Lenny and the Jewish Question

by Barry Drogin

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In their choice of musical materials, composers comment on the work of other composers and on music. It is this surface "style" which many listeners mistake for the only "content" of music. In the expression of form, however, composers say something, if unintentionally, about how they perceive the form of their lives, their world and G-d. Thus, a composer/dramatist who really does identify with an extra-musical source or reference can end up reinforcing its expression in the music.

Leonard Bernstein, in his symphonies, musicals, operas, songs and chamber music, had made explicit references to poetry, books, plays, politics and currents events of his time. One might assume that he would only have chosen an extra-musical source if he felt the proper affinity toward the subject, but life is not so simple. We can be attracted to things that repulse us, that we disagree with, that we are struggling with, and Bernstein certainly did make such choices throughout his compositional career.

West Side Story

Bernstein's greatest work, "West Side Story," for example, completely subverts the original Shakespeare text, as will be explained. As an expression of contemporary Jewish theology, however, it has much to say.

Even musically, this most American of works carries a Jewish seed. The major thematic element of "West Side Story," as Bernstein himself had pointed out on many occasions, is almost too simple to truly be called a unifying and hence thematic element: the interval of the tritone (the first two notes of "Maria"). Still, taking this connecting element at face value, one can't help but notice the many wonderful and horrific moods it is meant to evoke; not the "diabolus in musica," the "devil in music" as Christian church musicians would claim, only appropriate for evil; but the sharp fourth, linking flat seven chord blues harmonies with major two chord harmonies, giving a sense of rising expectation (as in "Tonight"). I bring it up here to note its presence in many major and minor Jewish modalities, what early Christians might call "the devil in religion." It's obvious to me that Bernstein is making a theological statement by using it, and much of his later music explores the same harmonies when Jewish content is implied. Interestingly, "America" is lacking the interval.

In terms of form, the Jewish creators of "West Side Story" (Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and Laurents) approached "Romeo and Juliet" not as a story of dueling families in a town, but as a story of dueling nationalities in a city. It was originally to be "East Side Story," Jews vs. Irish, a classical "Abie's Irish Rose." Already, Shakespeare is subverted, the original point of sins of the fathers visited upon the sons subsumed under layers of turf wars, competing ideologies and generational conflict.

In Shakespeare, the families are the same: it opens, "Two households, both alike in dignity,/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." In "West Side Story," the Jets and the Sharks have different styles, in how they look, how they dance, how they talk, and in their music. The Jets were there first, and their music and presence dominates: they get "The Jet Song," "Officer Krupke" and "Cool." The Sharks are other, their women get to sing "America," and Tony crosses over by singing "Maria" in a lilting kind of habanera.

Of course, any Jew of the 20th century would be attracted to addressing problems of tolerance and prejudice, and would be forced to subvert Shakespeare in order to do it. In the Shakespeare, the opposing families are different only in lineage, as in Juliet's famous "Wherefore [why] art thou Romeo?/Deny thy father, and refuse thy name" continuing to, "O! be some other name./What's in a name? that which we call a rose,/By any other word would smell as sweet." Unfortunately, Judaism would be subverted, too, for assimilation and intermarriage are not solutions to the problems of tolerance and prejudice. Intermarriage is, instead, a problem of Judaism, and conversion the only solution, as in Romeo's response "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptis'd;/Henceforth I never will be Romeo" and later, "My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,/Because it is an enemy to thee." Altered to "My religion ... is hateful to myself" the thought is too radically changed, and "Romeo and Juliet" is stretched too far. The creators would have had difficulty baldly proclaiming that love should triumph over religion, an issue faced with more delicacy eight years later in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Perhaps this is why "East Side Story" wouldn't fly, and we ended up with "West Side Story" instead. Efforts to hew closer to Shakespeare are established, as in this quickly forgotten conversation in the first scene:

Riff: Which one of the Sharks did it?
A-rab: Bernardo. 'Cause I heard him say: "Thees ees for stinkbombin' my old man's store."
Action: You shoulda done worse. Them PRs're the reason my old man's gone bust.
Riff: Who says?
Action: My old man says.
Baby John: My old man says his old man woulda gone bust anyway.
Action: Your old man says what?
Baby John: My old man says them Puerto Ricans is ruinin' free ennaprise.

Still, the creators can't resist changing the ending. In "Romeo and Juliet," Paris (the equivalent of Chino) is killed by Romeo, who commits suicide after he is misinformed of Juliet's "death" (actually, sleep); when Juliet awakes, she stabs herself over Romeo's body (Romeo's mother dies of grief, too). In "West Side Story," Tony is killed by Chino when he is misinformed about Juliet's death, and Chino and Maria live. Tony contemplates suicide (he calls for Chino) in his deception, but then sees Maria alive and is killed as he goes to her. In other words, in the Shakespeare, the lovers kill themselves over their lovers' deaths (as the play opens, "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;/Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows/Do with their death bury their parents" strife."), while in the musical, Tony is killed after he knows Maria is alive, and Maria threatens to kill everyone as well as herself but doesn't.

This changed ending is, no matter what reasoning you concoct for it, definitely against Shakespeare's beliefs and intent. Was it simply marketing sense, or timidity? Is it the logistics of not having the actual parents on stage, as Shakespeare did, to deliver the final moral speech (then what of Doc, or Anita?), so it's left to Maria? I like to think that it was one final vestige of Jewish subversion of Shakespeare, for to go with Shakespeare's ending would be to promote a form of martyrology that Judaism has long opposed, but Christianity, and much Christian opera, has embraced in matters of "star-cross'd lovers."

Kaddish and Mass

I am not being foolish to point out Jewish theological concerns in Leonard Bernstein's compositions, for he himself has so baldly planted these concerns in his works, from the "Jeremiah" and "Kaddish" symphonies, through the "Chichester Psalms" and on to the "Dybbuk" and "Halil." By living in the 20th century, Bernstein coexisted with the Holocaust, with the establishment of the State of Israel, with the Armageddon-ish threat of the atomic bomb, and with the popularization of existentialist thought, especially Nietzsche's "G-d is dead" philosophy quoted by anti-establishment anti-religion students, many of whom knew nothing else of Nietzsche or existentialism. How can a Jew of any intellect live in such times and not have theories, rationalizations, explanations, and so on? Unfortunately, Jew's attempts to explain the times and G-d often end up explaining more about themselves than anything else.

For example, the "Kaddish" symphony, in which Bernstein posits that our new-found destructive powers put us on a par as Creator with G-d, so that, if we have killed off G-d, we must "re-create" G-d anew, and G-d re-create us. Do we really have such power? Certainly, in terms of just the Jews, homo sapiens has the ability to ignore G-d and destroy with great power, as per the Holocaust. But protection and creation are G-d's will issues still, not man's will (or woman's will, not to be sexist) issues. Bernstein's position turns Job on its ear.

The arrogance of power spreads to his musical choices in this work, too. All that is horrible, mechanistic, artificial, destructive in humankind is represented by Bernstein's attempt at 12-tone music, whereas G-d is comforted (!) by a tonal lullaby. Despite such use again and again by Bernstein in work after work, there is nothing expressly evil or passionless about the 12-tone technique, as witness some of the works of Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, Copland and, despite himself, Bernstein. There was, in Bernstein's time, something fascistic and elitist about the technique, and obviously Bernstein grappled with the struggle between his own obvious cultural (monetary) power and the artistic (intellectual) power of composers around him. I propose that, in musical content, this is what the Symphony is actually about, not redefining G-d or Judaism, despite its proclamations to the contrary.

"Mass" is another work worth considering, especially in this context. Musically, the work is a virtual catalog of techniques, theories and ideas from Bernstein's previous works. Thus the experiment in the opening moments with spatial music (as in his Symphony No. 2), the aleatoric moments and round for boy's choir (Symphony No. 3), the jazz, ballad and rock intrusions (admittedly, they never quite sound like what they're supposed to), and what I believe is an example of every possible meter from 2 beats per measure to 20. There are symphonic "Meditations," extended choral sections and a brilliant reprise of the previous musical and poetic themes done as a punning scat solo that I must quote part of:

Ad Dominum, Ad Dom...
A-donai --- don't know ---
I don't no-bis...
Miserere nobis...
Mi-se...mi...
Mi alone is only me...
But mi with so... [as in "me with soul"]
Me with s...mi... [as in "mi with sol"]

And this is a Mass. Fighting his Jewish thinking, Bernstein doesn't entirely obliterate mention of Jesus Christ, who shows up when he (He?) must in the Latin, in a "Non Credo" trope, and is briefly mentioned when the chalice is broken at the end:

I mean, it's supposed to be blood...
I mean, it is blood...His...
It was...
How easily things get broken....

It is with this last line that Bernstein makes the "point" of his "Mass," which is that all the theological ranting (and musical noise making) that proceeded the broken chalice episode --- in other words, anger, doubt, malice, atheism --- will lead to destruction, death, nuclear war, what have you.

So this is not a Roman Catholic mass, although it is full of Latin. Within Christianity, it leans more to Baptist fire and brimstone. And it's "West Side Story" all over again: if people would just love each other, the world would be a safer, better, more peaceful place.

In actual effect and implementation, however, Bernstein subverts himself. I am not claiming that in every context, the portrayal of blasphemy is in itself blasphemous; but in this case, I don't think Bernstein himself actually hates the musics he uses to portray blasphemy. He likes electric guitars (even the folk singer celebrant enters with a strong amplified guitar chord) and enjoys melody and rhythm too much. The Vietnam War was raging, and he liked the opposition. When the Celebrant breaks the chalice, even an atheist in the audience would have trouble laughing --- the theatre goes dark and silent, all people on the stage fall down as if dead, the audience is terrified --- but this is a leaden, oppressive way of making a case for love.

A Quiet Place

The clash of disparate musical elements found in his previous works is resolved in his final opera, "A Quiet Place." In "West Side Story" it was "America" vs. "Cool"; in the "Kaddish" symphony, tonality vs. atonality; in "Mass", classical music (orchestra, choir) vs. popular music ("stage" orchestra and pop singers). In "A Quiet Place," the out-of-place element, Junior's strip-tease number, the electric guitar riffs in that wonderful Act One finale, the awkwardness and speaking and other off-kilter elements which give a cumulative Brechtian alienation effect, together, they work. Here is Bernstein in all his contradictions, faults, generosity and jealousy, forgiving himself, his parents, his wife, his children -- - it's an emotional roller coaster ride of an opera to sit through.

In "A Quiet Place," Bernstein stops philosophizing about the world and grapples instead with his personal relationships with his father, his sister, and his wife. He gropes toward confession, toward the tension between honoring his father and forgiving a man who does not understand what to apologize for. He faces mortality with compassion, denial and regret. He hides, obscures, plays games, the better to cajole himself into revealing what he doesn't want to reveal. But as an expression of Bernstein himself, it is finally the most honest of all his works. In the context of this essay, it perhaps has no Jewish truths to reveal, except for the truth of one Jew's life.

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