Leonard Slatkin – Bernstein’s three symphonies

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

This Thursday and Saturday in the Barbican Hall, listeners and concertgoers will have the unique opportunity to hear the three Symphonies of Leonard Bernstein played live. Now, this should not seem like an occasion for celebration but, in fact, this has very rarely been done.

Bernstein himself felt that of all the things he wanted to be remembered for, it was his concert works that best represented his inner self. In fact, I believe that these pieces give us more clues into his life than anything written by or about him. If we add Songfest to the mix, it is possible to get a complete picture of the man through his music and use of words.

The First Symphony, subtitled Jeremiah, is not so much about Prophecy as it is about Bernstein’s own background. Brought up in an orthodox Jewish household, it was only natural for his early works to reflect this religious part of his life. It is also possible to see the rebellion against his parents in this work. After all, it was written in the 1940s and even though it seems to be a reworking of a biblical tale, there is the matter of the popular vernacular creeping in, especially in the second movement. This was hardly a Jewish view of the time.

Symphony No.2, The Age of Anxiety, reflects not only the depression of an era depicted in Auden’s Eclogue but the feelings of alienation Bernstein would go through almost all his life. The solo piano represents the composer and the idea that this part would not be a concerto but rather a concertante part possibly sheds some light on Bernstein’s own insecurities. He originally gave the soloist little to do at the end but eventually wrote a cadenza so there could be some more show-off time. I am not sure that the original concept was closer to the heart of the matter.

In the Third Symphony, Kaddish, Bernstein returns to the Jewish roots with which he began his symphonic journey. But this time, he combines the angst of his own alienation with religion and faith. The narrative is by the composer and I sometimes think it is slightly over dramatic. But it certainly expresses, as does Mass, Bernstein’s attempt to come to grips with the diverse relationships he had with so many areas of society, not just his faith. One of his few works to use the twelve-tone system, he usually gets around a style that was problematic for him by using strong rhythmic language to downplay the harmonic language which he truly did not like. This is a strong work if understood from the personal side of things. I do not believe you can separate this piece, or the others for that matter, from his own, tortured life. Most of all, his desire to be recognized for his serious works for the concert hall.

All this was to come to a head in Songfest, in which the poetry and music represent everything that Bernstein was. In a way, it is his Das Lied von der Erde. I do hope that this view of these three symphonies will help us understand that the form was not limited to just symphonic structure, but opened up to expand Bernstein’s quest for expression on the most personal of levels.


  • Barbican Hall, Thursday 21 February – Milhaud, La creation du monde; Christopher Rouse, Der gerettete Alberich (Colin Currie – percussion); Ravel, Menuet antique; Bernstein, Symphony No.2 ’The Age of Anxiety’ (James Tocco – piano)
  • Saturday 23 February – Mark-Anthony Turnage, A Quick Blast [London premiere]; Bernstein, Symphony No.1 ’Jeremiah’ (Janice Watson – soprano); Ravel, ’Kaddisch’ from Deux melodies hebraiques; Bernstein, Symphony No.3 ’Kaddish’ (Eleanor Bron – narrator)
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk
  • Concerts to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday and Tuesday, 25 and 26 February, at 7.30. Click here to Listen on-line

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