Monday, November 16, 2015

A Year's Music: Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony

During the upcoming year I plan to listen to a variety of works that I broadly call "sacred"---classical church-related pieces, or ones that are otherwise deeply spiritual. This week I'm listening to a piece for the first time: Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish." I remember inspecting the LP at a record store when I was in my teens or early twenties, probably the version conducted by the composer himself. Instead of that disc, I purchased Bernstein's Mass, a long-time favorite which I write about here. This is a new recording of Kaddish on the Naxos label, by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestral conducted by Marin Alsop, and the Washington Chorus directed by Julian Wachner, with narration by the actress Claire Bloom.

The kaddish prayer is, of course, the Jewish prayer for the dead, though the prayer itself contains no reference to death but instead refers to life and the praise of God. This symphony (Bernstein's third of three) was completed and premiered in 1963 and dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy. Bernstein subsequently revised the piece, but Alsop returns to the first version. An unusual symphony, unlimited by the form's conventions, the piece begins with a wordless chord cluster from the chorus and, shortly, a spoken invocation in which the speaker (originally stipulated to be for a woman) addresses God. She wants to pray a kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, but she wants to pray it for herself, lest there be no one later to pray for her. At this point, the chorus enters, singing words from the prayer itself.

After the first movement, the speaker returns in the section called "Din-Torah"---a Jewish legal judgment---in which she accuses God of violating God's promises to humankind.

"Are You listening, Father? You know who I am:
Your image; that stubborn reflection of You
That Man has shattered, extinguished, banished.
And now he runs free—free to play
With his new-found fire, avid for death,
Voluptuous, complete and final death.
Lord God of Hosts, I call You to account!
You let this happen, Lord of Hosts!
You with Your manna, Your pillar of fire!
You ask for faith, where is Your own?
Why have You taken away Your rainbow,
That pretty bow You tied round Your finger
To remind You never to forget Your promise?

"'For lo, I do set my bow in the cloud ...
And I will look upon it, that I
May remember my everlasting covenant ...'
Your covenant! Your bargain with Man!
Tin God! Your bargain is tin!
It crumples in my hand!
And where is faith now—Yours or mine?"

(This is from the Bernstein website; all the lyrics and spoken words of the symphony are found here.

But in a little while, the speaker returns in a more conciliatory mood, and the soprano soloist sings a gentle melody to God, as if singing God to sleep. In the sections of the final movement, the speaker describes the kingdom of heaven to God, and subsequently depicts a dream to God, challenging the sleeping God to believe in her vision. Finally, God and humanity are affirmed to be in covenant with one another, with God needful of humanity as humanity is needful of God.

"O my Father, Lord of Light!
Beloved Majesty: my Image, my Self!
We are one, after all, You and I:
Together we suffer, together exist,
And forever will recreate each other.
Recreate, recreate each other!
Suffer, and recreate each other!"

The concluding choral fugue and final chord are dissonant, suggesting continuing effort rather than resolution. The Bernstein website provides a more full summary and analysis of the piece, here.

The Kaddish Symphony anticipates Mass both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. The three short sequences that begin the piece remind me of motifs in Mass, and at one point, when the speaker breathlessly says, "Amen, amen…" my mind filled in the words of Mass' celebrant, "a'm in a hurry and come again…." The themes of the questioning of faith and the possibility of a rediscovered or reconfigured faith is certainly the driving force of that later, longer piece.

An interesting interview of conductor Alsop appeared in the September 2015 issue of Gramophone magazine (pp. 52-53). She cites a Bernstein lecture in which the composer was "convinced that the first word ever uttered was sung, the substructure of all language…So having the chorus begin like this [the wordless chord that commences the symphony] was very important to him. The song without words. And language only gradually emerges."

Alsop notes, "The journey of this symphony, from atonality toward totality symbolized a huge issue for Bernstein…in this piece atonality becomes a symbol of crisis, an erosion of fundamentals and of faith, while tonality symbolizes unity and hope." She points out the choral cadenza in the Din-Torah section, in which eight sections of the shores have their own tempos. "'Din-Torah' is really about ambiguity… the choral cadenza is really an anticipation of the cathartic breakdown in Mass, when the celebrant shatters the chalice." But after this, the speaker speaks amiably, as if her shaky faith found solace---and a renewed covenant----in giving God comfort.

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