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In 'Candide,' Bernstein Fuses Philosophy And Comedy

From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of <em>Candide, </em>Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.
Randy Brooke
From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of Candide, Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.

Leonard Bernstein often said: "Every author spends his entire life writing the same book." The same could apply to composers.

Probing the existential questions that haunt us was a hallmark of Bernstein both as a person and composer. He was not satisfied unless he was immersed in major issues, upending and questioning the status quo, often with irreverence and insouciance. That was what made Bernstein so much fun to be around and imbued his music with such depth for me.

How many people would even consider turning Voltaire's satirical novella from 1759, Candide, into musical theater, let alone jump at the opportunity?

Playwright Lillian Hellman approached Bernstein in 1953 with the concept. They delighted in the idea of drawing parallels between Voltaire's satirical portrayal of the Catholic Church's blatant hypocrisy and violence and the inquisition-like tactics then being implemented by the U.S. government under the House of Representatives' House Un-American Activities Committee.

Voltaire's charges against society in the 1750s — puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual — all rang true for Hellman and Bernstein in the 1950s. They set out with zeal to create a show that would capture a contemporary Voltaire viewpoint.

While there is clear brilliance in Bernstein's Candide, the show fell victim to its own weighty agenda and its authors' cleverness. Candide may be the most labored over Broadway show in history, enduring many incarnations since it opened in 1956.

But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of Bernstein's score, which he conceived as a Valentine's card to European music. Few composers could construct a score where European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz and polka are interwoven seamlessly with bel canto arias, Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedy, grand opera and Bernstein's own "Jewish tango."

It reminds me of an evening I spent with Bernstein. It started out with a discussion of a Schumann symphony and ended up with him at the piano, playing every song the Beatles wrote. Connecting the dots was his genius for me, but the fact that he never lost his capacity to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind was his gift to the world.

From the cleverness and clarity of Candide's overture, through the biting sarcasm of "Auto-da-fé (What a Day)" and then to bring us full circle to the unwavering optimism of "Make our Garden Grow" is Bernstein at his best.

(Marin Alsop conducts a semi-staged version of Candide June 11-14 in Baltimore and North Bethesda, Md., with NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! host Peter Sagal as narrator.)

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Marin Alsop artist page: listen to interviews, features and music archived at NPR Music.
Marin Alsop
In 2007, Marin Alsop became music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She was named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor ever to receive the award. Between performances, she appears as an occasional guest on Weekend Edition Saturday and as a commentator for NPR.org's Marin Alsop on Music column.