Program Notes

Program Notes – Classics IV

February 2, 2019

In the first hot July days I started work on my seventh symphony, conceived as a broad musical embodiment of majestic ideas of the patriotic war.

The work engrossed me wholly. Nothing could hinder the flow of ideas, neither savage raids, German, planes, nor the grim atmosphere of a beleaguered city. I worked with an inhuman intensity I have never reached before. I could stop to compose small pieces, marches, film pieces, and songs; attend to my organizational duties as chairman of the Leningrad Composers Association, and return to my symphony as though I had never before left it…

My work is wholly at the service of my country and everything I conceive now is inspired by the magnificent spirit of our people in this war. I could no more separate it from myself than I could stop composing.

—Dimitri Shostakovich

 

If adversity is frequently the catalyst to creativity, then it would be hard to imagine more adverse conditions for the creation of an artistic masterpiece than those under which Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) composed his Seventh Symphony. Of course, Shostakovich was no stranger to adversity having suffered a very public condemnation through articles appearing anonymously in the newspaper, Pravda, following performances of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1936. The success of his Fifth Symphony in 1937 restored Shostakovich’s reputation with the public and the Soviet authorities, but the unexpected and severe repercussions from this attack would continue to weigh heavily in the composer’s mind. Despite this fearful personal episode, the horrific scale of the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis at the height of the Second World War, beginning in the summer of 1941, is almost unimaginable.

Leningrad, from 1703 to 1924 and since 1991 called St. Petersburg, was Shostakovich’s hometown. It was the place where he received his musical training and the city where he worked as a professor at the conservatory beginning in 1937. Needless to say, it held strong ties for him. Following the start of WWII, Shostakovich, suffering from famously poor eyesight that prevented him from serving in the military, was relegated to a role as a fire warden for the conservatory. In July of 1942 Shostakovich was featured on the cover of Time magazine, donning his fire helmet and surrounded by images of war and devastation along with the grandiose caption “Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory.” Despite his somewhat peripheral role in defending his native city, there is probably no other artistic work in history that has had as great and immediately positive effect on the people it was intended to portray and honor.

The experiences and suffering of the residents of Russia’s second largest city during the Second World War are the stuff of dystopian fiction. A strategic target of the German army, Leningrad in 1941 was home to over three million people. Information discovered following the war indicated that it was Hitler’s intention to completely destroy the city, making no plans for the displacement of the population and its refugees. The expectation by the Nazis was that there would be millions of casualties. While the German offensive against major Soviet cities began to take shape in June of 1941, the direct assault on Leningrad began on September 8 of that year and was not lifted until January 27, 1944, a total of 872 days, making it the longest sustained attack on major urban center in history. The destruction and loss of life was staggering. At its worst point, more than 100,000 civilians per month died of starvation alone, not including those lost to bombing, fire, and extreme cold. Food and water were scarce; the inadequate bread rations were made of dough mixed with sawdust and some people turned to eating pets and rodents to stave off starvation. The circumstances had grown so desperate that there are confirmed reports of cannibalism. In the midst of this nightmare situation, Shostakovich completed work on his symphony. The composer and his family were ordered to evacuate Leningrad in October of 1941, eventually landing in Kuibyshev, the provisional Soviet capital while Leningrad and Moscow were under threat, and where Shostakovich completed work on his symphony.

Incredibly, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony received its Leningrad premiere in July of 1942, 13 months after the German advance on Russia had begun and less than halfway into the devastating siege. Performances of the symphony elsewhere had already taken place including in England and the U. S. The score was transferred to microfilm and secretly transported out of Russia via Iran, the Middle East, and South America. In all, the symphony was performed more than 60 times during the first year after its completion, the work understood as emblematic of the struggle against the Nazi threat devastating Europe and claiming the lives of millions.

The Leningrad performance was a remarkable achievement given the city’s dire circumstances. The score had to be specially flown into Leningrad at night to avoid anti-aircraft fire. After nearly a year of air raids, artillery bombardment, and starvation, a call went out for musicians to begin rehearsal of the new paean to Russian fortitude and determination. Only 15 musicians showed up for that first rehearsal, a large portion of the Leningrad orchestra musicians either dead, ill, or serving on the battlefield. Another message went out ordering musician-soldiers to report to the city for rehearsals, and ultimately for a performance that would be broadcast across the city on loudspeakers so that even the German soldiers could hear it. Reflecting on this poignant and historic event, Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov commented that, “Here were people representing the opposing side of the war, who needed music just as badly as the ones for whom it was composed. Because in the end it was composed for humanity. And the best proof is that today we still need it, we are still listening to it.”

In a public address before the Symphony’s premiere, Shostakovich proclaimed, I dedicate my Seventh Symphony to our struggle with fascism, our coming victory over the enemy and to my native city, Leningrad.” He originally gave each of the movements titles and created a programmatic sketch for what each movement depicts. The four movement titles were: “War,” “Remembrance,” “the Wide Spaces of Our Land,” and “Victory.” He ultimately removed these titles feeling they were too narrow in expressing the music’s content. He later added the following descriptions:

 

Allegretto: War breaks suddenly into our peaceful life.  … The recapitulation is a funeral march, a deeply tragic episode, a mass requiem.

Moderato (poco allegretto): A lyrical intermezzo  … no program and fewer “concrete facts” than in the first movement.
Adagio: A pathetic adagio with drama in the middle episode.
Allegro non troppo: Victory, a beautiful life in the future.

 

In somewhat greater detail the composer describes the first movement in the following terms:

The [opening of] the first movement tells of the happy, peaceful life of people sure of themselves and their future. This is the simple, peaceful live lived before the war by thousands of Leningrad militiamen, by the whole city, by our country.

            [Later] war bursts into the peaceful life of these people. I am not aiming for the naturalistic depiction of war, the depiction of the clatter of arms, the explosion of shells, and so on. I am trying to convey the image of war emotionally…The reprise is a funeral march or, rather, a requiem for the victims of the war. Simple people honor the memory of their heroes… After the requiem there is an even more tragic episode.  I don’t know how to characterize this music. Maybe what is here are a mother’s tears or even that feeling when grief is so great that there are no tears left. These two lyrical fragments lead to the conclusion of the first movement, to the apotheosis of life, of the sun. At the very end distant thunder appears again reminding us that the war continues.

            The second movement is a scherzo, a fairly well-developed lyrical episode, recalling pleasant events and past joys. The atmosphere is of gentle sadness and reverie. Joy of life and the worship of Nature are the dominant moods of the third movement.

 

It is worth commenting that many composers, upon hearing this symphony, especially the first movement, responded with varying degrees of derision. The movement is long and almost agonizing in its relentless repetition, undoubtedly a metaphor for the inexorable and seemingly interminable German onslaught. Shostakovich used a theme adapted from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, believed to be a favorite of Hitler, for this maniacal repetition. Béla Bartók would parody this theme is the scherzo of his Concerto for Orchestra, which he was composing at the time.

Of the “Victory” finale Shostakovich is reported as having said, “my idea of victory isn’t something brutal: it’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.” The music is ultimately triumphant, but not without lingering hints of the sorrow and suffering that have come before. The price of war, of this war in particular, was profound. Victory for the Soviet people came at immense cost in lives and sorrow, and even a work of nationalist propaganda cannot deny such a painful truth.  © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD

Program Notes – Classics III

January 5, 2019

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) virtually single-handedly transformed opera at the end of the 18th century. His works brought a new vision to the operatic stage in all aspects of production as he reconceived the ideas of serious and comic opera, not as separate categories but as varied aspects of drama as a whole. Works like The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), seamlessly blend comedic and serious elements within the context of the Italian style operatic genre. In his last opera, The Magic Flute, K. 620, completed only months before his death in December of 1791, Mozart takes on the German popular musical theater genre of Singspiel and elevates it to unprecedented heights. Characters of aristocratic bearing appear alongside those of the most buffoonish stereotypes without turning into farce or heavy-handed moralizing. The opera, so heavily laden with symbolism on many levels, is a work of enduring insights and childlike enchantment. The wonderful overture, including solemn sounding trombones – the trombone was used more frequently in religious music of the time – is frequently performed separately in orchestral concerts. It is related to the story of the opera directly through the ceremonial chords in the brass heard at the opening and again mid-way through the piece. These chords evoke the music representing Sarastro and the priests of the “realm of light” whose true nature is revealed in Act II of the opera. The playfully enchanting character of the main Allegro section may be an allusion to the comical and naïve elements also prominent in the story, yet Mozart employs a fugal style of counterpoint in unfolding this idea, suggesting a kind of artful mastery also indicative of a more serious musical subject. The exquisite balancing of the serious and the playful displays Mozart’s incredible genius for conveying emotional and psychological complexity without being musically pedantic or tedious.

American composer Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) is considered a leading figure among a generation of composers who came after the minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Gandolfi’s music is, however, not in a minimalist vein and like some of his contemporaries he exhibits a wide variety of influences both traditional and popular. Gandolfi is as interested in genres such as rock and jazz as much as he is in Copland, Barber, or Leonard Bernstein, one of his mentors at the Tanglewood Music Center. This eclectic approach to musical creation has become a hallmark of American composers since the early 20th century, and Gandolfi, who is now chair of music composition at the New England Conservatory, retains that characteristic quality for his own colorful and varied works. His large-scale and expanding work, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, was conceived in 2004 and its first incarnation Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, is a four-movement suite taken from a much larger collection of now 16 pieces, that was first premiered at the Tanglewood Music Center under the direction of conductor Robert Spano.

The unusual title for Gandolfi’s work is explained quite simply when one realizes that it is a literal description of the music’s inspiration. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is an actual place in the Scottish Borders region designed and created by the American architect Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, on land owned by Keswick’s mother. Jencks writes, “the reason for this unusual title is that we…have used it as a spur to think about and celebrate some fundamental aspects of nature.” He goes on to say that in addition to the typical concerns related to a garden, they also began to consider things like “new wave forms, linear twists, and a new grammar of landscape design to bring out the basic elements of nature that recent science has found to underlie the cosmos.” While gardening may not seem to have much connection to musical composition, Gandolfi was particularly attracted to these more esoteric subjects that “underlie the cosmos.” After becoming familiar with the actual garden, Gandolfi set to creating his first set of musical impressions in 2004. The composer has written his own set of notes to accompany his music, part of which is shared below. The Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation consists of a suite of four contrasting movements: “The Zeroroom,” “Soliton Waves,” “The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow,” and “The Nonsense.” By 2007 the work had expanded to 11 movements but Gandolfi encourages orchestras to freely pick and choose from the movements and play them in any order desired, a reflection of the free-form approach to both the garden and one’s experience of it.

 

The Zeroroom is the formal entrance to the garden. It is a fanciful, surreal cloakroom flanked by an orderly procession of tennis racquets that appear to be traveling through the wall in a “quantum dance,” and large photographs that progress from our place in the universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, to the precise position of the garden in the north of Scotland… I composed a work in which a succession of episodes emerge from and acquiesce to a “cosmic cloud,” depicting a similar journey from the macro view of the universe to the micro…

In many ways the Garden…is a garden of waves…A soliton wave has the special property of being able to join with other waves, combine to create new wave forms, and then emerge completely unchanged… “Soliton Waves” features many waves that are readily heard as musical ideas that pass among different instrumental groups. After the initial wave courses through the orchestra from low to high, a melodic line is presented in the strings propagating smaller waves throughout the orchestra…Ultimately the original wave reemerges completely unchanged.

“The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow” is Jenck’s title for his large land-object, which is the garden’s signature feature: a smoothly realized turning of the earth into a spiraling, double-helix mound. I chose to focus on the serene quality of this majestic garden structure.

“The Nonsense” is a small building that occupies a prominent place in the garden… its conspicuous position in the garden prompted a lengthy movement representing a panoramic view of the building. The overall form of the movement is binary, …my movement makes reference to modernist music of the mid to late twentieth century to match the postmodern architectural design of the building.

 

Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet op.64 (1935), is one of his greatest masterpieces and his first full-length “story ballet,” in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.  Despite its elevated place in Prokofiev’s catalog, Romeo and Juliet had a rocky start.  Composed as one of his first works upon returning to live in the Soviet Union after a period of self-imposed exile, the ballet fell victim to a variety of unfortunate circumstances.  The contract from the Kirov ballet, the source of the original commission, was withdrawn; further, the scenario was changed first to have a happy ending, then back to its original tragic close.  The ballet lay unperformed in the Soviet Union for nearly five years, during which time Prokofiev wisely created two orchestral suites (1936, 1937) of music from the ballet.  As a result, the music to Romeo and Juliet actually became familiar to audiences before the ballet was ever performed in Russia.  And what great music it is, demonstrating all of Prokofiev’s best and most characteristically Russian qualities—expressive lyricism, rhythmic vitality, humor, and biting irony, not to mention its brilliant orchestration. The ten selections performed here are assembled from both of the suites (a third suite was arranged in 1946).

This composite suite forms a kind of sweeping overview of the familiar story of the youthful and star-crossed lovers. The first excerpt, “Montagues and Capulets” is the opening selection from the second suite.  The music is taken from the beginning of Act I of the ballet.  A massive, strident chord, followed by a tender utterance in the strings makes a symbolic gesture for the whole ballet.  A lumbering, menacing dance ensues—we are at the Capulets’ ball.  The quiet music that follows is Juliet’s dance with her intended, Paris.  The second selection, “The Young Juliet” portrays Juliet as the woman-child she is, playful and capricious as well as tender and mysterious. The simple rollicking melody of the “Folkdance,” derived from Act II, merrily spins its festive tune again and again. Next follows the “Minuet.” This music comes from Act I and accompanies the “Arrival of the Guests.” The episodic music is at turns grand and intimate with a recurring theme suggesting the formal and celebratory nature of the ball. “Masks” portrays the mysteriously marching entry of three masked guests, including Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, all from the house of Montague, to the Capulet’s ball.  “Friar Laurence” is a tender character portrait of the old monk who counsels and helps the young couple. Prokofiev depicts the friar in ponderous, lyrical lines suggesting a character of depth and emotion. The famous moonlit Balcony Scene is the source of inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet.”  Here Prokofiev is at his lyrical best providing soaring and tender melodies evoking the tentative yet enraptured state of the young couple. “Death of Tybalt” is from Act II in which Romeo kills Tybalt in a duel.  Playful rhythms and the quick tossing of themes through the orchestra mimic the jousting duelers as they jockey for balance and position.  Inevitably the fateful moment arrives and an anguished theme, heard first in the horns, engulfs the orchestra. A complex cascade of emotions pours forth in “Romeo at Juliet’s Before Parting.” Themes from earlier portions of the score flow in succession all tinged with an air of ardor and foreboding. Searing grief and sorrow overwhelm the young lover in “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” as he mistakenly believes Juliet to be dead and he tragically drinks the poison. © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD

Program Notes – Classics II, Britten’s War Requiem

November 11, 2018

 

“When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion.”

― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

 

“I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn.”

― Wilfred Owen

 

November 11, 1918 is known throughout Europe and the United States as Armistice Day, the day the leaders of the German army agreed to cease fighting and withdraw their troops from foreign lands after four years of carnage. That day marked the end of what was then called, “the war to end all wars.” That phrase seems quaint to us today knowing that in less than 20 years, Europe, once again, would be sliding into a conflict even more calamitous than World War I. War and armed conflict have continued to plague the world, even after the horrific toll of the first two World Wars. World War I was different from previous conflicts, though. Mechanized warfare including tanks and airplanes, chemical weapons, and the nightmare of trench warfare all came to be the symbols of the war whose extent and brutality had not been anticipated.

Nov. 11, 2018 marks the centennial of the end of the “Great War.” It is a day to commemorate the events of 1914-1918 as well as the conflicts that have occurred subsequently. It is a day to remember those who fought and died, and also to reflect on both the sacrifices and suffering caused by war, and ultimately, the apparent futility of these conflicts. We should use such occasions to think about the past, understand its consequences, and consider ways to avoid the mistakes societies have fallen victim to time and time again.

Such reflection would likely be appreciated by the British composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) who composed his War Requiem in 1961. Britten’s Requiem, considered by many to be his masterpiece, is a cautionary statement rather than a glorification of war. A committed pacifist, Britten objected to participating in the Second World War and found his potential participation in the acts of ghastly destruction completely inimical to his essential creative impulse. As an artist, Britten’s pacifism wasn’t political, it was inherent. War was as contrary to his nature as anything could be.

The origin of the War Requiem came from a commission to Benjamin Britten to compose a work to commemorate the completion of a new cathedral in Coventry, England. The magnificent medieval Coventry Cathedral, dating back to the 14th century, was destroyed during a German bombing raid in 1940. The new structure was built alongside the ruins of the old structure and was completed in 1962. The commission awarded to Britten came in 1960 with the composition completed in 1961.

Britten’s War Requiem is a work of intense contrasts and, consequently, profound juxtaposition. At the heart of the Requiem is the contrast between the public and the personal, the ritualistic and the intimate. The work is called a war requiem, implying a general acknowledgement of war and its inherent sacrifice on a broad scale, yet Britten dedicated his War Requiem to not to a nation or collective but to four individuals he knew personally, three of whom, Roger Burney, Michael Halliday, and David Gill, were killed in action during WW II. The fourth, Piers Dunkerley, was captured in 1944 and served as a POW, only to later take his own life years after the war. The juxtapositions continue in the use of the Requiem’s texts. The ancient Roman Mass for the Dead, or Missa pro defunctis, serves as the structural body of the work. These texts have been used by many composers since medieval times, including the most famous examples by Mozart and Verdi. The Latin texts are the ritualized public proclamations regarding human mortality, divine judgement, and hope for eternal rest and peace. In contrast to these formalized texts, Britten inserted a series of nine poems by the English poet, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was himself a casualty of the war, killed in action exactly one week before the Armistice, on November 4, 1918. Owen’s poetry is powerfully expressive of the utter inhumanity and futility of war, penned while serving on the battlefield and while recuperating from injuries sustained there. His words touched Britten deeply as they conveyed the intensity of his own hatred and sorrow for the purely destructive character of military conflict.

The contrasts and symbolism of the War Requiem are also realized in Britten’s use of distinctive arrangement of instruments and voices. The work calls for both a full orchestra and a separate chamber orchestra, mixed chorus, boys choir, and a trio of solo voices: soprano, tenor, and baritone. These forces are divided mainly according to function. The full orchestra, chorus, boys’ choir, and soprano soloist perform the six traditional requiem sections: Introit, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Libera me. The tenor and baritone sing the settings of the nine Owen texts accompanied by the chamber orchestra. There is one poem for each Latin text section with the exception of the massive Dies irae, which includes four.  The male voices represent two soldiers evoking and intoning the words and thoughts of the poet who, through Britten’s brilliant arrangement and musical setting, seems to be commenting on the Latin texts.

There is another layer to the symbolism of the voices Britten chose to write for. He had very specific performers in mind when composing the vocal parts. The baritone was to be the German, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, the tenor, Britten’s life-partner, Peter Pears, and the soprano was to be the Russian, Galina Vishnevskaya. The trio represents the main military players in WW II, Britain, Russia, and Germany, but here gathered in a musical reconciliation of sorts. Unfortunately, Vishnevskaya was unable to attend the premiere because Soviet officials objected to her participation in such an overtly “political” artistic statement at a time when Britain and Germany stood in opposition to the Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall had just been completed the previous year). English soprano, Heather Harper, filled in at the last minute to sing at the Requiem’s premiere.

Musically the War Requiem is laden with symbolism, yet Britten’s handling of the symbolism is so artistically rendered that it is never pedantic or heavy-handed. One essential musical element is the central role of a particular musical interval, a pair of notes spanning a musical space. In this work, the crucial interval seems to be the “tritone,” ironically heard in the clanging (church) bells at the opening of the requiem. The tritone is the musical interval so abhorred by medieval church musicians it was labelled “the devil’s interval” and forbidden from use, to be avoided at all cost. At the conclusion of the requiem Britten brings together all the instruments and voices and uses Wilfred Owens’ final poem, left unfinished at his death, “Strange meeting.” The convergence of the Latin text, “In paradisum,” following the closing line of “Strange meeting,” in which two battlefield enemies meet in Hell, presents a troubling and psychologically dramatic conclusion to a work devoted to the perplexing nature of humanity’s persistent resorting to inhumanity. The War Requiem concludes in desolate silence following the closing words of the requiem mass: “Requiescant in pace. Amen,” Rest in Peace, along with the tolling tritone bells. © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD

Program Notes – Classics I, Opening Night

October 6, 2018

A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.

–Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

 

This year, around the country and around the world, people are celebrating the life and work of Leonard Bernstein. He was born 100 years ago, a fact that seems almost inconceivable to those old enough to remember him before his death in 1990. Through his many recordings and hours of video footage, it sometimes feels like he is still around. The vibrancy of his life and thought continue to inspire nearly thirty years after his passing. Centenaries and similar occasions provide opportunities to reconsider and reevaluate the legacy of significant figures in history. As a result, there has been much recent celebration and discussion of Bernstein, or “Lenny,” as he liked to be called. The fact that his centenary is being so universally recognized is some indication that his place in music history, and especially American musical culture, is apparently secure.

Lenny is in many ways a uniquely American figure, yet that distinction doesn’t do justice to his exceptional qualities. There are few comparisons to be made with this person whose interests, genius, and mastery extended so widely. Composer, conductor, pianist, educator, entertainer, writer, philosopher, and political lightning rod, constitute a short list of his notable accomplishments. Probably Bernstein’s greatest legacy today, however, remains his extensive catalog of recordings of inspiring musical interpretations of orchestral repertoire conducting the world’s greatest orchestras. Most significant among this achievement is his championing of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. In the history of Mahler appreciation there is before Bernstein and after Bernstein. Before Bernstein, Mahler was a marginal, infrequently performed eccentric. Today, Mahler is a staple of the orchestral repertoire. We can, in large part, thank Bernstein for this awakening. And like Mahler, Bernstein struggled to balance lucrative positions as conductor with work as a significant composer.

For Lenny, success as both composer and conductor came early in life. Bernstein burst onto the scene as a conductor when he filled in at the last minute for Bruno Walter (coincidently, Mahler’s old friend) with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. The concert was broadcast nationally and landed Bernstein on the front page of the New York Times. Fifteen years later Bernstein would be named music director of the NY Philharmonic, the first American-born conductor to lead a major U. S. orchestra. By then Lenny had already established a reputation as successful composer and enormously gifted educator. His ballet Fancy Free (1944), the musical adapted from it, On the Town (1944), Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957) all solidified his status as a leading composer for the theater.

As an educator Bernstein’s most enduring achievement came with the nationally televised Young People’s Concerts series between 1958 and 1972 with the N Y Philharmonic. Bernstein had a captivating and insightful understanding of music and a matchless ability to communicate with audiences of all ages, always enlightening and never condescending. He also led a groundbreaking series of lectures on music at Harvard, his alma mater, he titled The Unanswered Question, named for a work by Charles Ives, whose music Bernstein also helped bring to prominence. He is the author of several important books on music, most famously The Joy of Music (1959), still in publication nearly 60 years after its first printing. For most musicians, any one of these achievements would have been sufficient to establish themselves as outstanding. Today we marvel at this prodigious life and celebrate his gifts to the world.

In 1953 the celebrated playwright, Lillian Hellman, contacted Bernstein with the idea of setting Voltaire’s short novel Candide (1759) as a work for musical theater. The auspicious collaboration between these two artists would suggest the likelihood of commercial success for their production, but despite such a high-powered creative team, supplemented by contributions by the author, Dorothy Parker among others, such success has eluded Candide since its original run in 1956. Reviews of the original production were mixed, though Bernstein’s score received near universal praise. Despite the best efforts of some of the most talented artists of the era, Voltaire’s unusually conceived novella seemed to defy adaptation to the stage. A month before its premiere, Bernstein wrote:

 

 Voltaire’s satire is international.  It throws light on all the dark places, whether European or American.  Of course, it’s not an American book, but the matters with which it is concerned are as valid for us as any — and sometimes I think they are especially valid for us in America.  Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority — aren’t these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers? 

 

The musical appeared at a crisis period in American history. The Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the House Un-American Activities Committee were in full swing. Hellman herself had been called before the HUAC and undoubtedly saw Candide as a vehicle for political commentary. In trying times, satire can be an effective weapon against tyranny, but it doesn’t guarantee success. While Candide the musical/operetta languishes, despite numerous attempts at revival, the score, and especially the brilliantly whimsical overture, continues to enjoy great popularity. The music to the overture is Bernstein at his virtuosic sweet spot: tonally colorful, rhythmically vibrant, and melodically charming.

While Candide came fairly early in Bernstein’s career, the Divertimento for Orchestra appears relatively late, in 1980. The work was composed on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the orchestra’s centennial and was premiered at the opening concert of the 1980-81 season. Though often associated with New York City because of his work on Broadway, with the N Y Philharmonic, and having a home there for many years, Bernstein was a born and bred Bostonian, having attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard, and being mentored by BSO conductor Serge Koussevitsky at the Berkshire Music Center. Strong ties indeed and this work is clearly a reflection of those very personal connections. Each of the eight brief movements is a kind of musical vignette with some connection to the orchestra or the composer. The first movement, “Sennets and Tuckets,” Elizabethan terms for types of theatrical fanfares, includes a musical motif of two notes, B-C, “Boston Centennial,” found in each of the other seven movements. The “Waltz” is a dual reference to Tchaikovsky in its irregular meter, and Koussevitzky, who was a great fan of his 6th Symphony. Next is the “Mazurka” for winds with a brief recollection of the oboe cadenza in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, followed by the “Samba,” with its characteristically vibrant rhythms. The “Turkey Trot,” based on music Bernstein had composed earlier in his career, is followed by “Sphinxes” and “Blues,” the latter of which alludes to many of Bernstein’s earlier works. The Divertimento concludes with “In Memoriam; March: The BSO Forever,” where the slow opening is a tribute to the line of great conductors and musicians of the BSO who had passed on, followed by a parodistic march exuberantly celebrating the great orchestra.

Though appearing last among the Bernstein tributes on this program, On the Town was among his earliest triumphs as a composer. The Broadway musical turned movie was originally conceived as a ballet titled Fancy Free (1944), by the iconic choreographer, Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), with whom Bernstein would later work to create West Side Story (1957). In the process of adapting the ballet to the musical, Bernstein composed a completely new score inspired by various popular musical styles from blues to ballads. The show and the music proved hugely successful and were adapted into a movie in 1949 featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, though much of Bernstein’s music is omitted from the film. In 1945 Bernstein created a short suite of excerpts from the musical titled Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. The storyline of both the ballet and the musical center around three sailors on 24-hours leave in New York City; the Dance Episodes has a more musically conceived structure. The first episode, “Dance of the Great Lover,” is the character Gabey’s fantasy of a romantic encounter, is energetic and buoyant. The second part, “Pas de Deux” is more introspective and bluesy in character and features one of Bernstein’s soaring lyrical tunes, “Lonely Town.” The final episode features the show’s most famous theme “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.” More complex and varied, this closing episode is a musical portrait of the bustling and colorful city that inspired its creation.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) remains among the most popular composers of the later 19th century. He is beloved by American audiences, in part because he spent several years (1891-94) here leading a new music conservatory in New York City and he left a small number of works that are reflections of his American experience that are some of his most frequently performed works. These include the String Quartet, op. 96, “The American,” the String Quintet, op. 97, and his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”  Also conceived and mostly composed in the U. S. is his celebrated Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, op. 104 (1895). Dvořák’s reputation today is based on a body of musical works heard as an expression of his Bohemian (Czech) culture. Even his “American” works, which borrow themes and styles associated with types of American music, remain essentially Bohemian in character. The Cello Concerto is an example of this, possibly an expression of the composer’s homesickness after a long absence.

While the repertoire of cello concertos is considerably smaller than that for violin, there are nonetheless a number of excellent examples from the time of Antonio Vivaldi through contemporary times. Among all these concertos, it is Dvořák’s that stands as the crowning achievement. It is epic in scope, clocking at over 40 minutes in performance, and sweeping in intensity of expression. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto exudes an essential Bohemian character in its lyricism, rhythmic vitality, and melancholy. It is a work tinged with the tragic and the dark, brooding voice and plaintive high register of the cello embody the full range of the work’s emotional palette. Cast in the standard three-movement form, the opening in expansive symphonic style features some of Dvořák’s most memorable and expressive themes. The last two movements are colored by the tragic death of Dvořák’s sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, whom he had courted before ultimately marrying her sister. The slow, middle movement is tender and folk-like in its lyricism and deeply expressive exploring the entire range of the cello. As a tribute to the ailing Josfina, Dvořák included the melody from one of her favorite songs, “Kéž duch můj sám” (Leave me alone), from his Four Songs, op. 82 in the middle section of the movement.

The finale begins with a dancing Slavic Rondo theme recurring between sections of contrasting and virtuosic passagework for the soloist. After learning of the death of Josefina, Dvořák revised the closing section of the movement to include a reminiscence of “Leave me alone,” lending a sadly personal note to the concerto’s finale. © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD