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Leonard Bernstein's Jewish Heritage
Mon, 23 Jul 2018

We’re celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year this summer on Clef Notes. Bernstein is remembered for his work as a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and so much more. Today, let’s focus our attention on Bernstein as a composer – specifically how his heritage impacted many of his works. This post was written by WGUC intern, Connor Annable. 

Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. This heritage would later impact his compositions. We first see an example this in his Symphony #1, written not long after Bernstein graduated from Harvard. He called it “Jeremiah” because it drew from a Hebrew setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Bible, which is sung in the symphony’s final movement by a solo mezzo-soprano. What do you think of this work? Bernstein began work on this piece in the late 1930s, during a time when tensions were rising in Europe under Hitler. Do you think these tensions are reflected in this piece?

It was not until 1965 that Bernstein allowed his Jewish heritage to fully come through in his music. In that year, he composed the Chichester Psalmson a commission from Walter Hussey for performance at that year’s Southern Cathedrals Festival in Chichester, England. The work is a setting of selected texts from the Psalms in Hebrew. Bernstein’s musical structures are firmly rooted in tonality while also being rhythmically adventurous.  Interestingly enough, Bernstein’s melodic roots in Chichester Psalms appear to be centered in American popular music, since most of its themes are based on recycled material from West Side Story.

At roughly the same time, Bernstein had completed his Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish,” composed to honor the memory of John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in 1963. This work sets the traditional Kaddish prayer for the dead, juxtaposed against an English text written by Bernstein himself and read by a solo speaker. Bernstein manages to retain some of his distinctly American flare by writing mainly tonal harmonies with frequent use of mixed meters.

One of Bernstein’s lesser-known works is a “nocturne” for flute and orchestra titled Halil. This work is a prominent example from the later part of Bernstein’s career showing his Jewish heritage. Bernstein dedicated Halilto the memory of an Israeli flute student named Yadin Tannenbaum who was killed fighting in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Because 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, it is important to understand how much of an impact his music has had on audiences today, while never underestimating the importance of religious themes or overtones.


Symphony No. 1:
Israel Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano Deutsche Grammophon 00028945775722

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop, conductor; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano 
Naxos  8.559790

Chichester Psalms:
Israel Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Wiener Jeunesse Chor; Soloist from Wiener Sängerknaben 
Deutsche Grammophon  00028945775722

Symphony No. 3:
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Jennie Tourel, soprano; Felicia Montealegre, narrator; Camerata Singers; Columbus Boychoir 
Sony Classical  074646059524

Israel Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Montserrat Caballé, soprano; Michael Wager, narrator; Wiener Jeunesse Chor; Wiener Sängerknaben
Deutsche Grammophon 00028944795424 or 00028946982921

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop, conductor; Kelly Nassief, soprano; Claire Bloom, narrator; Washington Chorus; Maryland State Boychoir 
Naxos  8.559742
Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra/John Neschling, conductor; Sharon Bezaly, flute
BIS  BIS-CD-1650

Israel Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute
Deutsche Grammophon 00028946982921

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