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Museum Musings

6.20.18: Shabbat Shira Lenny

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The first time I heard "Simple Song" by Leonard Bernstein, from his epic concert/theater piece MASS, I was a high-school student performing with my choir at a city prayer breakfast. A fellow choir member, who even in high school had a tremendous voice and went on to a singing career, sang this solo. I can hear him in my head singing this piece to this day.

 

At the time I already knew Bernstein as the composer of West Side Story, which I knew was based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, and I also knew about Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. But I will never forget hearing Simple Song, because I knew upon first hearing it there is something different about it. It isn't quite for the theater, it isn't quite for the concert hall, it is a prayer, and although I would not have heard it in my synagogue, I heard the Judaism in it.

 

There is a lot of Judaism in this piece. Bernstein quotes Psalm 121, I will lift up my eyes to the hill from whence comes my help, and Psalm 96, I will sing the Lord a new song. There is a lot of Judaism in all of Bernstein's work because Bernstein was deeply knowledgeable about Judaism and proudly identified as a Jew, at a time in our history when that was not always easy.