Symphony No. 1 ( “Jeremiah")

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            There is infinitely more to Bernstein than the bright and gay.   All his life, he aspired equally to serious composition, and the Symphony No. 1 is a very early example—premièred in 1944 when he was twenty-five, in the youthful flush of success. His ascent to national acclaim was the success borne by his substitute appearance as conductor at the last minute before the New York Philharmonic in November of 1943.   The symphony was premièred two months later, in January of 1944, by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting.  

            He had begun work on the composition right after his graduation from Harvard, in the summer of 1939, but effort was put away during his time as a graduate student at Curtis.  His original conception was for a song setting for soprano and orchestra of texts from the Hebrew book of Jeremiah.  He returned to the project a few years later while a student at Tanglewood with Koussevitzky, added two instrumental movements, and entered it in a composition sponsored by the New England Conservatory of Music.  It didn’t win, but recognition of its virtues came soon, and it won the New York Music Critics' Circle Award for the best American work of 1944. The work’s three movements are:  “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation,” the last adding a mezzo-soprano.

            Descended from a line of Russian rabbis, Bernstein easily and naturally found an innate voice in Jewish words and music.  The text of the last movement is taken from a few chapters of the Hebrew book of Lamentations, wherein the long-suffering prophet, Jeremiah, warns Israel of God’s punishments for its wicked ways.  And, of course, the nation did eventually pay dearly for them with the destruction of the temple and the “Babylonian Captivity” of its people.  The texts that Bernstein chose create a terrible picture of a deserted city, bereft of its people.

            For the first performance by the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein shared his conception of the work in the program notes:

The intention is ... not one of literalness, but of emotional quality. Thus the first movement ('Prophecy') aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet's pleas with his people; and the Scherzo ('Profanation') to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people. The third movement ('Lamentation'), being a setting of poetic text, is naturally a more literary conception. It is the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it.

            “Prophecy” opens with three pairs of dirge-like punctuations in the strings.  A solo horn and a brief, tentative woodwind reply lead into an intense, extended passage for strings, punctuated by forte orchestra accents.  Searing in its intensity, it soon yields to a softer, more serene, reflective section for the woodwinds, joined by the brass.  But, this passage, too, changes mood, and grows in intensity and volume, with the thumping accents and string textures of the opening returning.  While the melodic content is based upon Hebrew chant motifs, that is not easily apparent, and the whole skein is skillfully woven into a universal weft of ominous musical foreboding.  The peaceful ending is appropriately a calm before the storm

            The second movement, “Profanation,” is built of musical elements that are vaguely more Semitic, with chant-like melodies integrating into a driving, and at times, almost hysterical, dance in Moto perpetuo.  At the beginning Bernstein cleverly invokes the music of the Middle East by opening with woodwind solos doubled between high and low instruments—for example, flute and clarinet.  Punchy, displaced accents and changing meters knock the dance around—and let’s be honest--thoughts of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México may come to mind.  Intimations of the profane dance before the ark arise, as well.  A more serene moment in the middle is almost required by traditional demands of form, and we get one.  But, the opening turmoil returns to round it off.

            “Lamentation” paints a bleak musical landscape, with impassioned cries of despair and soft, tragic ruminations over Israel’s ruination, separated by equally evocative orchestra sections.   The latter run the emotional gamut from the intensely private to stentorian outbursts of collective pain.  If one were to try to put one’s finger on the musical influences on the talented young composer, it really wouldn’t be dismissive of his genius to point out the many places where it seems that Gustav Mahler meets Aaron Copland.   Later, of course, Bernstein became the leading advocate of the former.

            At the time of its première, some, including Koussevitzky and Bernstein’s father, suggested that the work, owing to its bleak despair, would benefit by a more optimistic or uplifting final, conventional, fourth movement.  It was not to be.  Bernstein felt that he had said what he needed to say.  It remains a remarkable composition of great technical and musical prowess, as well as spiritual impact, for such a young composer—and a portent of what was to come, for his success in the future, and tragically, very soon for his people.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan