Kaddish: Comments from Leonard Bernstein  back to Texts & Notes

What is a father in the eyes of a child? The child feels: My father is first of all my Authority, with power to dispense approval or punishment. He is secondly my Protector; thirdly my Provider; beyond that he is Healer, Comforter, Law-giver, because he caused me to exist. And as the child grows up he retains all his life, in some deep, deep part of him, the stamp of that father-image whenever he thinks of God, of good and evil, or retribution. For example, take the idea of defiance. Every son, at one point or other defies his father, fights him, departs form him, only to return to him - if he is lucky - closer and more secure than before. Again we see clearly the parallel with God: Moses protesting to God, arguing, fighting to change God's mind. So the child defies the father and something of that defiance also remains throughout his life. (HB claims these words represent LB's thinking aloud about Kaddish which he was composing at the time)
[Tribute to Samuel J. Bernstein. August 1961 in HB pg. 326- 327]


On August 1st, I made the great decision to go forward with Kaddish, to try and finish it, score it, rehearse, prepare, revise, translate into Hebrew...It's a monstrous task: I've been copying it out legibly for the copyists, night and day and now it's ready, except for a rather copious finale that remains to be written.. I'm terribly excited about the new piece, even about the Speaker's text, which I finally decided has to be done by me. Collaboration with a poet is impossible on so personal a work, so I've found after a distressful year of trying with Lowell and Seidel; so I'm elected, poet or no poet. But the reactions of various people to whom I've read it have been so moving (and moved) that I was encouraged to keep at it. I think you'll be surprised by its power.
[Letter to Shirley Bernstein, August 10, 1963 in HB pg. 336]


It's been an unbelievable experience - we are all exhausted
[Letter to Helen Coates. After Kaddish premier, Tel Aviv, Dec. 13, 1963]


FANTASTIC SUCCESS WITH PUBLIC AND PRESS DESPITE SHAKY FIRST PERFORMANCE. STOP SPREAD THE WORD
[Letter to Helen Coates. Cable re: Kaddish premier, Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 1963]


I think the Psalms are like an infantile version of Kaddish, if you know what I mean. They are very simple, very tonal, very direct, almost babyish in some ways and therefore it stands perilously on the brink of being sentimental if wrongly performed."
[Interview with J. Goldsmith, R.A. Hall, and R. Allen re: symphonies, for Columbia Records Convention, Aug. 3, 1965]


I love Kaddish - I think it's a beautiful work but I'm not at all satisfied with the text. And God knows I tried everything not to write it myself.... I worked with Cal Lowell. And he actually wrote 3 poems for it. He wrote 3 very beautiful poems but they're you know, lyric poems of a certain obscurity which would not have served the purpose of immediacy which was needed in the concert hall with a piece like that. That immediately communicates with the audience. They were too literary and he realized it too.... After having written these 3 beautiful poems, he said I'm not the man for you and I have a young disciple, a friend named Freddy Siedell who is absolutely perfect for this.

And so he put me and Siedel together and we worked for months and Siedel works like at the rate of one word a week. Very very slow and what was coming out was so little in the first place that I knew it would never get done in time for the performance that fall. And also I wasn't crazy about what was coming out. I didn't like the images and it was all full of black saxophones - it just - it sounded wrong and old fashioned in another way. Finally I had to do it myself. And I worked very very hard. And some of it is good. Some of it is much better than has been said by very angry critics. I've never seen criticisms such as Kaddish had.
[Intv. w/ John Gruen, Ansedonia Italy, 1967. Tape # 11, side A pg. 1 - 8]


In my fervor to make it [Kaddish] immediately communicative to the audience, I made it over communicative. So that.. there are embarrassing moments. Even I am embarrassed when I hear the record here and there. And I know Felicia had moments which I changed which she just couldn't say. They were so over verbose and I did enormous cutting. But it's still too much and it's still too corny is the only word I can find. And I do wish I could revise it or find somebody who could revise it well and cut it down.
[Intv. w/ John Gruen, Ansedonia Italy, 1967. Tape # 11, side A pg. 1 - 8]


Obviously [the biblical thing interested me]. I mean I keep coming back to it. I've written 2 works in the last 10 years, can you imagine since I took the Philharmonic which was at the point when I finished West Side Story. Since then I've written 2 works, neither of them for the theater in all that time. And one was Kaddish and one is the Chichester Psalms - they're both biblical in a way. So obviously something keeps making me go back to that book.
[Intv. w/ John Gruen, Ansedonia Italy, 1967. Tape # 11, side A pg. 1 - 8]


[The reason for the new version of the Kaddish Symphony is] because I wasn't satisfied with the old version. There was too much talk... The piece is essentially the same except better. It is tighter, shorter, there are cuts, there is some musical re-writing and a lot of re-writing of the spoken text. [The speaker is also now a man but] I did not change from a woman to a man. I changed so that it could be either... The original idea was that it was a woman because it was 'das ewig Weibliche'. It was that part of man that intuits God - you see what I mean? And then I realized that that was too limiting. So I made it for either.
[Berlin Press Conference, September 12, 1977]


But Kaddish is the most extended 12-tone writing of any piece I have ever done.
[Berlin Press Conference, September 12, 1977]


The most striking example of [my writing 12 tone music] is Kaddish - my third symphony. It contains a great deal of highly complex carefully worked out [music] according to the Schoenbergian system, twelve tone music. As a matter of fact I remember when it was first played in Boston, the American premier of the symphony with Charles Munch conducting. A whole group of young composers who were at the time considering themselves very avant-garde artists, who had gotten wind of the fact that I had finally written a twelve tone piece, came to all of the rehearsals in a body. Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero, Leon Kirschner, the Harvard group, the Brandeis group, and they were all terribly excited until about the midpoint of the symphony when the second Kaddish, which is sung by a soprano and which is a lullaby and completely tonal, appeared, and they all threw up their hands in despair and said, oh, well, there it goes. That's the end of that piece......... Of course they didn't understand at all that one of the main points of the piece is that the agony expressed with the twelve tone music has to give way -- this is part of the form of the piece -- to tonality and diatonicism even so that what triumphs in the end, the affirmation of faith is tonal.
[Intv. w/ Peter Rosen, 1977. Reflections pg 52 - 57]


I find the word eclectic has been grossly misconceived and misused. Now, in the case of Kaddish there was a real point - which I didn't decide on deliberately because as I say I don't make stylistic decisions but it came out quite unconsciously and the way all art comes out unconsciously and it's only after the unconscious period that the conscious mind takes over and makes a form, puts it all into viable shapes. During [the] period of writing Kaddish it was, it's obvious to me now that at that point the tremendous agony of the dialogue with God which occupies the main portion of Kaddish had to be expressed in the expressionistic and well Schoenbergian if you like, or Bergen manner. And as the piece went through its agony towards its climax and then its gradual resolution into a reaffirmation of another kind of faith it became increasingly diatonic and it isn't just that the music became more diatonic, it's that the same music which was twelve tone evolved slowly, very, very gradually into diatonic music, but it was always the same piece. And this I know only by looking back it and having an objective view of the piece so that I can analyze it as a musicologist would.
[Intv. w/ Peter Rosen, 1977. Reflections pg 52 - 57]


There was a period, that was of course, during '62 and '63 that I was writing that piece while I was still music director of the Philharmonic, and as I was finishing the final amens of the jubilant fugue which concludes the piece, the news came of the assassination of Jack Kennedy which threw me for a loop..... At that moment, I realized that I had to dedicate the piece to the beloved memory of this man whom I did indeed love very much. .... This brings up the whole problem of what music had to do with current affairs, with politics, with whatever, and it really has little if anything to do except as a great time capsule -- an artistic incarnation of a given period in history.
[Intv. w/ Peter Rosen, 1977. Reflections pg 52 - 57]


I have very good luck with my colleagues, they are all so wonderful. Miss Hendricks, my soprano in Kaddish, I think was born to sing that note, that line. It is so fine and sensitive. She has all the breaths under control to sing that very difficult lullaby, and Michael Wager who does the speaking which is no small job. It's a much bigger job than Miss Hendricks because he never stops, he never shuts up. He is, I suppose, my voice and he has a tremendous argument with God, which many people find too strong or maybe even blasphemous. But which is in the old Judaistic tradition. I mean all our great Judaistic personalities of the past including Abraham who founded Judaism, and Moses and the prophets all argued with God. They argued with God the way you argue with somebody who's so close to you that you love so much, that you can really fight. You know how the more you love someone the more you can get angry with them and when you have a reconciliation, the more close you become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of this piece and it takes a really extraordinary actor to be able to perform that.
[Intv. w/ NHK TV, Hiroshima Peace Journey, 1985 TC. 24:20]


[I wrote the libretto myself as well as composing the piece]. That's what I mean by the speaker representing my voice. I originally wrote it to be spoken by my wife and I wrote it for a woman although women are not officially supposed to say Kaddish in the old tradition.... Only the man stood up and said Kaddish for his dead father and mother but that's one old tradition I didn't stick to.
[Intv. w/ NHK TV, Hiroshima Peace Journey, 1985 TC. 24:20]


I wrote it for [a woman] because the essence of the speaker was the female side of all persons male or female. We all have this female side that is more intuitive and not so reliant on logical thought process, but I'm not saying that that's inferior in any way. ..... So I wrote it for that side of man, the female side, which guesses God's grace and hears his voice, not the way Jeremiah or the great prophets .. the voice inside.

I wrote it for [Felicia] because I love her and also because she was a very great actress and I have even much more outspokenly feminine roles at the time. She compares herself in the text with the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley, quotes from the Song of Songs from the Bible and there were many references to her femininity.

Which have now been taken out since she died. I could not find a woman that could ever replace her because she was unique. More than that I cannot say, she was one person in the history of the world - that was Felicia. I would never let another actress do it so I changed it, I revised it to be a man and Michael Wager, who has always been very close to our family and had a particularly close relationship with Felicia, took over the role. I took out the female references only - not all. I took out the out-spoken obvious, evidence regarding this like the Rose of Sharon. But I left in, he says: 'I am that part of man -- you may, who guesses your grace.' That's the female side
[Intv. w/ NHK TV, Hiroshima Peace Journey, 1985 TC. 24:20]


I'm proud of [the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra] and close to them and spiritually somehow akin, whether we play Mozart or my own Kaddish Symphony (the best performance of Kaddish I've ever heard).....
[Harvard's 350th Anniversary Dinner Speech October 10, 1986]


[The speaker] represents Man, or that part of Man God made to suggest his immortality.. the part that refuses death, that insists on God.
[Intv. (?) 1987 in Gradenwitz, pg. 159]

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