Article by James Wierzbicki in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 15, 1994
It's hard to imagine there will ever be a truly final version of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It's true that the 1988 version is the final version with which Bernstein had a personal involvement. It was stitched together not by Bernstein but by conductor John Mauceri, but Bernstein was on hand to supervise Mauceri's edition as it was readied for a production by the Scottish Opera, and he approved of the results. Indeed, since its premiere, Mauceri's version has often been described as "definitive".
But how can there be a "definitive" version of an operetta whose development has been as circuitous as the globe-trotting itinerary of its characters? Even the "definitive" version staged in Glasgow couldn't satisfy Bernstein completely.
In December of 1989, a year and a half after the Scottish Opera production, the London Symphony Orchestra invited Bernstein to conduct a concert performance of Candide at London's Barbican Centre. As Humphrey Burton, Bernstein's most recent biographer, points out in his essay for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis program booklet, " 'The Sheep Song' was among the numbers dropped," and "a few more bars were restored in the Inquisition scene . . ." The edition prepared for the Barbican performances was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and issued in 1991 as the "final revised version".
One wonders if it would have carried that subtitle had the composer not died just months before the album went to market. As much for its political content as for its music, Candide meant a great deal to Bernstein. In spite of its success, it was not a work he could allow to rest comfortably on the shelf.
Loosely based on the 1759 novel by Voltaire, Candide first began to occupy Bernstein's attention during the so-called McCarthy Era. The idea came from playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, who was fingered as a Communist in 1951 and who a year later had to defend herself before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
As a result of her friction with the HUAC, Hellman was blacklisted by her employers in Hollywood. Bernstein had an easier time of it; he was challenged only by a functionary at the State Department, not the full McCarthy committee, and aside from legal expenses all he suffered was a temporary revocation of his passport.
Bernstein had known Hellman at least since the late 1940s, but possibly their connection dates back to Bernstein's undergraduate years at Harvard. One of his friends during that period was Paul Bowles, who had composed incidental music for Hellman's play Watch on the Rhine. And in 1939, when he was only 20, Bernstein conducted the premiere of Marc Blitzstein's pro-unionist opera The Cradle Will Rock; seven years later, Blitzstein set out to make an opera of Hellman's play The Little Foxes.
In any case, Bernstein and Hellman began collaborating in 1952. Their first idea, a Broadway-style treatment of the life of Evita Peron, fell by the wayside. A year later, doubtless prompted by her dealings with the McCarthy committee, Hellman suggested Candide.
Bernstein was in Europe, conducting at La Scala, when the proposal came, and at first he was too distracted with his burgeoning operatic career to make a commitment. But then he remembered his own experience with McCarthyism. In January of 1954 he was back in New York, where he eagerly held a press conference to announce that he and Hellman were "having a fling" at the Voltaire story.
Voltaire's novel is short — just 87 pages — but its plot is bizarrely complex. Voltaire's satire was directed mostly at certain theological tenets current during the Age of Enlightenment. The target of Bernstein and Hellman's Candide was not only McCarthyism but also the complacency that allowed McCarthyism to gain its foothold.
"Optimism as a strict belief . . . induces lethargy, inhibits the human power to change, to progress, to rise against injustice, to create anything that might contribute to a genuinely better world, " Bernstein wrote in his program note for the concert performances of Candide in London in 1989. In summarizing Voltaire, he was also summarizing the operetta that for more than 30 years would be a work-in-progress.
Originally conceived as a three-act opera, Candide opened as a two-act musical in October of 1956. Between its tryout performances in Boston and its official launch on Broadway it lost a few songs and gained a whole new scene; even before the Boston run, Bernstein cut out a love duet that later re-surfaced in West Side Story.
Like the score, Hellman's libretto underwent substantial changes before the show hit the boards. Most of it was fine-tuned by Richard Wilbur, and the lyricists included Wilbur, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself.
The London staging in 1959 featured a new duet for the Old Lady and Cunegonde. A 1971 production in San Francisco had a new song for the philosopher character; by the time the production reached the East Coast, several songs had been dropped. In 1973, Harold Prince obtained permission to mount a trimmed-back version of Candide; Hellman wanted no part of it, so the "book" was completely re-written by Hugh Wheeler, and Stephen Sondheim fitted some of the songs with new lyrics.
In 1982, Prince teamed up with conductor John Mauceri for a production at the New York City Opera; this time most of the cuts were restored, but the musical numbers were not in their original order.
Apparently Mauceri's conscience bothered him after that.
"This Candide had turned into one long joke," he later explained. "The heart, the tears and the faith — all clearly part of Voltaire' s reason for writing Candide — were nowhere to be found in the post-Lillian Hellman versions."
At his first opportunity, when he was serving as music director for the Scottish Opera, Mauceri sought to give Candide its due. With Bernstein's cooperation, he fashioned a new edition that respected the original while incorporating all the changes that Bernstein considered to be improvements. The libretto, however, was based not on the Hellman version but on the 1973 re-write by Hugh Wheeler, with alterations by John Wells.
Like Voltaire's hero, Bernstein's Candide has followed a path with seemingly uncountable twists and turns. The operetta today exists in its "definitive" version only because, for the moment, people have stopped tinkering with it. The pressures of the box-office being what they are, there's no telling how the work will be treated by conductors and directors in the future. But Bernstein, one trusts, has had his final say on the matter.
Note: Several inaccuracies in this article have been corrected by the webmaster.
Article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, October, 1994
How Good Was Leonard Bernstein?
Younger readers accustomed to hearing the name of the late Leonard Bernstein uttered only in reverential tones may find it hard to believe that America's best-known classical musician was for a long time treated as something perilously close to a figure of fun. Harold Schonberg, chief music critic of the New York Times throughout Bernstein's decade-long tenure (1959-69) as music director of the New York Philharmonic, regularly portrayed him as a flamboyant poseur: "Toward the end of the Liszt concerto, he rose vertically into the air, à la Nijinsky, and hovered there a good fifteen seconds by the clock." Virgil Thomson, perhaps the most influential American music critic of the 20th century, was even more dismissive of Bernstein as a composer: "Bernstein ... does not compose with either originality or much skill. His pieces lack contrapuntal coherence, melodic distinction, contrapuntal progress, harmonic logic, and concentration of thought." And Tom Wolfe's 1970 essay, "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's," in which Bernstein was mercilessly caricatured as the ultimate limousine liberal, exploded whatever claims he still had to being taken seriously as an intellectual.
But the rise and fall of reputations is a futures market, and Leonard Bernstein is looking more and more like a blue-chip stock. More than 50 years after his debut as a conductor, and almost four years after his death at the age of seventy-two, he remains the only American-born performer to have found a secure place in the first tier of such classical-music superstars as Toscanini, Horowitz, and Callas. Sales of his recordings reportedly doubled between 1990 and 1993, and though his concert works have yet to win wide-spread popularity, two of his musical comedies, West Side Story and Candide, and one of his ballet scores, Fancy Free, are performed regularly around the world.
Nevertheless, many of the old doubts about Bernstein persist. Norman Podhoretz once said of Saul Bellow that "there was a sense in which the validity of a whole phase of American experience was felt to hang on the question of whether or not he would turn out to be a great novelist." The musicians of my generation — born after World War II — felt that way about Leonard Bernstein. To us, he was American music, and we wanted him to be great. It was as if his success would somehow ratify our own strivings, and prove that we, too, could do great things.
I suspect that Bernstein was aware of the extent to which so many people had an emotional stake in his career, and that he found it intimidating. It was a cliché, even a joke, that he could never decide what to do with himself: compose, conduct, play the piano, write Broadway shows, do TV. But what Bernstein really wanted was to be a great composer. "I never had a career," he said in 1984. "Conducting is really just a thing." It was a theme to which he returned days before his death in 1990: "The obvious fear is that I'll be remembered — however vaguely — not as a composer but as a conductor."
Thus far, that fear is being realized. But the story of Leonard Bernstein's impact is far from over. Indeed, those of us who grew up with "Lenny on our minds" (in Samuel Lipman's perfect phrase) are still left with the need to decide, at least tentatively, just how good he really was.
In making that effort, we have the help of two recent biographies. Leonard Bernstein (footnote 1), by far the longer of the two, is by Humphrey Burton, a British producer who directed the many televised concerts and documentaries Bernstein made during the last twenty years of his life. Though the book was written with the cooperation of Bernstein's family and with exclusive access to his huge personal archive, it is not, Burton says, "an 'authorized' biography. Nobody has told me what to say or prevented me from saying what I wanted." Be that as it may, Burton's biography has the tone of a brief for the defense, albeit one written by a lawyer with mixed feelings about his client; it is also, less obviously, a book by an Englishman about an American, and suffers at times from an inadequate feel for various aspects, some of them significant, of American culture. Rich but unselective in detail, Leonard Bernstein contrives to be at once slightly pedestrian and thoroughly engrossing.
Meryle Secrest's Leonard Bernstein: A Life (footnote 2) is both considerably shorter and very different in tone, mainly because the author, a professional biographer whose earlier subjects include Frank Lloyd Wright and Bernard Berenson, was not allowed to make use of the Bernstein archives and because Bernstein's family discouraged his closest friends from talking to her. (An exception was Shirley Bernstein, Leonard's sister, who spoke candidly to Secrest about his younger years.) As a result, Secrest was forced to rely more extensively on secondary sources than Burton, and her book, while mostly admiring, tends to take a drier, more jaundiced view of Bernstein the man.
Neither Burton nor Secrest has much of interest to say about Bernstein's compositions, or his place in the history of American music. (Joan Peyser's much-criticized 1987 biography, for all its blatant errors and reliance on unsourced scandalous gossip, gives a better idea of how Bernstein stood in relation to the musical crosscurrents of his time.) For this reason alone, neither of these books can be considered definitive.
Taken as preliminary reports, however, and especially when read side by side, they are very useful, partly because they tend to correct each other: Burton's intimacy is balanced by Secrest's skepticism. Though there remain a few gaping holes — we still await, for example, an account of Bernstein's long relationship with the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who was responsible for the original conceptions of both Fancy Free and West Side Story — it is now possible for those wishing to take stock of his work to do so based on a detailed knowledge of his life.
The temptation to concentrate on Bernstein the man at the expense of Bernstein the musician is easy to understand. From the beginning, Leonard Bernstein had an uncanny knack for self-dramatization. Even his angst felt stagey. ("I remember saying to him," the composer Lukas Foss told Burton, "that he had such an expansive luxurious way of being miserable that it didn't seem miserable to me, ever.") In addition, he exuded at all times the tangy odor of scandal. Though stories about Bernstein's private life were sanitized by friendly journalists well into the 70's, tales of his elephantine ego, heavy drinking, and increasingly flagrant homosexuality were long the common coin of conversation wherever musicians gathered.
Perhaps one should call it bisexuality, since Bernstein married and had three children. But going strictly by the weight of documentary evidence, it would appear that Bernstein was mainly attracted to men. (A close woman friend believed that "he required men sexually and women emotionally.") And despite the oft-expressed wishes of some of his friends, his sex life cannot simply be dismissed as a purely private matter. For one thing, traces of Bernstein's sexual interests can be found in many of his compositions, among them the Serenade after Plato's Symposium and, less predictably, West Side Story, a parable of forbidden love as unabashedly homosexual in its subtext as any Tennessee Williams play. Even more to the point, Bernstein was part of the informal network of gay artists which played a key institutional role in American classical music and dance during the 30's and 40's.
Though the doings of this group have yet to be chronicled in any detail by historians of American music, its existence has always been common knowledge, and one of its great successes was to help boost the career of the young Leonard Bernstein. It is, to put it mildly, no coincidence that three of Bernstein's earliest patrons — the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the composers Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein — were homosexual. Bernstein appears to have been sexually involved with all three men; Secrest even speculates that he "made the decision to abandon his heterosexual pursuits for the good of his career." But one need not go that far to recognize that the young Bernstein's homosexuality gave him entrée to artistic circles not normally open to a Harvard undergraduate.
Of special interest is Bernstein's relationship with Copland, which has never before been discussed honestly in print, least of all in Copland's own poker-faced memoirs. Copland was for all intents and purposes Bernstein's composition teacher; Bernstein returned the favor by championing, as a conductor, his mentor's music. Indeed, the eventual recognition of Copland as the outstanding American composer of the 20th century owed much to Bernstein's advocacy.
But the relationship, it turns out, went deeper than that. Burton's book contains hitherto unpublished excerpts from the Copland-Bernstein correspondence which show not only that the two men were lovers at one point (probably in 1940), but that Copland also went to great lengths to encourage Bernstein to become a conductor:
The irony is that homosexuality proved to be an agonizing dilemma for Leonard Bernstein, both because it left him wracked with seizures of guilt (as a young man, he spoke of having "a canker in my soul") and because it forced him to lead a life of hypocrisy in order to achieve his main professional goal, the musical directorship of a major American orchestra. Not until 1959 did Bernstein take charge of the New York Philharmonic, eight years after he married the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. Had he wished merely to be a composer, Bernstein's sexuality would not have stood in the way, any more than it did for Copland, Thomson, or Samuel Barber. It was his additional desire to be a public figure — a community leader, as it were — that made it impossible for Bernstein to be openly gay.
Being Jewish seemed to present another obstacle to winning the leadership of a major orchestra. Certainly Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony and Bernstein's most important mentor as a conductor, thought it did. Koussevitzky, who himself had converted from Judaism to Christianity as a young man, knew well that the upper-class boards of trustees of America's leading orchestras were reluctant to hire Jewish conductors. He therefore advised his young protégé to change his name to "Leonard S. Burns." But Bernstein refused. Burning though he was with ambition, he seems never at any time to have considered concealing his Jewishness to further that ambition. On the contrary: unlike Koussevitzky, Bernstein probably sensed that Jewishness was becoming more of an advantage than a liability in postwar America.
In any case, having grown up in Boston, the son of mildly observant immigrant parents, Bernstein, both in his life and his work, always made a great point of his Jewishness (and was always passionately devoted to Israel). Burton even claims that Bernstein created "the most significant body of specifically Jewish work achieved by a Jewish composer working in the field of classical music." This may be excessive, but Burton's description of Bernstein's relation to Jewishness is fair enough:
Burton is less accurate in describing Bernstein's politics. Like Secrest, he tends to take Bernstein's simple-minded leftism at face value, seeing it as an expression of idealism and humanism. A more discerning judgment comes from Hilton Kramer, writing last summer in the New York Post after it was revealed that the FBI had kept tabs on Bernstein:
Moreover, both Burton and Secrest fail to convey the extent to which Bernstein became one of the emblematic figures of American culture. In Bernstein, the left-wing populism of the 30's and the politics of liberation of the 60's joined hands, driving him to embrace not only every front organization in sight but almost every other lunatic political tendency of his time. Whether or not this mattered in the larger scheme of things, it mattered greatly for him. For the fact is that in Bernstein's politics lay the seeds of his ultimate destruction: seeking liberation, he found chaos instead.
A monster of self-indulgence, Bernstein nonetheless managed to keep his appetites under control during the 60's, mainly because the New York Philharmonic would have fired him had he become an object of scandal. In 1969, he retired from the Philharmonic and became an itinerant conductor beholden to no one; eight months later, he and his wife Felicia threw the fund-raising party for the Black Panthers immortalized in "Radical Chic." In the course of the following decade, he temporarily deserted Felicia for a young man, proclaimed his homosexuality to the world (thereby astonishing his children, to whom he had earlier denied it), surrounded himself with an entourage of handsome sycophants, wrecked his health with drugs and drink, composed a smallish portfolio of appallingly pretentious music, and became a public embarrassment whenever he opened his mouth. There can seldom have been a midlife crisis quite like it.
The death of Felicia Bernstein in 1978 accelerated her husband's disintegration. He continued to brag to awestruck reporters about his invulnerability:
But his children knew better. His daughter Jamie (who once discovered to her horror that her father had encouraged her to have an affair with a man with whom he himself had previously had sexual relations) told Burton, "After my mother was gone, there was no one to check him except us and there were limits for us because we didn't live with him. So after that it was just Maestro City all the way."
Even the sympathetic Burton lets slip a certain amount of tight-lipped distaste at the pitiful carousing of Bernstein's final years, and Secrest and Joan Peyser, lacking the inhibitions of friendship, are a good deal more frank. But none of Leonard Bernstein's biographers sums up his last years as unsparingly as did his wife. In 1976, Bernstein informed Felicia, who had had a mastectomy two years before and was (though she did not yet know it) dying of cancer, that he was leaving her for a male lover. "You're going to die a bitter and lonely old man," she told him. And so he did.
Throughout Leonard Bernstein's career, many critics tended automatically to assume that, for all his great gifts, there was necessarily something slick and second-rate about his use of them. This assumption was a function of his celebrity. Some, to be sure, were blinded by Bernstein's relentless charm. Others, knowing what they knew about the man, found it difficult to take the artist seriously.
But Bernstein's fellow musicians saw through his grotesque antics. They recognized, among other things, the truth of a remark he made to the BBC's Huw Wheldon in 1959: "I'm extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time." While he may not have been above going to bed with men who could help push him up the ladder of success, he also studied with some of the toughest teachers in America — for example, piano with Isabelle Vengerova, whose other American pupils included Gary Graffman and Jacob Lateiner, and conducting with Fritz Reiner, one of the supreme baton technicians of the century. They were all impressed by his talent and application, and predicted great things for him.
He also succeeded in impressing the New York Philharmonic, the hardest-boiled gang of conductor-haters in the world, to which some witty musician long ago gave the nickname "Murder, Inc." In 1943, the twenty-five-year-old Bernstein, then assistant conductor of the Philharmonic, was called on at the last minute to substitute for the great Bruno Walter at a Sunday broadcast matinee. Not only had Bernstein not rehearsed the program, he had never before led the orchestra in public. What happened when he mounted the podium and gave the downbeat for Schumann's Manfred Overture, as described to Secrest by a violist who had recently joined the Philharmonic, could never have been brought off by a mere glamor boy:
It is worth remembering, too, that Bernstein distinguished himself as conductor, composer, pianist, and teacher, a four-fold achievement virtually unprecedented in the history of music. True, he hardly devoted himself with equal fervor to all these pursuits. Once past his student days, for instance, Bernstein never again played a solo piano recital, preferring occasional appearances with the Philharmonic and other orchestras as pianist-conductor. But the few recordings he made at the keyboard are all superbly vital and imaginative, suggesting that he could have had a major career as a soloist had he wanted it. (footnote 3)
Bernstein's teaching, too, was basically a sideline, though it brought him well-deserved fame. The 53 Young People's Concerts he televised with the Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972 remain a singular achievement in the field of music appreciation. Especially when compared to the tinselly way in which classical music is hawked on public television today, these commercial broadcasts (which are now available on videocassette from Sony) come across as admirably straightforward both in substance and style. As always, he made ample use of his charm, but never let it get in the way of the music.
This was not necessarily the case when Bernstein conducted for adults. "Routine, with its loveless mediocrity, lies like hoar-frost on the surface of the world's greatest masterpieces," the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once said. Musicians who worked with Bernstein are unanimous in praising his ability to lift everyday music-making out of the swamp of routine, to turn each concert into a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. The trouble was that the occasions in question were all too often celebrations of the man on the podium rather than the masterpieces on the program. At his worst, Bernstein was the Barbra Streisand of conductors, an ego-filled blimp who used the classics as a backdrop for his dramatic posturing.
Given his monumental vanity, however, the remarkable thing was not that Bernstein sometimes conducted badly, but that he managed so often to conduct brilliantly. Once again, the recordings tell the story better than any biography. The problem is in sorting them out. Bernstein made literally hundreds of records in the course of his 50 years as a conductor, most of them for Columbia and DGG. (footnote 4) He recorded everything from Handel's Messiah to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (three times). It is risky to generalize about so large and varied a body of work, but Bernstein tended to be at his best in his Philharmonic days, particularly in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, where his performances were brisk, volatile, essentially serious in temperament.
The 19th-century Romantics, on the other hand, inspired in Bernstein interpretations that could be wildly undisciplined, most of all in his old age, when he developed a taste for ultra-slow tempos. But in the 20th-century repertoire (and Bernstein, following Koussevitzky's lead, programmed more modern music, much of it by American composers, than any other conductor of his generation), he was consistently satisfying. Even when he gave his ego full throttle — something that happened not infrequently in his later recordings of Mahler, who in his earlier days he had done more than anyone else to revive and popularize — the performances that resulted were often as exciting as they were overwrought.
Bernstein's work as a composer was another matter. After West Side Story (1957), he made a deliberate decision to concentrate on conducting rather than composing. It was a choice with which, according to Burton, he was never fully at ease:
Bernstein's despair must have been deepened by the knowledge that the quality as well as the quantity of his compositional output fell off sharply after West Side Story. "Lenny had a bad case of important-itis," his fellow composer Stephen Sondheim told Meryle Secrest. It was a canny diagnosis. From 1960 on, much of Bernstein's creative energy was poured into repeated attempts to write the Great American Opera. He tried out and discarded one ambitious libretto idea after another: Nabokov's Lolita, Brecht's The Exception and the Rule, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. But trying to produce a masterpiece through sheer force of will can leave a composer impotent. Only four of Bernstein's post-West Side Story theatrical projects — Mass (1971), the ballet Dybbuk (1974), the musical comedy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), and the opera A Quiet Place (1983) — made it to the stage, and all were failures, both aesthetic and commercial.
Harold Schonberg, who had a talent for getting under Bernstein's skin, once said that he could have been the American Offenbach. This must have enraged a man whose greatest desire in later life was to write an opera about the Holocaust. "You know what's made me really distraught?" a drunken Bernstein asked at a party in Rome seven years before his death. "I am only going to be remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story." Judging by this remark, it would seem that Bernstein had come to share the view of those critics who dismissed his earlier music as trivial. They were wrong, and so was he. Although Bernstein never succeeded in becoming a great composer, he did manage to write a number of pieces that seem likely to endure. (footnote 5)
To Bernstein, as to George Gershwin before him, the distinction between "popular" and "serious" was one of complexity rather than style; also like Gershwin, he was a natural melodist, making it possible for him to shuttle between Broadway and Carnegie Hall with ease. As a young man, he took plenty of heat from snobbish critics (and from Koussevitzky, who loathed what he insisted on calling "jezz") over his ventures into musical comedy. But Aaron Copland, a composer-critic scarcely less shrewd than Virgil Thomson, declined to see them as a mistake. Writing in 1948, he went so far as to single out Bernstein as one of "the best we have to offer among the new generation" of American composers:
This appraisal, made just five years after Bernstein's first major premiere, was right in every particular. He was, indeed, at his best writing for the theater — though not, I think, in West Side Story, a work whose manipulativeness is more apparent now that its music and libretto must stand on their own, divorced from the electric context of Jerome Robbins's staging. But Fancy Free (1944) is at least as good as any of Copland's own ballet scores, and On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956) have long since established themselves as classics of American musical comedy. As for the concert works, the Jeremiah Symphony (1942), the Age of Anxiety Symphony (1949), the Serenade after Plato's Symposium (1954), and Chichester Psalms (1965), all but the last written before Bernstein succumbed to "important-itis," combine open-hearted romanticism and polished craftsmanship to compelling effect.
This is by no means a universally accepted judgment. There are critics who still wince at the sound of Bernstein's name, not least because of his once-unfashionable commitment to tonality:
In the 60's and 70's, such views were the musical equivalent of preferring Adam Smith to Karl Marx. But now that the pendulum of taste has swung back from the hermetic austerity of serialism toward the directness and simplicity of tonality, Bernstein's music may be about to come into its own.
What, then, does it all add up to? How good was Leonard Bernstein? And how will posterity remember him?
It goes without saying that, in the end, he did not fulfill the extravagant expectations of his admirers; nor did those of us who looked to him for validation finally get what we were looking for. And yet anyone capable of composing Fancy Free, reviving the music of Mahler, and introducing millions of Americans to the joys of classical music deserves to be praised for what he did, not criticized for what he failed to do.
This does not mean that we should — or can — whitewash him. In this respect, Bernstein reminds me of Richard Wagner, a composer to whose music he was increasingly drawn in his later years. "Some of us grow up more successfully than others," Bernstein said in 1985. "I have the feeling that Wagner never grew up in this sense, that he retained all his life that infantile feeling of being the center of the universe." Every person I have ever met who knew Leonard Bernstein at all well similarly describes him as a child who never grew up. As long as Wagner is remembered, it will be as a man in whom genius and beastliness were inseparably commingled; as long as Bernstein is remembered, it will be as an artist whose every achievement bore the scars of a deeply flawed character. It remains to be seen whether Bernstein will be remembered as long as Wagner has been. But my guess is that he will not soon be forgotten.
Article by Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph, April 3, 1999
The wittiest definition of opera I have ever heard came from Stephen Sondheim: it is, he said, "anything that an opera company performs in an opera house." This is certainly more useful and accurate than my Concise Oxford English Dictionary's lame effort &mdah; "dramatic perfomance or composition of which music is an essential part" — which fails to exclude Greek drama, most of Shakespeare (can you imagine The Tempest without its "noises, sounds and sweet airs"?), A Streetcar Named Desire or Private Lives.
So what else is an opera? Is the term more trouble than it's worth, or does the word suggest a territory palpably separate from that of musical comedy, operetta, Singspiel or zarzuela — let alone an intermedio, melodramma or rappresentazione sacra? The man on the Clapham omnibus may inform you that an opera is a sort of posh play in which the fat lady sings: but what would he make of Stravinsky's Persephone, in which she only recites and dances, or the long episodes of dialogue in Carmen, Die Zauberflote, Fidelio and The Bartered Bride? He would also confidently tell you that Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables are musicals, even though they contain nothing spoken and, formally speaking, would rank as every bit operatic as Aida.
This small matter springs to mind as the National Theatre puts on a new staging of Bernstein's Candide and the Royal Opera revives its totally wonderful, must-see production of Britten's Paul Bunyan at Sadler's Wells.
Neither is easy to categorise, and, in the case of Paul Bunyan, the Royal Opera has deliberately evaded the issue: its cunning strategy is to minimise the dread word "opera" in the publicity material, and to suggest — rightly — that anyone who enjoyed Oklahoma! is likely to enjoy Paul Bunyan too, stuffed as it is with hit numbers as good as "anything you will hear on Broadway or in the West End".
There's nothing wrong in this. Britten wrote it while based in New York during the early part of the Second World War, referring to it indifferently as an opera or an operetta. But the influence of contemporary hit shows by Gershwin and Weill is also evident in its idiom, and I think Britten would have been equally happy to see Paul Bunyan rechristened as a "musical".
Many great composers have been extremely wary of labelling anything an "opera". The word itself is a bit of a mystery, and scholars are unsure why the plural of the Latin word "opus", meaning "work", should end up from about 1650 onwards being applied to something previously and more usefully referred to as "dramma per musica" ("drama through music").
The genre's earliest masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, describes itself as a "favola in musica" ("a tale in music"); while Purcell' s The Faerie Queen and King Arthur, in which the sung numbers bear scant relation to the spoken plot, are called "semi-operas". Gluck' s most famous work Orfeo ed Euridice is an "azione teatrale" (a "theatrical action").
As history progresses, the classifications become more specific, to the point at which one is reminded of Polonius and his tragical-comical-historical-pastoral pedantry. The title-pages of Rossini's lighter theatrical pieces, for example, insist that La Scala di Seta is a "farsa comica", Il Signor Bruschino a "farsa giocosa" ("giocosa" = "cheerful"), La Pietra del Paragone is a "melodramma giocoso", La Cenerentola a "dramma giocoso", Il Turco in Italia a "dramma buffo" , and Il Barbiere di Siviglia a boring old "commedia". A 10-shilling postal order for anyone who can convincingly sort that lot out.
Richard Wagner, needless to say, had his own ideas about this. His early major works, Die Fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser and Lohengrin were all straightforwardly called "romantische Oper", but after he built his temple to art at Bayreuth in 1876, mere romantic opera wasn't good enough. In his concern to distinguish performances there from the run-of-the-mill and align them with the noblest ancient tragedy, he called the Ring a "Buhnenfestspiel" ("stage festival play") and Parsifal a "Buhnenweihfestspiel" ("festival play for the consecration of a stage"). Tristan und Isolde, first performed in a conventional opera house in Munich, is a "Handlung", or "drama".
What is significant about this is the anxiety to be specific about the nature of the drama involved: the form of the music, on the other hand, doesn't seem to worry anyone, and I can think of no operas which label themselves symphonies, concertos or sonatas.
So when is an opera not an opera? Never, is my conclusion. Opera is just a loose and baggy term that embraces all the sub-divisions, and more, listed above. If you can call Paul Bunyan a musical, I see no reason why you shouldn't call Oklahoma! an opera, even if it is being presented by the National Theatre rather than ENO. At which point it might be best to resort to Wittgenstein's famous dictum that "all philosophy is a critique of language": we are only playing with words here, and when push comes to shove, we all know perfectly well what an opera is, even if we can't define it. Still, as a parting shot, I offer "any stage performance in which the drama is expressed through vocal music", though I'd be intrigued to hear from any reader who can improve on it.
Article by Mark Steyn in The Daily Telegraph, April 5, 1999
After Leonard Bernstein's death in 1990, Carnegie Hall mounted a gala tribute to him that began with one neat staging trick. As the composite orchestra, from the maestro's various musical families in Boston, New York, London, Vienna and beyond, sat tuning up and shuffling their scores, the door to the conductor's room opened and the crowd fell silent. But no one walked through it. Instead, the door closed — and, for some in the house that evening, it was the moment when they realised forlornly that they'd never again see Lenny leap to life at the podium.
But then something better happened: Lenny's music leapt to life. The unmistakable opening of the overture to Candide popped like a Champagne cork, and its effervescence seemed like a victory over death. For what could be more alive than that dizzying whirl?
It's when you try to go past the overture that the problems start. Candide is, everyone agrees, Bernstein's masterpiece. But that's about all they agree on.
Ever since the original production in 1956, the show has managed to defy some of the most illustrious names in the theatre, most recently in the flop Broadway revival of just over a year ago. A hugely expensive, grossly vulgar travesty, it was to prove the most prestigious nail in the coffin of the theatrical company Livent, producers of Showboat and Kiss of the Spider Woman. The founder Garth Drabinsky is now on the lam from the Feds, holed up in Canada fighting extradition and no doubt reflecting ruefully on Dr Pangloss's words to Candide: "Once one dismisses/ The rest of all possible worlds/ One finds that this is/ The Best of All Possible Worlds". It's a sentiment that even Pangloss might have balked at applying to suburban Toronto.
Nonetheless, where Drabinsky and many others have failed, the National Theatre hopes to triumph, convinced that, once one dismisses the rest of all possible Candides, theirs, which previews from tomorrow, will be the best of all possible Candides. In 1956, one critic complained that they had put in too much highbrow stuff for Joe Schmoe and too much crap for the long-haired crowd. In the delicate long-hair/Schmoe balancing act, British versions — certainly John Wells's and Jonathan Miller's a decade ago — tend to play up the Voltaire angle, one of the glories of 18th-century satire, as Candide journeys through a world of violence, greed, war, hatred etc.
That doesn't sound very Broadway — except in so far as Candide reacts to the violence, greed, war, hatred etc with the perpetually sunny disposition of a Twenties musical comedy heroine. Candide is European and American all at the same time: in "Glitter and Be Gay", for example, Bernstein frolics gaily through the cliches of coloratura arias, but Richard Wilbur's lyric is also kidding Americans abroad. "Here am I", ululates the heroine Cunegonde, "in Paris", and then adds, in an aside set to a long, long note, "France".
If you're wondering who Wilbur is, he's a poet, not a lyricist, and he's one of a gazillion names now attached to the show. There were supposed to be more lyrics by John Latouche, but he died. Consequently, Candide was deprived of an excellent lyricist: one of the best songs in the show is Latouche's, a quickfire syphilitic laundry-list in which Pangloss tries to scare off a lynch mob by telling them he's got the pox and then relating, as a kind of disease-ridden version of La Ronde, how it happened to pass along the line to him.
It's such a witty lyric that critics tend to credit it erroneously to Stephen Sondheim, one of the other "additional lyricists" on the score, along with Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself and Lillian Hellman, who wrote the original politically heavy-handed 1956 book.
Michael Stewart, the writer of Hello Dolly!, rewrote Hellman's book, and then Hugh Wheeler, who wrote Sweeney Todd, rewrote Stewart's rewrite. In 1989, our own John Wells, of Private Eye et al, rewrote Wheeler's rewrite of Stewart's rewrite of Hellman. "The old dodo seems very happy with it," said Wells, referring to Bernstein. But the old dodo is gone now, so the new National Theatre version has chucked out Wells's rewrite of Wheeler's rewrite and replaced it with Les Miserables man John Caird's rewrite of Wheeler's rewrite.
I'd be happy to leave it at that, but I've just had a fax from the National Theatre press office asking if I could possibly find room to mention that for this production, aside from Caird's rewrite of the book, Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim have also rewritten their lyrics: whether Wilbur has rewritten Sondheim's lyrics and Sondheim has rewritten Wilbur's lyrics, I cannot say.
"It seems you need a lot of people to write the words on Candide," I remarked to the composer.
"Apparently so," he said. "But only one person to write the music." And the old ham stopped wheezing long enough to puff himself up: "Me!"
Bernstein composed Candide in tandem with West Side Story — "One Hand, One Heart", which wound up in the latter, was originally written for the former.
And, just as West Side Story is the last word on the composer's twitchy, urban, rhythmic side, so Candide is a wonderful summation of that other Lenny, the voracious forager who could rummage around through Puccini, Rossini, Gounod, Offenbach, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lehar and emerge with a frothy and affecting satirical operetta all his own. The score is the reason the world refuses to give up on Candide: the challenge for the National is to bring the book up to scratch.
To date, the fellows who have come closest are Hugh Wheeler and Hal Prince in a 1973 "environmental production" full of neo-vaudevillian shtick.
"In the Fifties, when Candide was dead in the water," Prince told me, "everyone said, 'Gee, what a terrific score. Shame about the book.' Then, when I did it on Broadway in the Seventies, suddenly it wasn' t just a terrific score any more.
"People other than Lenny were getting credit. People like me!" Prince leaned back and beamed. "And that bothered Lenny. So he started putting back all this music we'd slung out. To make it a terrific score again, not a terrific show. To make it unperformable."
For some, the show will always be unperformable, whatever you do. "They asked me to work on Candide," Arthur Laurents, librettist of West Side Story, said to me a few years back, "because Lillian's book was just a piece of dreck. And I said no. There's nothing there. This happens to Candide, that happens to Candide, but scene after scene after scene goes by and he doesn't change. It's a perfectly pleasant concert, but it's undramatic. Lenny's trouble," he sighed, "was that he was hipped on being important." He shrugged. "So it' s by Voltaire. So big deal."
Whether John Caird and Co. can disprove this theory, we'll soon find out. But Candide will always occupy a unique niche in the Broadway canon, not least because its dramatis personae include a character with only one buttock. To some of us, the whole show is half-assed — for what could be madder than turning Candide into a musical? You're adapting a satire on optimism to a medium where optimism is mandatory. Yet in its sprawling score there's a truth about Bernstein that you won't find in the jittery riffs of On the Town.
One of the things I liked best about Jonathan Miller's production was the way he set Candide's adventures in a giant toybox, allowing the debris of the hero's globetrotting — a shattered Spanish castle, a wrecked ship — to pile up at the back of the stage. The show, like its composer, is an overgrown child, carelessly unaware of the (music) world's strict demarcations and conventions.
And in the simple faith of his final anthem, "Make Your Garden Grow", Candide, the ever-smiling innocent abroad, comes almost to represent the young Bernstein himself, blessed as he is with some of the most heartfelt music the composer ever wrote. That number alone is worth all the effort of the last four decades.
Article by Brooks Peters in Opera News, July, 2000
Making Your Garden Growl: Lillian Hellman and Candide
"I can not and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion," Lillian Hellman famously declared when asked to rat on friends during the McCarthy witch hunts. It was a characteristically defiant stance, but one that foreshadowed her intractability in writing the book for the musical version of Candide that had its premiere on Broadway in December 1956.
For a woman best known as the master of the "well-made" play, she was an odd choice for a show that was no more than a pastiche. But it had been her idea. Hellman longed to adapt Voltaire's picaresque satire, because she saw parallels between its Spanish Inquisition scenes and the scandalous purges of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She wooed Leonard Bernstein, who was equally drawn to the political subtext, to compose the score. They picked John Latouche to pen the lyrics. But as the musical evolved, during heated bull sessions at Bernstein's and Hellman's hideaways on Martha's Vineyard, it soon became clear that Hellman was not a born collaborator, and catfights ensued.
"Anger was her essence," John Hersey once stated. Yet Lillian Hellman would achieve new levels of venom and acrimony through Candide. There were fourteen rewrites over two years. Latouche was let go and the poet Richard Wilbur hired. Tyrone Guthrie, the witty English theater veteran, was asked to direct. Hellman originally had wanted Gene Kelly. Bernstein couldn't resist toying with the lyrics, which alienated Wilbur. Not even a cock-eyed optimist like Dr. Pangloss could have found a silver lining in this pre-opening storm cloud. Barbara Cook, who starred as Cunegonde, recalls, "There was a lot of behind-the-scenes battling. But everyone behaved professionally in front of us. Lillian took over the direction for a week or so. She was upset with the way Guthrie was handling it. But there's always that kind of push and pull in putting together a show."
Another thing that may have riled Hellman was the fact that Bernstein's score had veered from light musicale to serious operetta. And it was he who was stealing the limelight, attracting all the glitter-and-be-gay stars. "Opening night," Cook recalls, "I was very nervous. Lenny came backstage to wish me well. 'Callas is in the audience', he whispered excitedly. And I said, 'Oh, thanks a lot, Lenny. That really helps.' And he shot back, 'She just wishes she had your E-flats!'"
The show opened to mixed reviews and was soon a legendary flop. Hellman was almost single-handedly blamed for its failure. Saturday Review noted, "One suspects she sides with the statement that we live in the worst of all possible worlds." Another critic called it "a spectacular disaster." When it moved to London, Hellman reluctantly rewrote the script again. But it got even worse reviews. A London critic carped that the book had been written "as though its author's sole acquaintance with civilisation had been gained from the subtitles of second-feature French films."
Over the years, in various revivals, the project kept changing hands. Half a dozen new versions were developed. Hellman's contribution was whittled down until there was nothing left of her own work. By the time Hal Prince revived the show in the '70s with a circus-like theme, in a small Brooklyn theater, Hellman was fed up with Candide. She officially okayed the project but insisted that her name be removed from it entirely and blocked any future use of her original script. Hugh Wheeler wrote an entirely new script that was more comedic and alluded to Watergate, rather than McCarthy. Offstage, Hellman barked obscenities, accused Bernstein of selling her down the river, and made homophobic accusations that did little to endear her to the parties involved. When New York City Opera revived Candide in the early 1980s, Hellman threatened to yank the show off the stage, says Bernstein's executor, Harry Kraut. But cooler heads prevailed. It was only her fondness for Bernstein's wife, Felicia, writes Hellman biographer Joan Mellen, that kept her from filing a lawsuit. In the end, Hellman's contribution to her brainchild was completely obscured and overlooked. When she died in 1984, Candide was virtually ignored in her obituaries, which was just the way she wanted it.
Article by Martin Bernheimer in Opera News, July, 2000
Leonard Bernstein bore a terrible curse. He was talented — perhaps too talented.
He probably could have been anything he wanted to be: a great conductor, a dashing pianist, a fine composer of so-called serious music, a masterly composer of light entertainment, a discerning musicologist, an inspiring teacher, maybe even a powerful actor. The trouble was, he wanted to be all of the above, preferably all at the same time. And he suffered from a short attention span.
In addition to being inordinately versatile and extraordinarily intelligent, Bernstein had to contend with other fatal gifts. He was handsome, he was a natural communicator, he had the magnetic appeal of a matinee idol. He was something of an anachronism, a hot romantic in a cool modern age. He professed being agonized by constant pressures, yet he seemed to thrive on them.
He was adulated from the start, and that may have been part of the curse. The public loved anything he did, even when it wasn't as good as it might have been. Virtuosity can carry blinders, applause is a seductive thing. His ovations came easy and came loud. They may have reinforced his least lofty artistic instincts. Bernstein appreciated the value of flash. In fact, it was his specialty. No one perspired as conspicuously or as poignantly or as picturesquely. No one danced with such dazzling pizzazz. Exaggeration was his forte. Never mind forte — it was his fortissimo: no one jumped quite as high in moments of agitation, and no one swooped as low in passages of pathetic grandeur. When this man wept — doing so was something of an expressive trademark — the whole world wept with him, with the exception of a few resistant churls and callous critics.
When Bernstein was at work, loud was never loud enough, and his contrasting excursions in the area of soft dynamics defined pianissimo as a shimmering, all-but-inaudible whisper. Similar observations could describe his attitude toward tempo variations. With him, virtually nothing could be just fast or just slow. It had to be very very fast or very very slow. On good nights, he knew how to bridge the extremes. On not-so-good nights, he acted as if the transitions didn't matter.
He made many important contributions to our lives. There can be no doubt about that. At the beginning of his career, Mahler was a rarity in our concert halls. By the end of Bernstein's career, Mahler had become commonplace. Bernstein also served as a powerful champion of musical Americana in his programs, as long as it wasn't too thorny or too arcane, and he broadened our standard repertory in the process. Judging from his concert performances, he might have been a heroic interpreter of Wagner. He did work wonders on behalf of Verdi via a memorable, possibly too expansive Falstaff, at the Met, but despite his admirers' fervent hopes, he never used it as a down-payment toward a high-voltage Otello or Aida.
Bernstein the conductor was bigger than life. One could regret his frequent lack of self-control, his narcissism, his penchant for expressive overstatement. One could worry that he lost sight of subtle details while tracing the longest of long lines or magnifying small points until they became large points. At least one could not be bored.
Bernstein the composer was more frustrating. He wanted to create deathless, probing, uplifting masterpieces, communicative essays that resounded with profundity and pathos. Perhaps it was part of his great Mahler quest. Unfortunately, he never found the time to explore or properly develop his creative (as opposed to re-creative) genius. The hyper-serious pieces that he did manage to write share a discomforting tendency toward harmonic sugar-coating and melodic kitsch, toward bombast and bathos. He was much better at uplifting the level of Broadway shows, and he created a genuine musico-dramatic milestone of the genre with West Side Story. He did very well, moreover, writing clever little pieces, jazzy exercises, show-biz escapades, sonic caricatures, comic jeux d'esprit.
His most memorable creation may have been a quasi-operetta, Candide. Even this bright and breezy endeavor is flawed, however, by a lack of focus (not to mention libretto problems). The score sprawls, follows too many paths, simply harbors too much music for its own good. If only Bernstein had known when to stop.
It was no accident that everyone, not just his intimates, called him Lenny. He was a great popularizer, a great equalizer. He could be aloof, to a degree, when he played the role of the exalted maestro who savors direct communication with Beethoven and Brahms. Sometimes he acted as if he believed he was the personal reincarnation of Mahler. But when he came off his pedestal he loved talking to his audiences, loved explaining the mysteries of music, and he did so brilliantly, without condescension. One didn't need a Ph.D. to follow Prof. Bernstein's lectures.
Most prestigious conductors leave education programs to assistants and guests. Not this one. Although he earned numerous undoubted triumphs during his regime at the New York Philharmonic, nothing eclipsed the unique persuasion of his Young People's Concerts, both in the hall and on television. Bernstein did not live as long as he should have lived. He did live long enough, however, to enjoy a certain turnaround in the press. For much of his lifetime, reviews of his performances tended to be blasé at best, hostile at worst. He managed to survive one generation of dissenters and to enjoy approval — everything, of course, is relative — from the next. Still, he had no reason to like music critics in general, or this music critic in particular. I happened to enjoy the pleasure of his company only once.
Bernstein was visiting Los Angeles in 1971 in conjunction with a glitzy revival of Candide. He agreed to be interviewed for the Los Angeles Times at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, where he and his entourage were staying. The desk clerk announced that Mr. Bernstein would receive me at the pool. And there he was, poised and posed like a bathing-suit Adonis atop the diving board.
When cued by an aide that the Third Estate had arrived, he executed a superb swan dive, to the applause of the assembled throng, and proceeded elegantly and energetically to swim what seemed like a hundred laps. Then he emerged from the water, shook himself like a wet spaniel and greeted his incipient inquisitor damply. He also expressed some regret that I hadn't brought along a photographer.
He was reserved at first. Nothing surprising about that. But as we talked, about opera and concerts and conducting and art and theater and mutual acquaintances and the meaning of life, the chill began to thaw. Bernstein acted interested. This wasn't like other interviews, he said. This was actually pleasant. The encounter continued beyond the scheduled hour. Twilight set in. The maestro took time out to change into something warmer. Drinks were served. We talked about Mahler and Voltaire and the difficulty of writing opera and Jennie Tourel and Irra Petina and Impressionism and the state of the universe. Bernstein was charming, flattering, effusive, generous, stimulating, entertaining, eager.
"Why haven't we met before?" he asked. I knew why.
"We must do this again," he said. Sure.
Finally it was time to leave. Bernstein insisted on walking me to my Volkswagen. Suddenly his manner changed. It was as if he had caught himself. Perhaps he had been too cooperative with the journalistic enemy. Relationships had to be put back in proper perspective, walls had to be restored. In the circumstances, he came up with an inspired valedictory putdown.
"Did you say you worked for some newspaper?" he asked. It was funny, of course, but it wasn't a joke.
Our next, and last, encounter took place in print, fifteen years later. Bernstein was in Los Angeles to conduct a concert with the touring New York Philharmonic. By then, Zubin Mehta had become the official custodian of the orchestra, but Bernstein was returning to his symphonic alma mater for a national tour. The concert, alas, turned out to be awful, a demonstration of Bernstein at his laziest, most mannered, most self-centered, most showy.
In retrospect, I regret only one thing about the notice that appeared under my byline in the Los Angeles Times on August 11, 1986. I misspelled Lenny, and the copy editors dutifully echoed my error in the headline:
SWEAT, GUSH AND FIRE ALARMS — THE LENNIE BERNSTEIN SHOW COMES TO UCLA
Here's the full smart-alecky text:
Last Monday night in New York, Leonard Bernstein led — if that is the right verb — Zubin Mehta's Philharmonic through an evening of music of L. Bernstein and P. Tchaikovsky. Friday night in Los Angeles, the shrugging, jumping, sighing, soaring, gushing, crouching, rocking, rolling, bounding, bobbing, leaping, jiggling, stabbing, hunching, bumping, grinding and grunting maestro in excelsis repeated the same program with the same orchestra.
There were a few differences. The Fun City concert took place in Central Park. Attendance was free. The local version took place at Royce Hall, UCLA. The top ticket — minus celebratory dinner — cost $60.
And — oh, yes — there was a fire in Westwood. At least, we are told, some smoke arose in a boiler room. A house alarm emitted an ominous drone between the second and third movements of a particularly pathetic Pathétique, sending the audience outdoors for another twenty-minute intermission. Since the concert had begun at the odd but early hour of 7, the delay caused minimal consternation.
A managerial spokesperson refused to confirm any connection between the potential conflagration and the flamboyant performance by the would-be Loge on the podium. Nevertheless, this was an undeniably, uniquely flamboyant performance.
Some conductors mellow with age. Bernstein, at sixty-eight, remains a frenetic combination of orbiting rocket, aerobics master, super-juggler, matinee idol, booming cannon, hysterical mime, heart-rending tragedian, bouncing ball, sky writer, riveting machine, mawkish sentimentalist and danseur ignoble. To admire his art one either has to admire his peculiar brand of showpersonship or close one's eyes.
If one closed one's eyes Friday, one heard a great deal of well-mannered and well-manicured playing. Despite the dangers of an over-live acoustic and the blemishes of passing imprecision and imbalance, the New Yorkers projected heroism and eloquence, as the occasion demanded. They also produced precious interpretive distortions, as the conductor demanded.
The festivities began with loud razzle-dazzle as Bernstein whipped through the Technicolored charms of the Candide overture. Then came the self-indulgence of Bernstein's Serenade for Violin "after" Plato's Symposium. This exercise in conservative trivia, anno 1954, juxtaposes simple-song flights with academic counterpoint with movie-music bathos with Westside jazz and funk. Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, attended deftly to the solo passages.
The trite Tchaikovsky rituals, after the scheduled intermission, were bathed in torrents of blood, sweat and tears. Emoting above and beyond any call, Bernstein acted out a series of virtuosic charades. He personally trudged the march of the second movement. He sighed and whimpered when pathos beckoned. He wiggled in moments of agitation as if he were auditioning for the next Twyla Tharp extravaganza. He lent new meaning to such a tired concept as overwrought.
As always, the audience adored the Lennie Show.
The protagonist looked picturesquely spent, ecstatic, euphoric, wrung out as he basked in the post-climactic applause. He also acted as if he and his symphonic cohorts had somehow succeeded in scaling at least three Mount Everests. The exquisite ardor of the moment could be expressed only in an ever-increasing orgy of hugs and kisses. I left before the maestro embraced the stagehands.
Many musicians swear that they never read reviews. Most of them lie, of course. For better or worse — probably worse — Bernstein read this one, and he was not amused. He was so not amused, in fact, that he responded with a characteristically passionate variation on my theme in a boomerang letter to the editor. I was amused.
The letter was printed in the Los Angeles Times, on August 17, 1986:
I read with interest, and some chuckles at the jokes, your music reviewer's notice of our New York Philharmonic concert last Friday.
This critical (sic) review is, indeed, the Martie Bernheimer Show. It gushes, mushes, rants, exhorts, calumniates, fulminates, excoriates, proclaims, declaims, rhetoricizes, orates, desecrates and defecates all over the page, even as the poor old maestro, all over the stage.
Pace Plato, pace Bernard Shaw, requiescat the critical intelligence, the human ear, the divine torment of Peter Tchaikovsky.
I can't pretend to know how Plato could have felt about this momentous exchange, but Shaw might have found it interesting. Who knows, he might even have sided with the reviewer, for he too paid some dues in the lowly newsroom. "A critic," he wrote at one time, "is a man who leaves no turn unstoned." Leonard Bernstein's mock-funereal tribute seems to suggest a certain degree of hypersensitivity. That's surprising. By 1986, he was beyond criticism; his place in history was secure, his achievements well chronicled. The poor old maestro wasn't poor at all. He just wasn't always as good as his reputation. He just did not, perhaps could not, fulfill all his fabulous promises.
Article by Joan Peyser in Opera News, July, 2000
The Bernstein Legacy
In the spring of 1987, the first edition of my biography of Leonard Bernstein was published by William Morrow. It contained candid information that had never before been in print and angered some members of Bernstein's family and staff. None of them got in touch with me or my publisher, but some made their feelings known to composers David Diamond and Ned Rorem, both old friends of Bernstein's who had spoken frankly to me about Bernstein's sex life. I have always believed that Bernstein's powerful sexuality affected his art and career as much as did his formidable musicianship.
As far as his family and associates are concerned, Diamond is still in exile. But Rorem is back in favor. Rorem spoke to me about this early this past spring. He said the moment that turned everything around occurred at the MacDowell Colony, when it conferred on Bernstein its Gold Medal for composition in August 1988. Rorem was the guest speaker. Anyone who knew Bernstein is well aware that his assessment of himself as a composer of serious music was the most troubling aspect of his life. He expected to leave no mark in this domain. Bernstein never received a Pulitzer Prize and, for a musician inundated with honors, that omission was a source of pain. Rorem, who has received the Pulitzer, chose words that gratified Bernstein. Most important, they came from a man who has devoted his life exclusively to composing and had achieved deserved recognition for a long list of fine works. "All his little friends," Rorem told me, "had been very angry with me. Then I spoke. Everything I said was honest and deeply felt. What Lenny said as a composer of serious music is complete, and what he said was not only very influential but good."
When he finished speaking, Rorem received a kiss from Bernstein. "Lenny said that he liked what I said because it dealt with him solely as a composer. People had always criticized him for doing so much, for not concentrating all his efforts on composing. Had he done that, his other gifts would have shriveled and died. When he had his overnight triumph replacing Bruno Walter [at a New York Philharmonic concert] in 1943, he was prepared. Fritz Reiner invited him to Pittsburgh and programmed Jeremiah, his first symphony. That made him different from anybody else."
The pressure on Bernstein to specialize started early and dogged him throughout his career. In 1949, he told The New York Times, "It is impossible for me to make an exclusive choice among the various activities of conducting, symphonic composition, writing for the theater or playing the piano. What seems right for me at any given moment is what I must do, at the expense of pigeonholing or otherwise limiting my service to music."
The carping continued, and as late as 1983, when Bernstein was sixty-four, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, wrote an article for Harper's Magazine titled "The Tragedy of Leonard Bernstein." He admonished Bernstein for spreading himself thin and ended with something Mahler said to his wife: "You must renounce all superficiality, all convention, all vanity and all delusion." Botstein told Bernstein to apply what Mahler said to Alma to himself. "It is not too late," Botstein wrote. Bernstein did not heed Botstein's warning. Yet what I have learned while preparing this article is that his legacy as a composer would have astounded him. His influence on American composers appears to have been greater than anybody else's.
Robert Spano, a thirty-eight-year-old conductor trained at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Curtis Institute, was assistant at the Boston Symphony to Seiji Ozawa, who in turn had been assistant to Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. Spano is now music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony orchestras. I spoke to him after a concert that included Nancarrow, Takemitsu, Weill and Piazzolla. "Bernstein's legacy as a composer is great," he said, "because his view of composition is in vogue now. Today's musical landscape is far more pluralistic than it once was. The repertoire Bernstein supported was eclectic. I, too, feel eclectic. Bernstein symbolized the cross between concert music and Broadway, as well as the demise of the academic view."
Aaron Jay Kernis, who just turned forty, is a composer but not a conductor. In 1998, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his String Quarter No. 2, and in the fall of 1999, Kernis's Garden of Light, a dramatic, colorful, melodic work for chorus and orchestra, was a New York Philharmonic Disney Millennium Symphony. "Bernstein's Mass was a huge influence," says Kernis. "It embraced the American vernacular and combined it with the classical-music world. His use of jazz in serious music affected so many composers. Bernstein, in effect, said, 'It is all right to use it.' He represented the breakdown [of the barrier] between high and low styles. He made me comfortable with the knowledge that tonality was right for me. I composed the last movement of Simple Songs just after he died and dedicated it to his memory. I wrote it in a Mahlerian harmonic style. The text is about finding peace. I was hoping that, after death, Bernstein would find the love and peace he always seemed to be searching for."
John Corigliano, sixty-two, is one of the most performed and respected of American composers and a generation closer to Bernstein than Kernis. His opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, written on commission from the Metropolitan Opera, was sold out not only at its initial run there in 1991 but at its revival staging at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1995. "In the 1960s," Corigliano reports, "when I started writing, it was an American world. I had composed Tournaments. 'There's a lot of me in that,' Lenny said. And there was — the rhythmic energy, the American cleanliness of palate. I would get all his LPs in those days. Jeremiah, in particular, interested me. It was based on his Seven Anniversaries, small pieces written as gifts for relatives and friends. They were natural, open, thoroughly musical, without any self-consciousness. For Bernstein to go back to them for his first symphony shows his deep insecurity in regard to composition."
Corigliano says he absorbed Bernstein's Americanism as an aesthetic. "So did many others. You can hear it in Richard Danielpour, in the rhythms of Steve Reich — the Jewish irregular meter, the augmented-second scales. Yet Bernstein was reviled in his lifetime. Time ran a review that tore him apart. His complaint was always the same — 'They will not take me seriously.' One reason they didn't was his personality. He was this jazz, pop, classical guy. Harold C. Schonberg, critic for the New York Times when Bernstein was at the Philharmonic, hated the talking Lenny. Now there is no talking, and Bernstein is getting his legacy as a composer."
As for Bernstein's legacy on Broadway, it extends to those not yet born when he wrote Candide and West Side Story. Jason Robert Brown, born in 1970, won the Tony Award for best musical in 1999 for Parade. Brown's parents owned the cast album of West Side Story, and as a child, he saw a revival of the show at the Uris Theater. "I responded primarily to the music," says Brown. "It was Bernstein who pushed me into this field. I had two years at Eastman, but I was not a classical-music guy. The concert world did not make me happy. Bernstein pulled me back in time. Parade was pop-influenced."
Andrew Lippa, the thirty-five-year-old composer, librettist and lyricist for Manhattan Theater Club's production of The Wild Party, which received more nominations for Drama Desk Awards than any other show this year, told The Times his favorite twentieth-century composer was Bernstein. "He did it all." Brown described a subway trip with Lippa when they were in their twenties: "We sang 'The Dance at the Gym' from West Side Story at full volume. We were both totally hooked on Bernstein."
While Bernstein never believed that his work as a composer would survive him, he believed what he did as a conductor would. Although it did not matter to him, he was certainly right about this. The number of videos he left is extensive. But the number of CDs is so great that record companies find it difficult to quantify. In 1950, Bernstein started to record with Columbia. Since his death, Sony Music, formerly CBS records and before that Columbia, has issued hundreds of titles as Bernstein Century, Bernstein Royal Edition, Masterworks Heritage and Essential Classics. Deutsche Grammophon started to record Bernstein in the early 1970s, when he shifted his conducting career to Europe. In 1976, the company signed him to an exclusive contract. Despite Bernstein's insistence after that date on recording only live performances, DG still can boast a long list. In the past ten years it has released almost 100 CDs, and a new single is planned for this fall to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Bernstein's death. Titled A White House Cantata, it is based on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a musical Bernstein wrote with Alan Jay Lerner that failed disastrously during the bicentennial year. The new disc will feature June Anderson, Barbara Hendricks, Kenneth Tarver and Thomas Hampson, with Kent Nagano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
The New York Philharmonic will mark the Bernstein anniversary with an archival recording. The selections range from Beethoven's Triple Concerto and Britten's Spring Symphony to Varèse's Arcana, none of which has been released commercially.
Margaret Mercer, program director of WQXR in New York, says she must actively "hold back on Bernstein. There are so many recordings in our system." To cite one particular month: in July 1999, WQXR broadcast eleven works composed by Bernstein and forty-four conducted by him. Mercer believes he is "the conductor of choice for so much of the repertoire."
Yet despite Bernstein's brilliant example, his monumental success has not translated into other Americans being chosen for major American symphonic posts. This remains the most curious aspect of his legacy as a conductor. It is worth running the list of the eleven orchestras with the largest budgets, compiled by the American Symphony Orchestra League, with their current music directors: Boston Symphony — Seiji Ozawa; Chicago Symphony — Daniel Barenboim; Cleveland Orchestra — Christoph von Dohnányi; New York Philharmonic — Kurt Masur; Philadelphia Orchestra — Wolfgang Sawallisch; Pittsburgh Symphony — Mariss Jansons; Cincinnati Symphony — Jesús López-Cobos; Los Angeles Philharmonic — Esa-Pekka Salonen; Minnesota Orchestra — Eiji Oue; St. Louis Symphony — Hans Vonk; San Francisco Symphony — Michael Tilson Thomas. It is interesting to note that Thomas, the only American on this list, who was embraced by and guided by Bernstein, won this year's Grammy for Best Classical Album.
Andrew Litton, the forty-one-year-old music director of the Dallas Symphony, who recently delivered what one music critic called "an electrifying performance" of Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic, models his style, his pace, his repertoire, his television show for children on Bernstein, but he is not surprised that his idol failed to open doors for other Americans. "That is because he was one of a kind. There will never be another Bernstein. He proved that an American could be a great conductor, but because he was so special, appointments for others in major posts did not follow." Gerard Schwarz, about to add the Royal Liverpool Orchestra to the U.S. ensembles he conducts, finds an additional explanation: "People think that someone we don't know is better than the one we do. People often see foreign products as superior — Italian suits, French wine, English cars and so on."
How are we to reconcile the following contradictions? Bernstein's influence as a composer was to increase the use of pop and Broadway in the concert works of younger Americans. Yet his effect as a conductor was to perpetuate the European model. At the height of his career as an international maestro, he concentrated on nineteenth-century European music — particularly the monumental works of Mahler — to the virtual exclusion of contemporary American composition.
What the American vernacular and European concert music of the nineteenth century have in common is tonality, a system in which one note of the seven-note scale is the focal point, and all other notes in the scale are arranged in a hierarchy so they are pulled to that center. The analogue to tonality in music is gravity in the universe. As Albert Einstein annihilated Newton's world organized by gravity and opened up our world in infinite ways, so Arnold Schoenberg built on the growing chromaticism of his time with the twelve-tone method, which opened up composition in previously unimaginable ways. Charles Wuorinen compares using tonality to writing books in Latin. "Once new pathways have been opened and explored, you cannot go back. You cannot return to the C-major triad. Bernstein has been irrelevant to my life."
David Diamond, although not a Schoenbergian, has moved increasingly toward a chromatic language in his richly textured scores throughout a long and productive career. Diamond says he visited Bernstein in the Green Room of Avery Fisher Hall six months before he died. "Lenny lectured me, telling me to write more music with a popular emphasis, like Rounds for String Orchestra, which I composed in 1944. That was the last time we saw each other."
What Bernstein represented to the world was the notion that new music should sound like old music. I was present at a conversation between Bernstein and George Perle, a composer and theorist who has written extensively on the twelve-tone technique.
Bernstein: "Almost as soon as I start to write, it sounds like something I heard. Doesn't that happen to you, too?"
In 1973, Bernstein tried to prove that his preference for tonality over twelve-tone music was not just a personal quirk of a sentimental man but the expression of a universal truth. He did this through the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, among the most prestigious events in the U.S. academic establishment. Speakers have included such figures as T. S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez. Milton Babbitt, now eighty-four and one of the most distinguished American composers who were nourished immensely by Schoenberg's idea, says, "For all his considerable skills as a pianist, a conductor of a certain repertory, a composer of a certain repertory, Leonard Bernstein — in an apparent attempt to 'justify' his ignorance of significant sectors of contemporary thinking in and about music — chose to invoke the most satisfying of tautologies: 'If I don't know it, it's not worth knowing,' or 'If I don't understand it, it's not worth understanding. Therefore I know everything worth knowing and understand everything worth understanding.' His grotesque misrepresentation of the twelve-tone syntax in his notorious Norton Lectures I attribute — in all generosity — to ignorance rather than malice, while his assertion that he never encountered anyone who 'loved' Schoenberg's music is a revelation of the company he kept, as well as his naiveté with respect to professions of love."
Art, I believe, is reflexive. Art and the world are consequences of each other. The character of art is defined by continuity and a sense of inevitability. Bernstein's awesome personal power and natural musicianship combined into a force so great that he interfered with the continuity and helped postpone the inevitable. He did this no doubt to the considerable pleasure of the large concert-going public, which has every right to prefer the comfortable, the familiar — and it does. But what is in vogue today cannot survive in an increasingly technology-driven, global environment. Ultimately, this music will be replaced by an art that will emerge from the strong, not invariably "expressive" works by Schoenberg, the late Stravinsky, Babbitt, Boulez, Perle and Wuorinen. Those who will listen to music even newer than the music anyone today is composing will hear an appropriate reflection of the society to come.
Bernstein never thoroughly embraced either Broadway or serious, contemporary musical thought. On the one hand, when he began to tour Europe as a conductor of the classical repertoire, he instructed the staff at Columbia Records, which had organized the tour, never to identify him as the composer of West Side Story, so determined was he to erase any image of himself as a lightweight, show-business figure. On the other hand, when, in the late 1960s, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in a series of performances of advanced works, he invariably introduced these works to the audience with apologies for inflicting upon them such difficult, often painful material.
What Bernstein probably never predicted was the degree to which younger Americans would attempt to reconcile these disparate elements. Whether they have succeeded is not the point here. The point is that those composers making the effort see Bernstein as the one who led the way.
Article by Peter Coleman for United Press International, September 23, 2002
Thinking about life: In Candide's Garden
The celebrated French writer Voltaire (1694-1778) is probably best remembered for his cynical witticisms. For example: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him," or "The English like to hang an admiral from time to time to encourage the others." Occasionally he is inspirational: "I do not believe a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Although some years after his death, his enemies managed to scatter his remains into the sewers of Paris, his heart is still displayed in the National Library of France, which solemnly received it from the Emperor Napoleon III. He is to this day a symbol and a legend. When at the height of the Algerian crisis in 1960, critics demanded the arrest of the anti-government Jean-Paul Sartre, President Charles de Gaulle replied: "One does not arrest Voltaire!"
Yet almost none of his works is now read — with one great exception — his satirical novel Candide. First published in 1759 under a thinly disguised pseudonym, it has remained in print and is always remembered at times of great ideological clashes when its irony and skepticism become relevant again. In recent decades it has been even been made into an operetta with music by Leonard Bernstein. The show failed in the mid-1950s when Lillian Hellman wrote a heavy libretto presenting the story as an attack on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, but when Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim rewrote it, it enjoyed and continues to enjoy international success.
The novel's satirical subtitle is "Optimism." It tells the adventures of a naive, not to say, stupid young man who believes what the philosophers tell him about life, especially his tutor Dr. Pangloss, a disciple of the great Leibniz who teaches that this is the best of all possible worlds.
In the opening chapter Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of the baron in whose castle Candide lives, seduces him. When her father observes them in flagrante delicto, he kicks Candide out of the castle. As our simple hero travels the world, at every turn he is witness to, or involved in persecution, massacres, torture, rapine, enslavement, corruption, deceit, murder, earthquake, shipwreck and disease. But he remains throughout a convinced optimist, loyal to the teaching of his tutor Dr. Pangloss and of Leibniz. He is one of those who finds a silver lining in every cloud, who deeply believes that as one door closes another will always open. Even his companion, Martin, who proclaims that this is the worst of worlds and that everything in it is evil, makes no real impression on his faith.
At the end of his horrific adventures, he settles on a small farm with his now hideous Cunegonde, and the now deformed Dr. Pangloss. When his tutor sums up their adventures and concludes that this is indeed the best of all possible world, Candide replies: "That is excellently said. But let us cultivate our garden."
This famous and much quoted conclusion is often taken to be recommending a withdrawal from the hurly-burly, a kind of private quietism, even a stoic defeatism. It is as if Voltaire is saying: "Let us forget the great philosophic arguments about the nature of things and the future of the world. Let us just do what we can in our own little backyards or gardens." But this is to misunderstand Voltaire's message. Candide's garden is still the garden of life and it devalues Voltaire's achievement if we ignore the high priority he gave to the continuing struggle against injustice. For example, one (among several) of his famous campaigns for justice was the Calas case. The ink was barely dry on Candide before Voltaire took up the case.
Jean Calas was a Huguenot shopkeeper of Toulouse whose son was found hanged in 1761. Charged with having murdered the son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism, Calas was judged guilty, publicly broken on the wheel, strangled and burned to ashes. Voltaire launched a huge international campaign alleging that the trial and execution had not been decided on the evidence but by religious prejudice. His major book on it, "Traite sur la tolerance," appeared in 1763 and in 1765 a 50-judge panel reviewed the case and found Calas not guilty. Far too late to save the poor man's life, Voltaire's crusade nevertheless dramatically strengthened the cause of religious toleration — and law reform.
Voltaire also remained to the end committed to his philosophic and ideological causes. He supported constitutional monarchy (as against dictatorial republicanism) and deism (as against more doctrinal faiths). Several of his controversies arose out of his philosophic or freethinking commitments. He caused great scandal with one of his plays that presented Mohammed as an impostor and another that was irreverent about Joan of Arc.
It is impossible to believe that in advising us to "cultivate our garden," Voltaire was abandoning his crusades against injustice and for toleration. He was simply asking that such crusades be tempered with commonsense. The world is neither completely good nor completely evil — although it has plenty of both. We must avoid both naive idealism and empty cynicism. We must keep our feet on the ground. But with those essential warnings in mind, we will still read over the gate leading to Candide's garden Voltaire's greatest slogan: "Ecrasons l'infame." Let us crush the infamous one.
Article by Ed Siegel in the Boston Globe, October 26, 2003
Bernstein's Broadway: The Road Not Taken
Broadway history was made in 1957, when Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim joined forces to write the music and lyrics for West Side Story. This followed on the heels of another groundbreaking (though commercially unsuccessful) Bernstein musical from the previous year, Candide.
But what exactly was the history being made? When you look at the time line of musical theater, it was the lyricist, Sondheim, who would go on to rewrite the rules of the genre. Bernstein, the great melodist, would concentrate instead on a distinguished career in classical music. Not counting the hybrid Mass, he would write only one more music-theater piece, his mostly forgotten 1976 collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sondheim, in the meantime, as both lyricist and composer, would lead the Broadway musical in a new direction with the likes of Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music, and Passion.
But with both West Side Story and Candide being revived locally this week — West Side Story at the North Shore Music Theatre, Candide at the Boston Conservatory — and with Bernstein's 1953 musical Wonderful Town being revived on Broadway next month, it's worth asking what would have happened if Bernstein, rather than Sondheim, had been the major influence on the next generation of Broadway composers.
For all the musical adventurousness in Candide and West Side Story, Bernstein worked very much in an established tradition. His predecessors were artists whose music had grown out of the Jewish immigration and assimilation experience of the first half of the 20th century. Before Bernstein, they included Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. They were heavily influenced by European classical music, Jewish folk music, and operetta or light opera, as well as American jazz.
Candide, which applies the satire of Voltaire's novella to McCarthyism, consumerism, and other concerns of the '50s, is also something of a salute to operetta, particularly Cunegonde's riotous "Glitter and Be Gay." Working with a group of lyricists that would come to include Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman (who also wrote the original book), Dorothy Parker, and Sondheim, Bernstein was drawing on his own love of classical music and his belief in the power of liberal democracy — not to mention a realistic and satirical appraisal of the limitations of same.
This can also be said for West Side Story, which combined the best of Broadway with Bernstein's respect for jazz and other forms of popular music. At the heart of both these scores, though, is the hope that assimilation will triumph — the poor peasant Candide will win the heart of the rich but spoiled Cunegonde; the Jets will some day lie down with the Sharks, even if it is too late for Tony and Maria. Tony's belief that "something great is coming," like Candide's belief that we can make a democratic garden grow, echoes the aspirations of the heroes and heroines of Broadway musicals from Kern to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lerner and Loewe. Every Eliza Doolittle is the equal of every Henry Higgins. Anything you can do, an uncouth, unschooled young woman like Annie Oakley can do better. Bernstein not only followed in this tradition, he and his collaborators perfected it with West Side Story.
As the optimism of the 1960s faded, Sondheim's more pessimistic view of the universe took hold. Demon barbers lived on the outskirts of humanity, and fairy-tale characters actually died, as did the woman who becomes the unlikely embodiment of Passion. Lovers were no better than clowns, and bachelors could not break out of a cycle of sexual adventures that led only to greater loneliness.
The difference between Bernstein and Sondheim is reflected as much in their music as in their philosophies. One reason Candide never won audiences' affections lies in the conflict between Hellman's adaptation of Voltaire and Bernstein's score. Lies and deceit are everywhere, says Hellman. Live life to the fullest, say the gorgeous and exuberant melodies of "Glitter and Be Gay" and "The Best of All Possible Worlds." From beginning to end, the music delivers a sense of celebration.
Even in a satire of optimism, Bernstein couldn't help being hopeful himself. As Humphrey Burton writes in his biography of Bernstein, "Voltaire's skepticism is finally subverted . . . when Bernstein's incurable optimism turns `Make Our Garden Grow' into a stirring and positive hymn full of hope for a better world."
Bernstein's perspective might strike present-day audiences as naive and sentimental, but Neil Donohoe, head of the Boston Conservatory's theater department and director of Candide, says, "What's really interesting is that he chose two pieces that had a certain dark contour to them, and then he adds a buoyancy and sense of optimism that broadens the palette."
Burton goes on to explain the critical difference between Bernstein's worldview and Sondheim's. He quotes Bernstein as saying, "Man's capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering." You'd be hard-pressed to apply that formula — which could also serve as the formula for the pre-'70s musical in general — to any of Sondheim's scores after 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Jon Kimbell, the artistic director and executive producer at North Shore Music Theatre and an admirer of both artists, puts the difference this way: "Bernstein came to us from that extraordinary classical background and Sondheim did not, so the comparison is somewhat apples and oranges. Sondheim intellectualizes the art form, which is perfectly valid. He's a wordsmith and mathematician who loves puzzles and plays with the characters in the stories. My own personal feeling is that Bernstein has an emotional base, and the reason his music is so lasting is that it goes straight to the heart and bypasses the intellect, even though the content is certainly intellectual. Sondheim's purpose is more the idea."
And there is no doubting Sondheim's genius. No one has ever used words so meticulously. The excellent productions of his musicals locally — Company at the Huntington Theatre, Assassins and Sunday in the Park with George at the Lyric Stage, Sweeney Todd at the New Repertory Theatre, Pacific Overtures at North Shore, and SpeakEasy's Passion at the Boston Center for the Arts — are testament to Sondheim's brilliance, along with the artistry of the companies involved.
Many of Boston's best singer-actors will be gathering at John Hancock Hall Nov. 14, 21, and 22 for Overture Productions' concert version of Sondheim's 1971 marvel, Follies, which predicted the end of the traditional Broadway song-and-dance show. Sure enough, one musical after another went on to mine darker regions. This later generation of composers — Edward Kleban, William Finn, Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Michael John LaChiusa — seemed to have little in common with the sons of immigrants and their optimism. Their reference points lay in Vietnam and Watergate, and their hero was Sondheim.
Bernstein had noted, in a 1956 program he did for the television show "Omnibus," that the trend in 20th-century musical theater was going from variety show to opera. And it was inevitable that creative composers coming along in the 1970s would gravitate more toward Sondheim's darker, dramatic sensibility than to their parents' favorites. The assimilation experience was not theirs.
But while their approach might have been fine for Off-Broadway or regional theaters, was it right for Broadway? Could anyone have expected audiences to flock to a series of musicals about lynching Jews (Parade), killing children (Marie Christine), killing husbands (Thou Shalt Not), killing lovers (Sunset Boulevard), or meaninglessness (The Wild Party)?
This kind of pop opera might wow critics but very rarely wowed audiences. As Marc Shaiman, the composer of Hairspray, said to The New York Times, "It's not that I don't adore Sondheim. . . . I just don't know why everyone else felt they had to emulate him so."
To wonder what would have happened to the musical if it had followed in Bernstein's more upbeat tracks is not idle speculation, because in a sense, for reasons both cultural and economic, the genre has come back toward him. While no one is in his class as a composer who could wed the sophistication of classical music with the vernacular of popular music, three of the more successful musicals recently Ragtime, The Producers, and Hairspray are more in the Bernstein tradition than in the Sondheim line.
In Ragtime, despite the deaths of the two main African-American characters, there's still a sense of joyfulness in anthemic themes such as "Wheels of a Dream" and a sense of optimism that things will be better for the next generation. The zaftig and African-American characters in Hairspray, like Candide, are outsiders who will ultimately prevail against the establishment. The Producers revels in the mischievous buoyancy that typifies Candide. (If only Mel Brooks and collaborator Thomas Meehan had written the book for Candide, instead of Hellman.) And that bouncy sensibility is everywhere in the music.
Why shouldn't it work? After all, when you take such qualities out of the musical, West Side Story becomes The Capeman, Paul Simon's dour, unsuccessful attempt to crack Broadway.
In 1973 Bernstein came to Harvard to deliver a series of lectures on classical music entitled "The Unanswered Question." He argued that music, like language, needed to obey certain universal laws, and that while the atonal avant-garde — Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Boulez — was not without interest, tonality was an essential ingredient of music. The notion seemed conservative, if not reactionary, in its time. Now that tonality rules again, the lectures seem way ahead of their time.
Perhaps there are certain laws for the Broadway musical as well. If so, there's a lot to learn from West Side Story and Candide.
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