Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet ( = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, wood block), timpani, piano, strings, and mezzo-soprano soloist
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 23, 1983, with mezzo-soprano Gail Dubinbaum, Leonard Bernstein conducting
Christoph Eschenbach and Leonard Bernstein were close friends during the last 20 years of Bernstein’s life. They were also collaborators in the activities of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival in Germany and the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. In 1998, Eschenbach became musical director of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, which, he noted, “is still influenced by the enormous energy Lenny brought to it in its early years.”
In a conversation before the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performances of the work in 2000 (conducted by Eschenbach), this writer asked the conductor how he would characterize Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony:
“Certainly as the work of a very young but already very mature composer. And I was particularly impressed with how important a place it has in his symphonic output, as a fountain of inspiration, when we presented all three of his symphonies at last summer’s Schleswig-Holstein Festival, to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenny’s death.
“Jeremiah is wonderfully well-conceived in the formal sense, which is a point that has to be made to those who regard Bernstein only as this human volcano, this man of burning emotions, this performer on the podium. Those who knew him best also know him as a master of musical form. At any moment of his life, day or night, he had this incredible perception of how notes, and phrases, and movements fit together.
“This first symphony, by a 24-year-old, is perfectly formed in the three movements that connect so marvelously, each movement growing out of the other organically, every phrase growing out of what came before – a continual set of variations. It is also almost operatic in its dramatic construction, with the scene being set in the first movement, then the great conflict of the scherzo, and the resolution to the drama in the prayer, the finale.
“On first hearing Jeremiah it is particularly easy to be impressed by the second movement, with its tricky rhythmical patterns giving way to an episode that suggests the edgy West Side Story dances, and then mixing the two parts in a way that creates a wonderful tension, angry and nasty, and ending with a masterstroke – a bang, a huge splash, and then the last movement enters, so quietly, like a contemplation of what has gone before, as if to say, what was all that anger about? Now the singer enters, to tell her story and to ask for peace, for salvation from paganism, to put us into the hands of God again.
“Jeremiah is a complete work in itself, but also a premonition of Bernstein’s later symphonies. Just as Jeremiah grows out of itself, its middle movement points to the middle section of The Age of Anxiety [Symphony No. 2], and its outer movements to Kaddish [Symphony No. 3].
“Jeremiah is a statement by an anxious, troubled soul. Bernstein was very well aware of what was going on in Europe in 1942, that people – the Jews – were victims of a horrible, deadly kind of paganism… And I think of it also as a warning for what is happening today in Europe, that has meaning for all of us in a climate too often marked by racial intolerance and xenophobia…”
The final word on Jeremiah belongs to the composer, via his own brief program note for the first New York Philharmonic performances in 1944, when the symphony was named by the New York Music Critics Circle as best new work of the year:
“In the summer of 1939 I made a sketch for a Lamentation for soprano and orchestra. This sketch lay forgotten for two years, until in the spring of 1942 I began the first movement of a symphony. I then realized that this new movement, and the Scherzo that I planned to follow it, made logical concomitants with the Lamentation. Thus the Symphony came into being, with the Lamentation greatly changed, and the soprano supplanted by a mezzo-soprano. The work was finished on 31 December 1942, and is dedicated to my father.
“The Symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material… As for programmatic meanings, the intention is again 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 a 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. The text is from the book of Lamentations.”
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.