Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Thank you very much for contributing to our June Membership Drive! If you didn't have a chance to donate, please do so at any time. We look forward to your support!

Leonard Bernstein's 'Kaddish' Symphony: A Crisis Of Faith

The traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer gets turned on its head in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3.
Fethi Belaid
AFP/Getty Images
The traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer gets turned on its head in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3.

I can't think of anything I loved more than talking to Leonard Bernstein. Or, more accurately, listening to him talk — about music or any topic under the sun. I remember a long discourse we had about one of my favorite books, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Bernstein's summarizing statement: "Well, of course, every author spends his whole life writing the same book."

That phrase has come back to me throughout my life and I've come to believe that it is applicable to all artists, especially Bernstein himself. There are certain fundamental, existential questions each of us grapples with throughout our lives. Artists have the opportunity to explore these questions publicly, with their creations as the conduit.

The music of Bernstein is a clear and dramatic manifestation of Leonard Bernstein the human being: complex, gregarious, deeply reflective, conflicted, loving, kind, embracing, fun and much more. For me, there is an extraordinary universality in his music, as there was in the man himself.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop is a champion of music by her mentor, Leonard Bernstein.
Grant Leighton / BSO
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop is a champion of music by her mentor, Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein's Third Symphony, "Kaddish," premiered in 1963, just weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated. Bernstein was a supporter and friend of the Kennedys and was devastated by the tragic event. He dedicated "Kaddish" — this prayer for the dead that never mentions death — to Kennedy's memory. And that sums up Bernstein for me: The surface was accessible, approachable, almost simple, yet the inherent paradox and complexity of thought below that surface was astounding.

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.

Bernstein chose a woman to be the narrator in the symphony (in his original version) and it immediately grabs our attention because the role of women is historically subservient. Not only is a woman narrating the holy prayer, she is humanizing God. She questions and challenges him, even ascribes human emotion to him and she offers to say the Kaddish for him: "Oh my Father, ancient, hallowed, lonely, disappointed Father. Betrayed, rejected ruler of the universe. I will say this final Kaddish for you."

The question of faith is woven through every Bernstein piece — even when there is no obvious religious component. For Bernstein, the crisis of the 20th century was a crisis of faith. What can we believe in when mankind has the desire and capability to destroy itself? He conveys this crisis musically by pitting atonality against tonality. For Bernstein, atonality captured the musical end of civilization.

The "Kaddish" symphony opens with choristers humming — the humming of the universe. And then Bernstein builds a 12-tone row representing conflict and crisis (hear the excerpts on this page). The chorus, acting something like a traditional Greek chorus, sings the actual texts from the traditional Kaddish, embellished with stomps and hand claps.

The title of the second movement, "Din Torah," means judgment, but instead of God judging us, Bernstein turns the tables and it is the human who questions and judges God. After the narrator's introduction, the percussion starts with seemingly random bangings and the Kaddish theme is hummed. Later, after a confrontation between man and God, there is a complete breakdown and the music climaxes in a chaotic, polytonal choral cadenza — different meters, different tempi. Is anyone in charge?

The third movement contains the climax of the piece. Bernstein starts this Scherzo by bringing back every theme and manipulating each one in every way imaginable. The metaphor is clear. Especially with the narration: "So this is the kingdom of heaven, Father, just as you planned it ... Every immortal cliché in place ... but something is wrong."

After showing God the problems in the world, the narrator helps God believe in a new arrangement, where God and man understand the fragile interdependence needed for both to survive. The music builds to the entrance of a boy choir singing the phrase "Magnified and sanctified be His great name, amen" in Hebrew. The voices of children play pivotal roles in many of Bernstein's compositions (including Chichester Psalms and Mass) and represent hope for humanity.

Though there is a resolution to the struggle, the music does not end triumphantly. Instead, it closes in a final Kaddish, sung by a full choir, with a final dissonant chord, filled with suspense, suggesting that all is still not right in this world. Peace continues to elude us.

I often wonder how Bernstein would have reacted to 9/11 and the ongoing violence and strife in this 21st Century. He spent his life championing peace, compassion, mutual respect and, above all, humanity. I know it would have broken his heart and I'm relieved that he didn't have to witness it. But then I think of how much we need him and miss him — this musician who changed the world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

In 2007, Marin Alsop became music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She was named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor ever to receive the award. Between performances, she appears as an occasional guest on Weekend Edition Saturday and as a commentator for's Marin Alsop on Music column.