Questions of Faith
Symphonies by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Shostakovich
“A kind of comfort, not a solution” – Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah”
“Credo ergo sum”? The dictum (I believe, therefore I am) that was still regarded as an absolute certainty in the western world until well into the Middle Ages was subjected to thorough scrutiny by the time of the Copernican turning point and the subsequent Cartesian revolution in thought. Kantian enlightenment, the romantic “Ich” [I] movement and, above all, Hegelian dialectic represented the next levels of emancipation on this path to desacralization and anthropocentrization. Nietzsche finally delivered the decisive blow to religious immaturity, however, with his pronouncement that God was dead. Faith (and with it the world) seemed to have lost its mystique once and for all – the “age of extremes” could begin. After two world wars and an increasing clash of civilizations, intellectuals such as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor felt called upon to counter this agnostic, materialistic point of view with a sacral-spiritual consciousness in the broadest sense – aware that the secularized world is not the measure of all things.
Leonard Bernstein addressed the emerging renaissance of faith (together with the doubt intrinsic in it) especially in his (choral) symphonic works. The crisis is expressed in music, particularly in his Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” from 1942. Faith is deeply shaken, symbolized by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Bernstein explained the motivation behind his composition: “The work is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote ‘Jeremiah’, I was wrestling with that problem. The faith or peace that is found at the end of ‘Jeremiah’ is really more a kind of comfort, not a solution.”
But what does faith actually sound like? The composer also provided details on this point: “The Symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material. The first theme of the scherzo is paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant, and the opening phrase of the vocal part in the ‘Lamentation’ is based on a liturgical cadence still sung today in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Other remembrances of Hebrew liturgical music are a matter of emotional quality, rather than of the notes themselves.”
The Symphony is much more strongly influenced by liturgical motifs than Bernstein publicly stated, however. The opening theme of the oppressingly solemn first movement, entitled “Prophecy”, is derived from two liturgical cadences – the first half from the traditional Amen for the three festivals of Pesach [Passover], Shavuot [the Feast of Weeks] and Succoth [Feast of the Tabernacles, celebrating the gathering of the harvest], the second from a cadence used on the High Holy Days during the Amidah (prayer of the Eighteen Blessings), the central prayer of the Jewish worship service. The development of the entire movement is comprised of these motivic fragments.
The middle movement of the work, “Profanation”, is a chaotic, rhythmically vehement Vivace con brio, whose first theme is based on motifs from melismas which are used in the cantillation, or chanting, of readings from the Hebrew bible on Shabbat. The dissonant torrents of sound stream over and into each other so tumultuously and violently that the music resembles a ride through Dante’s Purgatory. The catastrophe is followed by an intense lament over the lost temple of Jerusalem; the “Jeremiah”Symphony concludes with a “Lamentation”. During this movement, Bernstein uses motifs from the kinnot, the elegies and dirges sung on Tisha B’Av, an important fast day and day of mourning in memory of the destruction of the temple. These songs – one of which turns out to be a variation of the Amidah cadence from the first movement, suggesting that the prophecy has been fulfilled – are based on verses from chapters 1, 4 and 5 of Jeremiah’s biblical lamentations. Bernstein assigns the texts to a mezzo-soprano; imploring God for absolution at the close, she cries: “Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord!” The entire movement is pervaded with emotion and musical ambience but does not fail to achieve the desired effect.
Pathos and Introspection: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony
If one believes the words of a contemporary witness, that was also true of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The evidence is found in a note written by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky on the day after the work’s premiere: “The sensation-filled atmosphere disappeared completely, for everyone understood: here a magnificent philosophical, profound and enduring work of enormous power saw the light of the world.” What Bogdanov-Berezovsky wanted to say in a roundabout way was that this Symphony was also an autobiographical political commentary by its composer. Shostakovich had forgotten neither the attacks against him of the previous year after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which had been premiered three years earlier, nor the fact that Stalin’s cultural henchmen had prevented the performance of his radical Fourth Symphony. And he naturally realized that the same people would also listen very closely now; in other words, he had to find a “creative response” to the hostility towards the previous work. And he succeeded, by expanding the thematic motifs and taking up the words of the Russian writer Aleksey Tolstoy: “The theme of my Symphony is the formation of a personality. In the centre of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences.” Moreover, Shostakovich thought it was appropriate to give the symphony a literary-ideological (that is to say, socialism-affirming) programme. He called the Moderato a “heroic tragedy”, described the following Allegretto-scherzo as the “expression of healthy exuberance”, the Largo had the character of a “meditation” and, on the surface, the triumphant, Tchaikovskian finale proclaimed the “achievement of victory”.
That only outlined the visible level, however; under the surface, the Fifth presents a different image. Behind the facade of a romantic-subjective way of thinking is the critical, ambiguous spirit that Shostakovich could not (and did not want to) give up all his life. One can hear that already in the Moderato, which follows sonata form only to a limited extent but is instead structured in an A-B-A pattern. At first glance, the scherzo actually does seem like a “healthy” and “exuberant” response to the introspective character of the first movement, but a second look reveals parallels with the sermon to the fishes from the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony – a mocking satire of the ever narrow-minded petit bourgeois.
The Largo made a powerful impression on the entire audience at the premiere. One of those typical slow movements in Shostakovich’s symphonies, it dispenses with brass and percussion, harks back to romantic subjectivism and presents, even joyfully celebrates, a cantilena of at times painful beauty. This “meditation” unfolds a transparent lament which is so soft in its final bars that one might think the music was coming to an end here.
All the more violent is the shock that follows. The main theme of the Allegro non troppo sweeps across the musical landscape like a hurricane, carrying everything and everyone along in a whirl of ecstasy. The strings rejoice with Russian tunes, the trumpets exult above them with radiant melodies in the rhythm of the first movement. Whether this movement sounds like a conflagration or – according to Shostakovich’s programmatic notes – an “achievement of victory” is up to the listener.