Essential Bernstein

Religion and Spirituality in the Music of Bernstein


Leonard Bernstein’s dynamism as a composer, a performer (as a pianist), a conductor, and a teacher is clear. Yet, as the world re-encounters his extraordinary legacy of music, performances, lectures, and more throughout 2018, it becomes clear that all his roles — and the balance in which he held them — trace their roots to Bernstein’s childhood as a member of a Jewish congregation in Boston.

The powerful presence of the congregation’s rabbi and music director, as well as the faith and its traditions, never ceased to inform Bernstein’s work and life.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in human history, when the underpinnings of religion were tested like never before. Even as he never lost sight of his Jewish roots, he also confronted, with the rest of society, a constant crisis of faith.

It was an honor to explore these issues with Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University and Joshua Jacobson of Northeastern University in a public forum presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the New England Conservatory of Music.

In this presentation, we:

  • painted a picture of Jewish immigration to Boston in the early 20th Century and what that meant for Bernstein as a child (4:23),
  • revealed the ways Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, reflects his faith and confrontation with the Holocaust (24:30),
  • discussed the strengthening of his Jewish identity in the face of advice to the contrary as his career launched (37:30), and
  • explored the ways that identity and his relationship with his father led him to compose his Symphony No. 3, Kaddish (45:00).

Along the way, we drew from materials that include:

  • a recording of music written and performed by Solomon Braslavsky, music director of Congregation Mishkan Tefila (23:00), and
  • rarely heard excerpts from Bernstein’s interviews with biography John Gruen (15:50, 40:57), and
  • specific musical examples from Jeremiah (30:41, 33:17) and Kaddish (1:01:40, 1:02:57, 1:04:12).

The religious and spiritual underpinnings of Bernstein’s life and work are often obscured by so much else, from the justified fame of West Side Story to his struggles with sexuality. As this discussion proves, though, Bernstein’s faith and Jewish identity were foundational in making him the Leonard Bernstein we celebrate this year.

About this content

The Bernstein Week panels in Boston are supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Video produced by WGBH Forum Network.

Special thanks to the following for providing research and content: Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives; New York Philharmonic Archives; Loeb Music Library, Harvard University; Congregation Mishkan Tefila Archives; and The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org. Audio clips of Leonard Bernstein Copyright: Estate of John Gruen. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Julia Gruen.

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