Bernstein’s Kaddish : Emotional Expression


Backgrounds, heritage, and outside forces help people subconsciously make decisions and feel certain ways. Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish heritage had a huge and clear influence on both his compositions and thought processes. One of his earlier pieces was his  “Symphony No. 3 Kaddish”. In Jewish tradition, “Kaddish” is recited in synagogues and is part of the mourning rituals during services. Bernstein’s “Kaddish” was dedicated to the memory of John. F Kennedy who was assassinated a few weeks prior to the first performance of Bernstein’s symphony. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of the word “death” ; however, there is mention of “life” multiple times throughout the piece. 

To a certain degree, his symphony was a way in which Bernstein was able to explore his issues of his faith and connection to Judaism. Bernstein’s symphony has a very ominous tone; Kaddish begins in a minor key, modulates to a major key, and then returns to the original minor key for the ending. The final chord in this piece is a very dissonant chord, leaving the listeners filled with suspense and maybe even some agitation. Different keys and progressions all had to have been precisely decided by Bernstein in order to get his emotional point fully across. He incorporates very slashing, atonal and dramatic notes and aspects in this piece.  Music is an incredibly emotional and thought-provoking form of art. 

Bernstein uses his symphony to express his religious heritage and struggles, as well as loss and mourning. In the beginning of the symphony the speaker recites “I want to pray. I want to say Kaddish. My own Kaddish. There may be no one to say it after me. I have so little time, as You well know… Is there even time to consider the question? It could be here, while we are singing. That we may be stopped, once for all…”. (1)  In Kaddish, Bernstein argues with God through his use of narration and powerful music.


Bernstein was a very proud Jew and had many connections to Israel and the Israel Philharmonic.  Although we may never know how he truly felt about God and every aspect of Judaism, through viewing his life and his spiritual journey through his work, it is safe to say that Bernstein had a huge connection to Israel and to the Jewish people. 


(1)Jack Gottlieb, “Symphony No. 3: Kaddish (1963)

Conducting 101: Conducting like Bernstein

Before beginning to dissect Bernstein’s scores and conducting patterns, let’s take a look at basics in conducting.  


As you can tell from the picture on the left, each time signature gets a particular conducting pattern. Each first beat will get the downbeat (your hand will go in a downward motion). These conducting patterns are only three of the many different patterns out there. There are many more time signatures that each get their own conducting pattern.

Bernstein composed, conducted, and educated a wide audience and had a huge impact on music in America. He was a very expressive and emotive conductor who entertained so many audiences for many years. 

Let’s learn how to conduct some of his pieces: 

1) ” A Simple Song” – MASS 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “A Simple Song” from his MASS

The beginning of this song is conducted in cut time, but it does eventually
make its way to common time- conducted in 4/4. This time signature is one of the most common, if not THE most common, time signature. In simple terms, every quarter note gets one count in each measure. (In this time signature, 4 quarter notes makes 1 whole measure). It is not so surprising that a name with such title is in such a simple time signature.  Try listening to this song and feeling the pulse of the rhythm. (1)

2) “I Feel Pretty” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

This song is a bit more complex than the first. “I Feel Pretty” is in 3/4. The conducting pattern will look like the first pattern on the chart above. This time signature consists of 3 quarter notes per measure. A waltz will also be in 3/4. This time signature may make some feel more inclined to sway or dance as opposed to marching or walking like in a 4/4 time signature.  (2) 



3) ” America” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story

Lastly, this song is conducted in 6/8. This time signature also allows for a swaying motion. The time signature also helps push this specific song towards a very uplifting happy feel. It’s easy to imagine how into this piece Bernstein would be as he conducted during concerts. Try conducting 6/8 with the help of the diagram in the picture above. (3)