Essential Bernstein

Welcome to Paradox: Bernstein’s Tonal (Atonal) Symphony (“Kaddish”)

Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor, and communicator, describes the mixed reception to his third symphony (audio). Actress Laila Robins reads the “Closing Prayer” (audio). And, Boston-based scholars discuss the music and religious background of Bernstein’s “12-tone” yet tonal symphony (videos).

As The Bernstein Experience winds down, WGBH and bring you a “closing prayer” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”), a work that seems to embody the musical and religious contradictions of the man, and a dash of inspiration from Lenny, our favorite maestro.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”) reflects the religious, musical, and oh-so-human paradox and irony of the composer and man. At once both sacred and sacrilegious,  “Kaddish” is perhaps the work that most reveals his challenge with his father, his religion, his critics, and his inner, private world.

Mixed reviews

Bernstein’s Kaddish symphony is one of his most revealing works — and he was never quite comfortable with it. He questioned his choices for the music and the text, and seemingly forever wanted to improve the work.

Listen to Bernstein describe the mixed reception of the Kaddish, including by Boston’s new classical music critic at the time (4:10).

What is the Kaddish?

The narration is based on the Aramaic and Hebrew text of the “Kaddish,” a Jewish prayer.

As Joshua Jacobson, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Northeastern University, describes, the prayer has become associated with death, although it was originally intended as a “doxology” — a prayer of praise for God’s infinite presence.

The prayer would be recited after rabbinical study, and after death.

The irony? This prayer is actually about life — and God’s presence in life.

A Tonal Approach to an Atonal Symphony?

In a 1977 interview with Peter Rosen, Bernstein explained why he used a tonal approach to a 12-tone scale composition — and the mixed reception of the Boston premiere by a group of young composers:

they were all terribly excited until about the midpoint of the symphony when the second Kaddish, which is sung by a soprano and which is a lullaby and completely tonal, appeared, and they all threw up their hands in despair and said, oh, well, there it goes. That’s the end of that piece…

Of course they didn’t understand at all that one of the main points of the piece is that the agony expressed with the twelve tone music has to give way — this is part of the form of the piece — to tonality and diatonism even so that what triumphs in the end, the affirmation of faith is tonal.

Here, years later, scholars discuss the tonal implications of Bernstein’s use of the 12-tone scale:


“Closing Prayer”

Bernstein wrote the role of the narrator for his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre. Since then, his eldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein has also performed as narrator.

Here, actress Laila Robins, who performed the role of narrator in 2018 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, reads the Closing Prayer for

We have both grown older, You and I.
And I am not sad, don’t You be, either,
Unfurrow your brow; look tenderly again
At me, at us, at all these growing children
Of God here, in this sacred house.
And we shall look tenderly back to You.
O my Father: Lord and Lover:
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.

For all the glory Bernstein received (and now is receiving posthumously) for his musical and educational genius, his third symphony reveals his suffering. He wanted to love everyone. He oozed with music and sensuality. (He was no saint.) He believed in hope. And: his music making, teaching, and gift at communicating, left a legacy that will never, ever, be replaced.

About the author

Rachel Hassinger is managing editor of Follow her on Twitter @classicalrachel.

About this content

Audio of Bernstein: The Bernstein Experience brings to you, for the first time ever, exclusive audio from intimate recording sessions of Leonard Bernstein by biographer John Gruen, who interviewed Bernstein, his family, and his confidants in Italy for seven weeks during the summer of 1967. Copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Julia Gruen.

Audio of Robins: Robins audio recorded by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on April 24, 2018. Lawrence Rock, Audio Director. Mark Travis, Production Director. Special thanks to Margaret Mercer.

Video: Courtesy of WGBH Forum Network.

Text from “Kaddish”: “Closing Prayer” lyrics provided courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office. Inc.

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