Reckoning with Leonard Bernstein’s faith on the centennial of his birth

Did the multitalented Jewish composer and conductor finally find God and faith? We will never know.

Leonard Bernstein leads rehearsal in West Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall on Aug. 22, 1977. He conducted two concerts in West Berlin with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. (AP Photo/Galliner)

(RNS) — America’s greatest musician of the 20th century was born on Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass. When he died 72 years later, The New York Times called him a “Musical Monarch.” And indeed, Leonard Bernstein, a man of extraordinary emotion and energy, was all that and more.

To honor Bernstein during his centennial year, there have been 3,000 musical and cultural events in more than 30 countries, including performances in Iran, Kuwait and Malaysia.

The world will forever remember his classic Broadway musicals, “West Side Story,” “On The Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Candide.” Bernstein also composed music for the ballets “Fancy Free” and “ Dybbuk,” the Yiddish term for a tormented spirit that enters a person, and he wrote the music for the film “On The Waterfront.” Of course, Bernstein was a gifted pianist, a creator of classical music, an acclaimed educator, a political activist and a world-class symphony orchestra conductor.

And then there was Bernstein’s faith, which was never easy to categorize.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York City Symphony in 1945. Photo by Fred Palumbo/World Telegram/LOC/Creative Commons

Bernstein always affirmed his strong Jewish heritage and it played a major role in his career. His mentor, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky (who was himself Jewish), urged his young protégé to change his name to something “less Jewish sounding.” Legend has it that Koussevitzky suggested “Burns” as a more acceptable last name.

“I’ll do it as ‘Bernstein’ or not at all,” the composer replied. Bernstein always insisted the second syllable of his last name be pronounced “stein” and not “steen.” He wryly noted that no one calls the famous piano manufacturer “Steenway” instead of “Steinway.”

Bernstein felt an artistic and spiritual affinity for Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). And it’s easy to see why. Mahler, born into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was, like Bernstein, a passionate symphony conductor and a composer of highly personal musical compositions. And both men led turbulent, well-publicized private lives.

Because of embedded European anti-Semitism, Mahler was forced in 1897 to convert to Roman Catholicism to gain the coveted position as Vienna Court Opera music director, and in the years just before his death, Mahler was, like Bernstein, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Happily, Bernstein never faced such an ugly choice in order to advance his career. Fifty years after Mahler’s tenure, Bernstein became the New York Philharmonic’s youngest music director in history and served in that position from 1958 until 1969.

As a deeply committed Jew, Bernstein was an ardent lifelong supporter of the state of Israel, and many of his works are rooted in his Jewish identity. His parents — immigrants who escaped the anti-Semitism of their native Ukraine — were members of Boston’s Congregation Mishkan Tefila. In a recent article in the American Jewish Archives Journal, professor Ann Glazer Niren of Indiana University Southeast described the influence the synagogue’s rabbi, cantor and musical director had on young Leonard. The talented trio transmitted to Bernstein a love of the Hebrew language, knowledge of the rich Jewish musical tradition and the importance of eloquent public speaking.

In 1943, the same year he gained national attention as a young conductor, Bernstein completed his Symphony No. 1, titled “Jeremiah.” The solemn work highlights a mezzo-soprano singing the Hebrew prophet’s lamentations in the original Hebrew. The symphony had its debut during World War II and was widely praised.

Bernstein’s third symphony, “Kaddish,” was completed in 1963 and focuses on the Jewish mourners’ prayer in Aramaic and Hebrew that affirms God with no mention of death. In it, Bernstein argues with God through powerful music and strong narration. Although “Kaddish” was composed before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the symphony’s premiere took place after the tragic shooting in Dallas. A grieving Bernstein dedicated it to JFK’s memory.

“Chichester Psalms,” composed in 1965, represents a more optimistic Bernstein. The dean of Britain’s Chichester Cathedral commissioned the work, and it is my favorite of Bernstein’s religious compositions.

Consisting of six Psalms, including the beloved 23rd, the work is performed in Hebrew and features a boy soprano soloist. If I’m ever asked to choose music I want to hear in heaven, “Chichester Psalms” would be one of my selections. In it, Bernstein has seemingly overcome his earlier religious doubt and angst.

In 1971, Jacqueline Kennedy, the slain president’s widow, asked Bernstein to compose a special piece to mark the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington. The result was “Mass,” the most complex and most controversial of Bernstein’s compositions.

Leonard Bernstein in a rehearsal of his “Mass” in 1971. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress/Creative Commons

Roughly based on the Catholic liturgy, “Mass” requires a symphony orchestra, a jazz band, a dance troupe, a large adult choir and an equally large children’s choir. Much of the work, including the use of Psalms, is in Latin, but, interestingly, two Jews — Stephen Schwartz (composer of “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked”) and Paul Simon — wrote some of the English text.

Last month my wife, Marcia, and I saw “Mass” at Lincoln Center. The composition is performed without an intermission for 110 minutes and there was not a cough, sneeze or a single word spoken by the rapt sellout New York City audience.

“Mass,” Bernstein’s ultimate religious work, is the synthesis of the anger and lamentation of the “Jeremiah” and “Kaddish” symphonies combined with the faith of “Chichester Psalms,” and includes some “West Side Story” musical themes and other Bernstein compositions.

Did Bernstein, the multitalented Jewish musician, finally find God and faith? We will never know. But his two Jewish-based symphonies, “Chichester Psalms” and “Mass” reveal the multiple paths he chose in his long spiritual journey.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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