God on Trial
by René Spencer Saller
According to Jewish tradition, mourners recite the Kaddish to prove that they still praise God, even in their grief. Although the title for his third symphony explicitly refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead, Bernstein’s Kaddish focuses on the living. More specifically, it deals with our need to find meaning in an absurd and indifferent universe. In the emotionally fraught original text that shapes this dramatic narrative, Bernstein’s speaker and stand-in hectors God, who remains maddeningly silent; after much pleading and recrimination, the speaker eventually finds, if not peace, at least a way to go on.
In Judaism, arguing with God is a time-honored tradition. From the Old Testament’s Job to the American poet Allen Ginsberg (whose Beat epic Kaddish, dedicated to his late mother, had appeared a few years earlier), Jews had been taking the Creator to task for thousands of years. Although Bernstein expected that his Kaddish would be controversial, this challenging and underrated symphony left audience members and critics more perplexed than outraged. The score presented various difficulties, mostly owing to its outsize ambition. It juxtaposed a crisis of faith with an underlying faith in humanity; it dramatized the dream of peace in a world of strife as a struggle between harmony and dissonance. As the music shifts from sublime melodies to unsettling 12-tone excursions, the narrator accuses, negotiates, and consoles.
Written for a large orchestra, a full mixed choir, a boys’ choir, a soprano soloist, and a narrator, Kaddish asks tough existential questions and doesn’t settle for pat or reductive answers. Even though it is nominally a prayer for the dead, it never mentions death at all. Instead, it grapples with the human drive toward self-destruction, the elusiveness of faith, the infinite ways we betray and redeem one another. In English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and an even greater number of musical languages, the symphony builds a Babel, a welter of voices. Our civilization remakes itself in crisis; out of the welter of voices comes a fragile, tentative hope. The final movement ends with a resolution, but it’s an uneasy one. Whereas a conventional Christian Requiem would end on a note of triumph, Bernstein’s Kaddish closes with a dissonant, suspense-laden chord.
Bernstein was finishing up the scoring of Kaddish on November 22, 1963, when the U.S. President, whom he not only supported but considered a friend, was assassinated in downtown Dallas. Stunned and grief-stricken, he dedicated the symphony “to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” A few weeks later, in Tel Aviv, Bernstein led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere. A month after that, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere, with his spoken text recited by his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Dissatisfied with the recitation’s excessive length, he revised the work in 1977 and recorded it for the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1981, he conducted a performance of Kaddish in Rome, where the Pope, who had recently survived an assassination attempt, was in attendance. In 1985, Bernstein led the European Community Youth Orchestra in a performance to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Do yourself a favor and track down the Youtube video. By the final movement, the Maestro’s face is wet with tears.
Copyright 2015 by René Spencer Saller