Leonard Bernstein once wrote, “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith.” This preoccupation with faith, or loss of it, in the 20th century is the recurring subject of all three of his symphonies.
Like a frugal housekeeper, Bernstein never threw any of his compositions away, instead putting them aside in a bottom drawer for possible use at a later date. For example, “Why do the nations …,” a passage that appears in the second movement of the Chichester Psalms, is a reworking of a Prologue written (but discarded) for West Side Story.
Excerpt from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah” (III. Lamentation)
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein, Conductor; Jennie Tourel, Mezzo-Soprano. Sony Classical SK 60697.
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Like his unused Prologue, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” was originally a Lamentation for soprano and orchestra. After completing an initial version of the work, Bernstein became distracted by other projects (including the need to make a living), and only came back to it when he decided that, with substantial changes, it would make a suitable finale for a projected symphony.
For the first movement (titled Prophecy) of his Symphony No. 1, Bernstein borrowed several liturgical themes with which to illustrate the prophecy of the annihilation of the Temple in Jerusalem. The second movement, Profanation, is a rhythmic scherzo, written “to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and people” and containing seeds of musical impulses that appear 15 years later in West Side Story.
The final Lamentation, the movement conceived three years earlier and now rewritten to fit a symphonic frame, proved that good housekeeping paid rich dividends!
Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).