejuvenated relationship between man and God? Or have all these roles been assigned in this drama to the powers of the ancient Jewish doxology?
This voice of humanity now remonstrates and wrestles with God, and even reproaches Him. Yet there is an underlying mood of supplication and pleading about that reproach—at times furious, at times poignant, and at times sympathetic. Man rebels, or tries to rebel, but he rebels against the nature of the relationship, not against the supreme Divine authority. And so solid, so unshakable is his faith that, despite the fury of his disappointment, man emerges from the struggle with an even deeper, renewed sense of faith and partnership in an ever-evolving, unfolding Creation that is heralded by an exultant choral fugue. Kaddish is indeed the ultimate expression of that renewal here, for inextricable from its succession of lavish praises is fundamental hope.
The pursuit of this kind of altercation with the Almighty might, on its surface, seem unacceptably irreverent, if not blasphemous; and to concert audiences it might even reverberate as an attack on conventional assumptions about religion in general and about humanity’s proper place in relation to Divine supremacy. Its understanding requires both a measure of theological imagination and some knowledge of Jewish spiritual history. Confrontations and disputations with God by men of intense faith are well rooted in a number of Jewish religious, folk, and literary traditions, beginning with biblical incidents. Abraham (over God’s announced plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah); Moses (numerous times—for example over his appointment by God to lead Israel out of Egypt and then at God’s anger over the Golden Calf incident); and Job (at his unwarranted suffering)—all of them remonstrated and resisted. Hebrew liturgy, especially for the High Holy Days, is filled with gentle but clear reminders to God of His promises—of forgiveness, of rescue, of protection, and of redemption. But it is in 18th- and 19th-century Hassidic tradition and thinking, with its emphasis on serving God through intense love, ecstatic clinging, and joy, rather than fear, that this theme was most fully developed. So close was their perceived rapport with God on a complicated mystical plane, so unimpeachable was their loyalty, and so fervent was their intimacy in the communication of prayer, that many tzaddikim (righteous Hassidic masters) and rebbes (paternalistic, spiritual, and charismatic leaders of Hassidim—their followers—usually belonging to a particular group or dynasty) are said to have reproached God on occasion on behalf of the Jewish people, reminding Him of His part in the covenant with Israel and even expressing a love-born anger at the delay in its fulfillment. These engagements, of course, especially as part of folklore, must be understood more in poetic than in literal terms, even when and if they were actually voiced. The scenario of a rebbe or tzaddik representing and pleading on behalf of the Jewish people before the Divine court “in heaven” and directly before God became a cherished popular folk image among many Hassidim—and sometimes a literally held belief as well.
Of all such rebbes and tzaddikim, however, it was Levi Yitzḥak of Berditchev (ca. 1740–1810, also known as the Berditchever), one of the most illustrious as well as popular Hassidic personalities, who acquired the broadest reputation as the adversarial advocate and “defender” of the Jewish people before that “heavenly tribunal”—and before God as the supreme Judge. His putative confrontations with God—his admonitions, his interventions, his negotiations and bargains, his rebukes, his testimony, and his mock dramatic, quasi-judicial challenges, in which he would pretend to summon God to account and to demand fulfillment of the Divine obligations of justice—became legendary.
Folk tradition (based in at least some instances on kernels of historical occurrence, as well as on second- or third-hand eyewitness accounts) ascribes to Levi Yitzḥak a number of “songs” whose Yiddish lyrics, combined with references to Hebrew liturgy, embody his conversations with God on the people Israel’s behalf. Some of these songs have been preserved through oral tradition and transmission, each of which has accumulated multiple variants and embellishments over time. Some are also extant in printed sources with musical notation that was, of course, accomplished long after the fact. (The actual sources of the melodic skeletons to which these various lyrics have been sung, despite their occasionally assumed attribution to Levi Yitzḥak as well, cannot be known.) By far the most famous of these songs today is generally called A din torah mit got (a “court session” with God), but it is also known variously as “The Kaddish of Levi Yitzḥak of Berditchev” and “The Berditchever’s Kaddish.” In real life, a din torah is a judicial proceeding analogous to a civil hearing or trial, which is convened to adjudicate a dispute between two Jewish parties. This is pursued according to Jewish law, but also according both to sekhel hayashar (common reasoning) and to Judaically accepted norms of fairness and righteous behavior. It was to just such an imaginary, poetically convened proceeding that Levi Yitzḥak is said to have summoned God, as both defendant and Judge, to argue the case of the Jewish people’s plight and to demand Divine reconsideration and intervention. That incident, which is the subject of this song, is known consciously to have informed Bernstein’s overall dramatic conception of the Kaddish Symphony as well as specific aspects of it; and, indeed, the second movement is titled Part II: Din Torah.
According to one version of the legend, this song originated at the pulpit during services on Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year, which is also known as yom hadin (the Day of Judgment)—during a service at which Levi Yitzḥak was serving as cantor. It is reported that he invented this song as a spontaneous preamble to the kaddish recitation he was about to sing in its regular liturgical order (not a mourners’ kaddish). Before commencing the kaddish itself as the congregation would have expected, so the story goes, he began by improvising aloud this interchange with God, as if proclaiming to God on that annual Day of Judgment: “I will not begin the service—and the congregation will be forced to wait—until I have an answer and until I can know why Israel, who is more loyal and more steadfast to You than any other people, still waits for your rescue from its suffering” (or, in 21st-century terms, “until I’ve spoken my piece and clarified our position”). Of course, Levi Yitzḥak then proceeded immediately to segue into the usual kaddish, without any such answer—reconfirming his and his people’s unqualified commitment.
Following is one possible translation of a reasonable composite of the best known variants of A din torah mit got:
Good morning, Sir, Lord, Master of the Universe.
And I, Levi Yitzḥak, son of Sarah of Berditchev,
And I, Levi Yitzḥak, son of Sarah of Berditchev say:
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say:
Bernstein, of course, relied on Levi Yitzḥak’s monologue more in principle than in specific content. “They [Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets] argued with God,” he observed in a 1985 interview, “the way you argue with somebody who’s so close to you that you love so much, that you can really fight....The more you love someone, the more you can get angry with him, and when you have a reconciliation, the more close you become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of this piece....” But he expanded greatly upon the theme, giving it universal perspectives and relating it to a paramount concern of the early 1960s: survival under the threat of both atomic annihilation and spiritual and moral self-destruction as a result of ignorance and bigotry. Here, it is not the Jewish people alone that requires intervention and a reconsidered relationship with God, but all humanity; and the accusations concern the perilous state at which the Divine authority has permitted mankind to arrive. Nonetheless, like Levi Yitzḥak’s diatribe, the symphony concludes resolutely and optimistically with the reiterated words of kaddish.
Bernstein wrote the text himself, after frustrated attempts to collaborate with such poets as Robert Lowell (who actually wrote three poems for the work that went unused) and Frederick Seidel. “Collaboration is impossible on so personal a work,” he wrote to his sister, Shirley. But he was unhappy with it. “In my fervor to make it immediately communicative to the audience, I made it over-communicative,” he said in a 1967 interview in Italy. “There are embarrassing moments....I did enormous cutting. But it’s still too much and it’s still too—corny, is the only word I can find. And I do wish I could revise it or find somebody who could revise it well and cut it down.” Indeed, he made many subsequent revisions, and a final version was premiered in 1977. The text has experienced further evolutionary changes, with performances featuring his daughter, Jamie (as Speaker), who has added autobiographical elements.
About the revised version of his third symphony, the composer, during a press conference held in Berlin in August 1977, commented:
Bernstein: I was not satisfied with the original. There was too much talk. The piece is essentially the same, only better. It is tighter and shorter. There are some cuts, some musical rewriting and a lot of rewriting of the spoken text.
Question: On your first recording there is a woman speaker...
Bernstein: It’s my wife [Felicia Montealegre].
Question: ...and now it’s a man who speaks. Why did you change?
Bernstein: Well, I did not change it from a woman to a man. I made it so that it can be for either one. The original idea was that it be a woman because she represented das Ewig-Weibliche (the “Eternal Feminine”), that part of man that intuits God. But then I realized that this was too limiting. Hence, the alternate possibility.
For the 2004 Liverpool performances from which this recording was made, Calum MacDonald, one of Great Britain’s leading writers on music, offered the following additional thoughts in the program notes:
It is relevant to ask how much of a “symphony” KADDISH is. Clearly, it stands in some relationship—even if partly a parodic one—to such vocal-orchestral professions of faith (and doubt) as Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Eighth symphonies. Formally speaking it hints at the familiar symphonic shape of slow introduction and allegro, slow movement, scherzo and finale, but this is subverted by the way the argument swings between the principal choral sections and the interventions of the Speaker, whose role is more reminiscent of more recent expressions of Jewish faith and crisis such as Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre and A Survivor from Warsaw. And the music takes on, from Bernstein, the consummate man of theatre, a distinctly “theatrical” aspect: in a sense the symphonic form is hardly there for its own sake, but as a kind of stage set, in front of which a dramatized debate—or interior monologue—takes place. In this KADDISH already points the way to Bernstein’s Mass (1971), which is an outright theatre piece and religious choral work all in one.
A work that seeks to encompass so much rightly spans a large stylistic gamut, from spiky 12-note serialism through jazz inflections, a pellucid neoclassicism recalling Bernstein’s friend Aaron Copland, even simple diatonic melody. Despite all the angry words and argumentation, the music’s tendency is in fact towards greater clarity and simplicity as it proceeds. The 12-note row of the first movement gives birth to diatonic tunes in the later ones, and the symphony closes in a peaceful F major. Probably the finest and most memorable music in the work, however, is the Kaddish II section, sung by solo soprano and children’s choir—an ecstatic lullaby invention through which we can plainly hear, in the doubter and disputant who dominates much of this unusual symphony, the composer of West Side Story and the Chichester Psalms.
Bernstein considered the Kaddish Symphony the most striking example of his own 12-tone writing. He once recalled that a group of young, self-styled avant-garde composers had been enormously impressed with the work at a rehearsal they attended en masse, until they heard the completely tonal lullaby in the second movement. “They threw up their hands in despair,” Bernstein described, “and said, ‘Oh, well, there it goes.’” He went on to explain that he had intended that the agony expressed by the 12-tone music give way to tonality and even diatonic writing, so that the concluding and triumphal affirmation of faith is deliberately tonal.
The score calls for four flutes (including piccolo and alto flute), two oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, one trumpet in D and three trumpets in C, three trombones, tuba, an unusually large and imaginative battery of percussion, and strings.
The Kaddish Symphony was originally a joint commission by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere, however, was given in Tel Aviv in December 1963—at Bernstein’s request—by the Israel Philharmonic under his baton, with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel as the soprano soloist and Hanna Rovina, an actress with the Habima Theatre in Israel, as the Speaker. The entire text had been translated into Hebrew. The American premiere occurred the following month, performed by the Boston Symphony conducted by Charles Munch, also with Jennie Tourel, but this time with Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife, in the Speaker’s role. The American premiere of the revised version was given in Dallas in 1977, following its world premiere in Germany. Bernstein conducted the first recording, with Tourel and Montealegre, the New York Philharmonic, the Camerata Singers, and the Columbus Boychoir (now the American Boychoir), as well as the second recording, with Montserrat Caballé in the soprano role, Michael Wager as the Speaker, the Vienna Boys Choir, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernstein learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just as he was completing the orchestration, which prompted him to dedicate the work to his memory. Its world premiere in Israel less than three weeks later was also a memorial there for the American president, and the words of kaddish acquired yet another significance.