Leonard Bernstein / August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990
Overture to Candide
Leonard Bernstein excelled at everything. He was a brilliant conductor, composer, pianist, writer, lecturer, and teacher. He was the first native-born conductor to become the music director of a major American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic between 1958-69.
Unfortunately, Lenny, as his friends called him, and famed playwright Lillian Hellman fell victim to McCarthyism in the 1950s and found themselves blacklisted. In response, Hellman decided to fight back with a biting play supported by incidental music. However, Bernstein convinced her to collaborate with him on a satirical comic opera which, deploying humor as their weapon, would skewer their enemies and expose the error of their ways. They used the 18th Century French philosopher and writer Voltaire’s satirical polemics as a model, specifically Voltaire’s Candide which attacked groupthink and blind optimism as the enemy of the Enlightenment. Bernstein believed that their modern version of Candide would become the “Great American Opera,” or “comic operetta,” as he later called it. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, mostly because it was too sophisticated and “overly intellectual.” Hellman’s biting humor went over the heads of her audience. Candide closed on Broadway after just two months.
However, the operetta’s action was full of fun, frolic, and the fast-paced adventures of the naïve Candide and his beloved but equally clueless Cunégonde. Bernstein’s music succeeded in capturing the crackling nature of the action. The music also combines lovely lyrical tender moments between the characters with the quicksilver nature of the plot.
Candide’s effervescent Overture easily survived the demise of the “operetta” and continues to be a favorite concert opener of many music directors. The New York Philharmonic played it without a conductor at Bernstein’s memorial service in 1990, a practice that continues. Watch Lenny conduct Candide’s Overture on a YouTube in his later years. You will never see a conductor have so much fun. About his Candide he said, “There is more of me in that piece than anything else I’ve done.”
In early December 1963, Leonard Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, requesting a piece for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival: “The Chichester Organist and Choirmaster, John Birch, and I, are very anxious to have written some piece of music which the combined choirs could sing at the Festival to be held in Chichester in August, 1965, and we wondered if you would be willing to write something for us. I do realize how enormously busy you are, but if you could manage to do this we should be tremendously honoured and grateful. The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of the Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both. I only mention this to give you some idea as to what was in our minds. Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.”
Bernstein obliged the Very Reverend with a masterpiece. It combines Jewish biblical psalms – or verses – with Christian choral tradition, using secular melodies and rhythms to deliver messages from ancient sacred texts. In essence, the piece is a plea for communion and for peace in a world where peace was in short supply.
Each of the three movements presents two psalms in Hebrew, one in its entirety complemented and supported by parts of another. The music begins with a dramatic cymbal crash followed immediately by an exhortation from Psalm 108: “Awake, psaltery, and harp. I will rouse the dawn!” (A “psaltery is a book of psalms which were originally accompanied by the harp.) Bernstein is saying, “Pay attention! Listen up! This message is important!” Psalm 108 follows, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” presented as a jubilant scherzo-like dance. Bernstein confessed that the music at this point is “leftover” material from West Side Story.
The second movement juxtaposes Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” with Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the people imagine a vain thing?” The shepherd-psalmist David sings Psalm 23, supported by sopranos. (Do we owe peace to our children if not ourselves?)
Movement three combines Psalm 131, “Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty,” with Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” The piece ends with a quiet acapella chorale giving thanks for peace and unity. The orchestra gently agrees. If only.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky / May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor
What tragic irony that the torment of a gifted but vulnerable young man is responsible for giving us so much enjoyment. Circumstances beyond his control dealt Tchaikovsky a very difficult hand, causing him to live most of his life in fear and on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
As a child, Tchaikovsky was so emotionally fragile that his governess described him as a “porcelain child.” At the tender age of 10, his disintegrating family sent him 800 miles from his home to attend the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Moscow where, in a strict boarding school, he trained against his character to become a clerk in the Russian Ministry of Justice. While separated from his beloved mother, she died, a crushing blow from which he never recovered. He became neurotically self-absorbed, misanthropic, and a hypochondriac — all exacerbated by his fear of being discovered as gay in a society that regarded such to be criminal. As an example of his tenuous hold on sanity, while conducting in his later years, he kept time with a baton in his right hand while holding his chin with his left for fear that his head would fall off.
His salvation, of course, was his unmatched ability to write captivating music which flowered from his inexhaustible capacity to write compelling melodies, many of which are the most memorable ever to flow from the pen of a composer. His melodies however, are not warm and fuzzy, but introspective, haunting, and sometimes as emotional as an anguished cry from an upstairs window on a stormy night. Also, he has no peer when it comes to dance rhythms. Can anyone top Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker?
In preparation for his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky penned some private notes about what would become the essence of his composition’s dramatic but unspoken program: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.” These private words indicate that he had become determined to accept – indeed to embrace – who he was instead of desperately trying to become something he was not.
As the music begins, we immediately hear the despondency from which he begins his transition. The darkly hollow e-minor opening is his “Fate motto.” He borrowed it from Mikael Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, in particular Glinka’s music that accompanies the words “turn not to sorrow,” and sorrowful it is. As the Fate motto ends, a determined march takes over. His journey to acceptance has begun. The Fate motto reappears repeatedly throughout the piece, eventually moving from the original minor key presentation in the dark woodwinds to a glorious triumph in a major key confidently delivered by the brass and the strings. The triumph is glorious.
The second movement is a love song featuring one of his great melodies sung here by the French horn. The third movement is a captivating waltz; and the finale is pure celebration.
But is he whistling in the dark? Is he celebrating from the prow of the Titanic on its way to doom? Is his victory short lived? For an answer to these questions, listen to the end of his Sixth Symphony. Six days after its premier he was dead, possibly by his own hand.