ONE OF THE ICONIC MUSICAL FIGURES OF OUR AGE, LEONARD BERNSTEIN left a singular legacy as a composer of classical symphonies and Broadway shows, as a compelling conductor, and as a uniquely gifted communicator.
Also central to his creative outlook and artistic identity was the highly individual way in which he expanded fundamental elements of his Jewish heritage to communicate universal values and concerns. It is in his Kaddish, Symphony no. 3, perhaps more than in any other of his compositions, that Bernstein brings together his Jewish spiritual roots and his lifelong concern for the plight of a floundering humanity.
Born in the crucible of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, this work seems just as timely today, when humanity faces daunting challenges ranging from terrorism to global epidemics, and grapples with the same consequences of misunderstanding that so troubled the composer. Bernstein's plea for peace and reconciliation resounds louder than ever in our own ears.
Never completely satisfied with this intensely personal cri de coeur, which he dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated as it was being completed, the composer constantly reworked the piece for 14 years. His final authorized version of 1977 is the basis of a Milken Archive CD released in September 2005, a disc that also includes Chichester Psalms. another Bernstein work of Judaic inspiration firmly established in the mainstream classical repertoire. Gerard Schwarz conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, with Willard White as the speaker and soprano Yvonne Kenny, on these all-new recordings.
Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish has probably introduced more members of the general public to Jewish liturgy in its original language than any other musical work. An intensely dramatic, theatrical concert piece, it is based on two aspects of Judaism: one liturgical—the Kaddish ("sanctification"), a prayer of praise and affirmation recited during every communal Jewish worship service; and one literary-poetic—the Hassidic image of a candid dialogue with God. "The Kaddish prayer," explains Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin in his extensive essay about the work, "embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God's unparalleled greatness…lt is the ultimate expression of unqualified glorification. praise, and worship of God…" Levin traces the historical development of this prayer and explains its various roles within the liturgy: to mark divisions between portions of the service, to celebrate the conclusions of study sessions, and, in perhaps its best known but by no means primary usage, as an affirmation of faith by those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a death. Except for a congregational response and the concluding sentence, the language of the kaddish is Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews for approximately 1,500 years following the Babylonian captivity (6th-5th century BCE).
Leonard Bernstein built the Kaddish Symphony around an impassioned narration and three settings of the kaddish prayer: first in an agitated tone by the chorus, secondly as a soaring soprano lullaby, and then in a fugal choral affirmation. He compiled the narration himself, and asserted that the speaker represented his own voice. Expressing both a crisis of faith and his ultimate hope for the redemption of humanity, the composer focuses on the issues of mankind's ultimate survival—the threats of mutual destruction and of spiritual and moral decline arising from ignorance and intolerance. He predicts the death of humanity as mankind stands on the brink of an ultimate cataclysm, in which the special relationship between God and man that is the cornerstone of God's covenant with the Jewish people is in jeopardy. Each partner in this reciprocal bond must restore faith in the other, or there will be one, final kaddish.
This dialogue between man and God stands at the very center of Bernstein's conception. In his view, all mankind, not only the Jewish people, must rethink its relationship with God, and God needs to consider the dangerous brink to which humanity has come. As the Kaddish Symphony unfolds, man is at times furious with God, but is also supplicating and humble; ultimately, faith wins out and the bond emerges stronger for having been tested. As Bernstein himself put it: "...All our great Judaistic personalities of the past, including Abraham, who founded Judaism, and Moses and the prophets, all argued with God...You know how the more you love someone, the more you can get angry with them, and when you have a reconciliation, the more close you become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of this piece."
Neil Levin reminds us that "confrontations and disputations with God by men of intense faith are well rooted in a number of Jewish religious, folk and literary traditions. They flowered especially in 18th, and 19th,century Hassidic thought, with its emphasis on serving God through love and ecstatic joy rather than fear." One of the most charismatic Hassidic leaders. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (ca. 1740–1810), was hailed for his legendary confrontations with God, which often were embodied in folk songs, the most famous of which is A din torah mit got (A "Court Session" with God), or "The Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev." (Incidentally, this song was performed by the famous American black baritone Paul Robeson, the legendary American opera tenor Jan Peerce, and other luminaries.) This imaginary, poetically convened "trial," in which Levi Yitzhak argued the case of the Jewish people's plight before God and demanded Divine intervention, clearly informed Bernstein's overall dramatic conception of the Kaddish Symphony; the second movement is in fact entitled Din Torah.
One cannot help but relate Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony to the High Holy Days, for just as man, during this period of intense reflection and self-examination, is required to call himself to account for his thoughts and actions during the preceding year, Leonard Bernstein, in this work, calls God to account for the predicament humanity finds itself in, and implores both man and God to renew their ancient covenant before it is too late.