Spring Symphonies: 22/60 Bernstein Symphony No 1 “Jeremiah”

Photo: Jack Mitchell

There was something of a lull in the popularity of Leonard Bernstein’s works for concert hall in the years immediately after his death 24 years ago, but now a band of young conductors inspired by the man or his music (it matters little which) takes his orchestral music out wherever they go.  That said it was quite a surprise to encounter a recording of this symphony from Gustavo Dudamel which really turned me onto it’s charms.  Dudamel excels at the direct and his point making was as direct as the composer’s own in his recordings but a little more subtle.

For whatever reason this symphony is not played as often as it might be in concert - and that’s a pity because it is as great an introduction to Bernstein’s orchestral music and also a moving piece very much of it’s time. It was completed in 1942 and premiered in 1944 and was fought over by two great American conductors for the first performance.  And after that it was taken up by many orchestras in the US and performed a good deal.  It is a significant American symphony.

But it is an assemblage of bits from the composer’s workbench.  Despite this, it has a unified feel to its lines and an overwhelming sincerity as Bernstein explores his preoccupation of faith or rather our loss of it.  Each movement comes to uncomfortable answers in the questions it sets.  The last borrowing much from Hebrew scripture but ultimately it asks questions of all our hearts (irrespective of the source of our faith or lack of it). Bernstein’s “explanations” of his works get a bit wordy for me and much as I like to read these things eventually - I don’t feel this symphony needs a great deal of explanation and sometimes we find where things are unclear the ambivalence is sweet enough to allow the mind to wander beyond the composer’s purpose.

In contradiction to that, and because I can find no other labels, the movements are titled in what a lawyer might call a leading fashion….

  1. Prophecy
  2. Profanation
  3. Lamentation

The work opens with a commanding horn call and proceeds with slow serious intent in a manner which echoes Mahler and Copland interrupted with harsh disruptive punctuation.  The brass choirs relieve the mood.  The music brightens a little across antiphonal strings - a marvellous effect. The great climax which follows may seem a little too monumental this early in a symphonic career - but it is heart felt.  Everything Bernstein touched was heart felt.  And some may put the symphony in that place but what ever it’s earnest intent it cannot be called a trivial work, just perhaps one that can be taken too seriously especially in the hands of it’s loving parent.

The second movement is spirited and obviously not too far from Bernstein and Copland’s stage music - the one for musicals and the other for ballet.  Its got teeth and is in someways quite malign. That said there’s some of that luscious tune-making that Bernstein was to take to the theatre - the epitome of simple delight never saccharine.  And there’s that little twist in the melody recalling “Maria” from West Side  Story.  But this is all to the good.  It is palpably on the edge of something much less sweet or appealing.

The final movement demands a fine voice to command a sizeable orchestra and carry these weighty texts with their full authority.  The musical effect of this movement is like a reversal of Mahler’s Fourth symphony with innocence and heaven consumed, Earth and the slow burning feeling of suffering are the over-riding concerns.  No wonder Fritz Reiner wanted Bernstein to add a fourth and jollier movement.  But at the time of writing there was much to lament. it’s a bold and confident (musically) movement tackling a insecure faith and uncertain future. It strikes me that the soloists role is taxing both it its requirements on power but setting an appropriate tone for such revered texts.  It has been handled well in the versions I’ve heard via recordings but I imagine it could be electrifying in the right hands in a live performance.

Its a thrilling but desultory progress - hear it and dwell on it

Here’s the man himself conducting his symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra


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