Leonard Bernstein burst upon the musical scene with meteoric brilliance. Charismatic conductor, wide-ranging composer, inspiring teacher, Bernstein has for almost four decades held center stage on the contemporary musical scene. Through it all, his Jewish artistic identity has always been visible. His oratoria Kaddish, sung in Hebrew, was first heard in Tel Aviv; his Chichester Psalms are sung in the language of their ancient authors.
The Bernstein Collection is one of the treasures of the Music Division. From it we have chosen two of his earliest works, both in the composer's own hand. The first, a liturgical work, commissioned by the Park Avenue Synagogue, Hashkivenu, for the Sabbath eve service, sings:
Cause us, O Lord, to lie down in peace,
And raise us up, 0 our King, unto life.
Spread over us the tabernacle of Thy peace,
And through Thy good counsel direct us.
The second, his first symphonic work, the Jeremiah Symphony (1944), opens with the movement, "Prophecy," which sounds the notes of the traditional cantillation with which the prophetic portion of the week is chanted in the synagogue at the Sabbath morning service. Its third movement, "Lamentation," calls for a soprano who sings, in the traditional melody, a portion of the biblical book of Lamentations, whose description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of its inhabitants is attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah.
On the occasion of Bernstein's seventieth birthday, a critic wrote in the New York Times, "it does seem reasonable that a former wonder boy should write incidental music for J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, though not inevitable that the same artist should be attracted to the Lamentations of Jeremiah as the basis for his Symphony No. 1. Not inevitable but certainly understandable, when we consider that whatever musical tradition the young Bernstein was entering, he was already in the spiritual tradition of Bloch, Milhaud, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Schoenberg.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).