Leonard Bernstein was a mere twenty-four years old in 1942 when he composed his first symphony, which he subtitled Jeremiah after the biblical prophet. He wrote it initially for a competition sponsored by the New England Conservatory of Music, and although it did not win that particular award, it received a much greater and unexpected “prize” in 1944 in the form of a world premiere performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that its director, the venerable Fritz Reiner (Bernstein’s teacher of conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia) permitted him to conduct.
Bernstein always explained that despite its subtitle, the symphony was not a programmatic work. Indeed, it does not have a specific story line, but rather it reflects what he called the “emotional quality” of Jeremiah’s dire prophecies of impending doom for the people of Judah (Judea) and Jerusalem, in which he foresaw and foretold their destruction and captivity by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar.
Jeremiah felt impelled to speak the truth, of which he was certain, even at great risk to himself (he was often imprisoned and even in mortal danger). He began his preaching in 627 BCE, convinced that his country and his people were under Divine judgment for their corruption (and that of the priesthood in the Temple cult) and their flaunting of the moral principles of the Sinaitic covenant. In particular, he railed against idolatry and the worship of gods other than, or in addition to, the one, true God—adonai. His “Temple sermon,” sternly indicting Judea and its unfaithful ways, was an attempted appeal to the conscience of the nation and a courageous but unsuccessful challenge to its leadership. His admonitions ran against the accepted authorities, the “party line,” and the tide of popular beliefs; and consistently rebuffed, he was forbidden entrance to the Temple. But he continued to denounce and to warn of imminent calamity as Divine punishment, maintaining that he spoke with the higher authority that formed Judah’s true historical and religious basis.
Judah’s leaders thus considered Jeremiah an enemy, especially since—as he was unsuccessful in convincing the nation of its impending doom—he had come to regard the Babylonian army as God’s instrument for national punishment, a military force against which opposition would bring only complete disaster for Judea and Jerusalem.
Speaking in God’s name, Jeremiah also prophesied Israel’s eventual restoration and reunion with Judah, the return of Judah’s captives, and an end to the exile: “Your children shall return to their own land. I will gather them from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to this place, where I will cause them to dwell in safety” (31:15). According to that prediction, God would eventually make a fresh covenant with a new generation.
Bernstein described the first movement, “Prophecy,” as a musical attempt to “parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people.” He envisioned the second movement—a scherzo titled “Profanation”—as portraying “a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people.”
The third and final movement, although it too lacks an actual program, has a literary foundation in its sung text taken from the Book of Lamentations. Bernstein called it a “literary conception—the cry of Jeremiah as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it.”
The biblical Book of Lamentations—eikha—is a collection of five poems. These comprise elegies and dirges that describe the collective agony of the defeated people and bewail the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem. They also express the hope that God will one day again bestow His grace and favor on them and restore the Jewish people to its national home and its holy city, Jerusalem. Tradition—though not necessarily objective modern scholarship—has attributed eikha to Jeremiah.
Eikha is recited (i.e., chanted) in its entirety in the synagogue on Tisha b’Av—the annual fast day and day of national mourning on the ninth of the Hebrew month of av. It commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, traditionally assigned to that same date in 586 BCE and in 72 CE, respectively, nearly six centuries apart. The ninth of av also coincides with the fall of Bar Kokhba’s fortress, Bethar, in his stand against the Romans. (For Sephardi Jews, the date has an additional significance; by tradition, they have assigned that date to the 1492 Spanish expulsion edict.)
The mezzo-soprano part in the third movement is a setting of excerpts from eikha (1:1–3; 1:8; 4:14–15; and 5:20–21). Its lines and the movement as a whole are based on the traditional Ashkenazi cantillation of Lamentations. Its constituent motives are sometimes quoted directly—both by the voice and by the orchestra—and sometimes liberally and artistically developed, altered, and extended, with interludes that exploit a rich array of orchestral colors and timbres. Apart from the cantillation references, the entire movement recalls the somber, mournful, and lugubrious aura of a typical traditional Tisha b’Av service—the intoned recitation of eikha, the congregation seated on low mourning stools with dim lighting and burning candles, and the singing of additional elegies and dirges known as kinot. And even with the added emotional intensity of quasi-operatic vocal lines at their climactic points, as well as the orchestral counterpoint, the principal motives and pitch cells of the traditional eikha cantillation are easily recognizable to all who experience annually this sacred ritual—beginning with the initial motive of an ascending minor third stated by the horns and continued by the vocal entrance.
In a letter to Bernstein, Aaron Copland offered his candid assessment of the symphony: “It’s the best thing of yours I’ve seen so far—more consistent in style and more grown-up in many ways. I like best the beginning and the end.” At that relatively early stage in Bernstein’s creative path, this work, in addition to its ingenious use of authentic Judaic material, reveals the positive influence of a number of American composers at the same time that it displays the intenseness and highly charged energy that defines a memorable aspect of Bernstein’s trademark.
A month after the world premiere in Pittsburgh, the Jeremiah Symphony was performed in Boston—also conducted by the composer. The critic for the Boston Globe cited it as the “best new composition of the year.” And following its New York premiere that spring (four performances), the New York Music Critics’ Circle voted it the “outstanding new work of the season.”
Performers: James Judd, Conductor; Helen Medlyn, Mezzo-soprano; New Zealand Symphony OrchestraAdditional Credits:
Publisher: Universal Polygram Int'l Publ. (per MCA)