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Symphony No.

1 “Jeremiah” by Leonard Bernstein

William Grimes
Music History 530
February 28th, 2019


At the end of the summer of 1939, shortly after graduation with honors from Harvard,

Leonard Bernstein sketched out what he called a “Hebrew Song.” He based the song on the

Book of Lamentations and scored it for soprano and orchestra.1 Bernstein was in a very dark

mood at the end of that summer as he returned penniless and jobless from New York.

Here I was, twenty-one, and a graduate of Harvard, and I couldn’t find a job.
That was a big sense of defeat. And there I was on September first, sitting in
Sharon, Massachusetts, where we had our funny little summer house. The
news of Hitler marching into Poland broke, which further depressed me, and I
realized the jig was up and we were in for something. That something turned
out to be World War II.2
Bernstein would return to New York when he received a message from his mentor Dmitri

Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos was the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Bernstein had met him during while still a music student at Harvard.3 Mitropoulos encouraged

Bernstein to pursue a career in conducting, despite never seeing him conduct. With

Mitropoulos’s urging, Bernstein attempted to enroll in conducting classes at Julliard, but the

classes were already full for the fall term. Mitropoulos would then suggest that Bernstein look

into studying with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.4 Bernstein would accept a

“Works: Jeremiah Symphony No. 1,” Leonard Bernstein Foundation, Accessed February 19, 2019,
Bernstein, Leonard, Reflections, DVD, Directed by Peter Rosen, (United States Information Agency,
“Leonard Bernstein,” Oxford Music Online, Last modified July 10, 2012,
Joan Peyser, Bernstein A Biography (New York: Billboard Books, 1998), 65.

spot at Curtis, and the simple “Hebrew Song” that he had been working on would lay dormant

for two years.

While at Curtis, and while attending The Tanglewood Music Festival in the summer of

1940, Bernstein never studied composition. “It never occurred to me to study composition.

Whatever I wrote I took to Aaron (Copland). Aaron was my guide. That seemed to be as much

a study of composition as I could take.”5 After graduating from Curtis, Bernstein returned to

New York and began to work for a small publishing firm. The firm, called Harms, would

eventually sign Bernstein as a composer and pay him an advance for his clarinet sonata.6

In the spring of 1942, Bernstein began to compose the first movement of a symphony.

He soon came to realize that this new movement, along with the Scherzo he planned to follow it,

would work well with his “Hebrew Song” from 1939. Bernstein revisited his “Hebrew Song”,

and the piece was reworked into the final movement of his new symphony.

The soprano part from his original work became a mezzo-soprano part, and the orchestral

parts were extensively reworked.7 Bernstein’s hectic schedule in 1942, slowed the development

of the piece along with his song cycle “I Hate Music” that he was composing at the same time.8

Towards the end of 1942, Bernstein decided to enter a composition competition

organized by the New England Conservatory. Bernstein’s Tanglewood conducting mentor,

Serge Koussevitsky, was serving as chairman of the jury for the competition. Bernstein found

Ibid., 81.
Ibid., 99.
“The History in This Program,” New York Philharmonic, Accessed on February 19, 2019,
Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein,(New York: Double Day, 1994), 103.

himself in a mad rush to complete the symphony before the December 31 deadline. His sister

Shirley would recall visiting him while he completed the symphony,

“I came to New York on vacation, and found Lenny up to his knees in

manuscript, red-eyed from lack of sleep…He was still composing the last of the
three movements, the scoring was only half done, and there remained the
tedious and time-consuming job of copying the whole work neatly and clearly.
Only three days remained to accomplish all this before the deadline. It would
take more than one pair of hands to bring it off. A small army of friends and I
were put to work helping to get the mechanical part of the job done. I was kept
busy inking in clefs and time signatures, two friends took turns making ink
copies of the already completed orchestration, another checked the copies for
accuracy, and Lenny’s current girlfriend kept us all supplied with coffee to
keep us awake on this 36-hour friend-in-need task”9
The final score to Jeremiah was finished just in time, but the score had to be submitted

anonymously. Bernstein’s girlfriend at the time, Edys Merill, handed it to Olga Naumoff at

Koussevitzky’s residence in Boston on Decmeber 31, 1942.

Jeremiah did not win the competition, but in 1943 Harms, the same publisher that had

released Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, wished to add Jeremiah to their catalogue. Bernstein was

so encouraged by this that he sent two full copies of the score to his two conducting teachers

Reiner and Koussevitzky.10


Reiner loved Jeremiah and invited Bernstein to conduct it with the Pittsburgh Symphony

in the fall of 1943; however, he tried to persuade his former student to add a fourth, more

uplifting movement. In a letter to Copland Bernstein lamented about Reiner’s insistence saying,

“..he is most anxious for a fourth movement; insists it’s all too sad and defeatist. I really haven’t

Ibid., 104.
Ibid., 106.

the time or the energy for a fourth movement. I seem to have had my say as far as that piece is

concerned and I want to get on with something else.”11

Koussevitzky’s initial lukewarm response to Jeremiah, thawed when he got word of

Reiner’s enthusiasm. In August, he invited Bernstein up to talk about Jeremiah. “Kouss. went

overboard about my symphony! Gave me a great long speech about at last we have the great

Jewish music!”12

With Koussevitzky’s new interest in Jeremiah, Reiner made arrangements to have the

work performed sooner than originally planned. With Jennie Tourel as the mezzo-soprano

soloist and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Jeremiah had its premiere on January 28, 1944,

at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bernstein himself conducted the performance.

The next day, The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph hailed Jeremiah as a piece de resistance and to

Bernstein as a brilliant craftsman.13 Less than a month later, Bernstein stood in front of the

Boston Symphony to conduct Jeremiah again. By April Bernstein had conducted Jeremiah, four

times with the New York Philharmonic. “Jeremiah was broadcast on seventy radio stations

across the country, and over the next few years Bernstein conducted it in Chicago, New York, St.

Louis, Detroit, Rochester, Prague and Jerusalem.”14

Prior to the remarkable success of Jeremiah, Bernstein's had his legendary conducting

debut with the New York Philharmonic as a sudden substitute for the ill Bruno Walter. On

Ibid., 107.
Ibid., 107.
“Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Premiere of Symphony No. 1,” Leonard Bernstein Foundation,
Last modified Jaunary 24, 2019,
“Works: Jeremiah Symphony No. 1,” Leonard Bernstein Foundation, accessed February 19, 2019,

November 14, 1943, he conducted the Philharmonic on a nation-wide radio broadcast. When

Sam Bernstein, who had not always been supportive of Leonard’s musical ambitions, witnessed

the audience responding at Carnegie Hall that day, he went backstage to congratulate his son.

Sam was overcome with emotion, and there was a great reconciliation between he and Leonard.

After that reconciliation, Leonard decided to dedicate Jeremiah to his father.15

Analysis of Symphony No. 1

The symphony draws most of its inspiration from the writings of the Hebrew prophet

Jeremiah. Jeremiah warned the Israelites of their sinful ways and how they would lead to

disaster. His prophecy came true in 587BCE, when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed during the

fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s lament over the resulting hardships showed his

deep sorrow and also a sense of hope for the Jewish people.

Jeremiah is a 25-minute piece broken into three movements, (I)Prophecy,

(II)Profanation, and (III)Lamentation. While the first two movements are purely instrumental,

the final movement adds a mezzo-soprano solo to the full orchestra. The vocal part originally

composed as Bernstein’s “Hebrew Song” in 1939, features a Hebrew text from The Book of

Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The roots of Bernstein’s compositional style came from a strong mix of vernacular

elements including jazz rhythms, jazz harmonies, and the frequent use of blue notes. Blue notes

are most commonly the flatted third and seventh note of a scale. Bernstein also had a fondness

for “lyrical melodies based on disjunct intervals, triadic harmonies with added tone chords,

occasional bitonality, and shifting meters and time signatures based on unusual combinations of


two and three note groups such as five or seven.”16 Bernstein would use his proclivity for

shifting meters and unusual combinations of note groups extensively in Jeremiah.

Bernstein would go on to compose three symphonies in all: Jeremiah (1942), Age of

Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963). Jeremiah would not be as theatrically based as Bernstein’s

two later symphonies. Age of Anxiety and Kaddish would both be composed after Bernstein had

entered the world of Broadway with the production of On the Town in 1944.

In the notes that Bernstein made for the premiere of Jeremiah in 1944, Bernstein

addressed the themes and dramatic use that he used while composing the symphony.

“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.”17

Bernstein did not compose Jeremiah as a programmatic piece. The programmatic

meaning was implied as an emotional quality more than a literal one. Bernstein’s notes for the

premiere addressed the programmatic content Jeremiah. “The first movement (“Prophecy”)

aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people; and the

scherzo (“Profanation”) to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the

pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people. The third movement (“Lamentation”),

being a setting of poetic text, is naturally a more literary conception. It is the cry of Jeremiah, as

“Leonard Bernstein,” Oxford Music Online,” Last modified July 10, 2012,
“The History in This Program,” New York Philharmonic, accessed on February 19, 2019,

he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate efforts to

save it.”18

Jeremiah would bring great success to Bernstein. The Symphony would establish him as

a major American composer. It would also establish the theme that Bernstein would address in

many of his concert and theatrical works. In August 1977, while Leonard Bernstein was in

Berlin making what would become his final recording of the Jeremiah Symphony, he shared

these thoughts with an interviewer:

“Although everything I write seems to have literary or dramatic underpinning,

it is, after all, music that I am writing. Whatever happens in the music happens
because of what the music does, not because of the words or the extramusical
ideas. In a sense, I suppose, I am always writing the same piece, as all
composers do. But each time it is a new attempt in other terms to write this
piece, to have the piece achieve new dimensions, or even acquire a new
vocabulary. The work I have been writing all my life 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.
Comfort is one way of achieving peace, but it does not achieve the sense of a
new beginning, as does the end of The Age of Anxiety or Mass.” 19
Bernstein would go on to record Jeremiah three times with the St. Louis Symphony in

1945, with the New York Philharmonic in 1961, and with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in

1977. Jeremiah did not win the original competition that Bernstein had finished it for, but it was

rewarded the New York Music Critics Circle’s outstanding new classical work of the season in



“Works: Jeremiah Symphony No. 1,” Leonard Bernstein Foundation, accessed February 19, 2019,

Jeremiah has become a standard in the repertoire of many American and International

orchestras, and it has stood the test of time as one of Bernstein’s greatest concert works. It came

at a unique time in the life of Bernstein. His fame as a Broadway composer had not begun, but

his fame as a conductor was on the rise.

The music Bernstein composed for Jeremiah shows a young composer starting to use his

own unique voice. The use of multi-meters, voice part with orchestra instrumentation, and

disjunct chromatic melodic lines would all become compositional devices that Bernstein would

return to again with later compositions.


Bernstein, Leonard. Reflections. DVD. Directed by Peter Rosen. United States Information
Agency, 1978.

Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Double Day, 1994.

Leonard Bernstein Foundation. “Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Premiere of Symphony
No. 1.” Last modified Jaunary 24, 2019.

Leonard Bernstein Foundation. “Works: Jeremiah Symphony No. 1.” Accessed February 19,

The New York Philharmonic. “The History in This Program.” Accessed on February 19, 2019.

Oxford Music Online. “Leonard Bernstein.” Last modified July 10, 2012.

Peyser, Joan. Bernstein A Biography. New York: Billboard Books, 1998.