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Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish," a Living Requiem

Leonard Bernstein's identity as both a composer and conductor was deeply influenced by a combination of his own Jewish heritage and the place of religion in 20th Century society and culture. The panel in the above video explores, through the "Jeremiah" and "Kaddish" Symphonies and Mass, the impact of those formative religious experiences and the wider existentialist doubt of life in the nuclear age on the man and his music.

"Kaddish," Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, has undergone several transformations over its lifetime. It features a chorus, full orchestra, soloists, and a narrator, who in its original version reads texts based on a Jewish prayer for the dead ("Kaddish" means "sanctification"). It's a prayer that never actually mentions death, however; instead, it's a celebration of life, in praise of God.

But as with all of Bernstein's music, "Kaddish" is more complicated than that. In a 2012 piece about "Kaddish" for NPR Classical's Deceptive Cadence, conductor Marin Alsop wrote,

"This symphony is a vehicle — the Kaddish prayer a vehicle — for Bernstein to explore his lifelong issues of personal faith, the elusive concept of peace and the conflict arising from our great human potential for, and attraction to, destruction."

The text was revised by Bernstein himself in 1977, and later, by his longtime friend Samuel Pisar, a Polish lawyer, author, and Holocaust survivor. Pisar often narrated performances of Bernstein's "Kaddish," and they had frequently discussed revising the text together before Bernstein's death in 1990. Pisar's text, which he calls "A Dialogue with God," reflects his personal experiences in Nazi death camps, and wrestles with questions of faith, doubt, anger, and reconciliation.

This new version premiered in 2003, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and remains as relevant today as it ever was — Pisar's stepson, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, even quoted from Pisar's "Kaddish" text in a recent speech.

In a piece called "Kaddish: A Dialogue with God — The Genesis of the Work," Pisar writes,

"For me, the performance reaches its climax when I recount a heart-wrenching lullaby about how loving, caring and merciful is our God, that my beloved grandmother used to sing to me before her voice was silenced in the ovens of Treblinka. At that moment I feel as if I am saying Kaddish for her, for my family, for my people, for all peoples decimated by genocide . . . It goes without saying that my contribution to this magnificent opus is dedicated to the beloved memory of Lenny."

Here is Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish," conducted by the composer in 1983:

And here is "Kaddish," with text by Samuel Pisar: