By James Conlon
I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.
Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.
— Gustav Mahler
What does that famous quote have to do with Candide, Voltaire and Leonard Bernstein?
This year the world celebrates the Bernstein centenary. For those of us who grew up in New York in the fifties and sixties, he was our inspiration. Looking back at this giant, who seemed to be the embodiment of music—classical, jazz and popular—it is hard to believe that one man could be and do all he was and did: conductor, composer, pianist, lecturer and educator all rolled into one.
In such a versatile individual, it is not surprising that as a composer, he was an eclectic. This is said of him in admiration by some and in criticism by others. But he was what he was, and like any other great artist, we are fortunate to have the product of his genius in our lives.
He was Mr. Classical Music, but he was simultaneously high-, middle- and low-brow, moving from one persona to another with alacrity or, to reframe the title of his own book, “infinitely varied.” He had the ambition to write music that wed the European classical tradition with what was truly American. He wanted his music to be of the people, he wanted it to be popular and speak to the common man, the average citizen.
And yet he was himself such an intellectual, so much the homo universalis, he could not help but raise the level of discourse in and about popular music.
Bernstein identified deeply with Mahler, and was largely responsible for permanently imposing his music on the public and establishing its place in the canon of classical music. Like Mahler, he freely mixed “high art” and music of the city street and countryside. But unlike his musical idol, musically and culturally, he was at home everywhere but fully at home nowhere.
Bernstein, it has been said, legitimized our American brand of vulgarity even as his eclecticism spoke of an inherited culture of immigration.
Wanderer in search of meaning?
Voltaire’s Candide wanders the world as his allegorical philosophical instruction leads throughout Europe and South America. His world travels only very slowly divide him from optimism as a guiding principal. The journey ends in Venice, where many of the principal characters find each other and try to make peace with their destinies.
Bernstein’s Candide wanders the musical world in a kaleidoscopic succession of styles and acquisitions: jazz, Broadway, Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, the world of his American contemporaries and even, in some versions, a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row. And, of course, there is Mahler.
Bernstein perhaps sees a distant mirror of himself in Candide’s itinerant search for meaning. His music, music-making and personality reflected that sense of eclecticism. He absorbed and interacted with his world, but also in the vast reaches of the past. The models for Candide might be several—Marc Blitzstein, Benjamin Britten and, most intriguingly for me, Kurt Weill. Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow and lifelong collaborator, was convinced:
I think surely Leonard Bernstein knows every note of Kurt Weill… and he is the one who took up after Weill’s death… I think [he] is the closest to Kurt Weill.
If indeed that is true, what the younger composer learned from the older master was how to seduce, charm and bewitch an audience with melody, rhythm, lyricism and sweetness, while delivering pungent and stinging criticism and satire, sugarcoated irony. Voltaire, like Cervantes, used the mouthpiece of innocence and naïveté to deliver a far-ranging critique of his own society. Perhaps it was not coincidental that Candide and Man of La Mancha occupied Broadway theaters within a decade of each other.
He was an American, yes, but Bernstein drew inspiration from the European past. Voltaire’s novella Candide (1759) and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) provided the inspiration for his two great theatrical works of the mid-1950s. Plato’s (385-370 BCE) Symposium gave birth to Bernstein’ Serenade, written in 1954; music without a literal program, it was yet a dramatic prelude to the theatrical works about to appear.
He wanted to write a great American opera, and, like Beethoven, struggled for years doing so. The medium of the American musical, and the venue (Broadway) were ultimately to give birth to his theatrical masterpiece, West Side Story. At nearly the same time he worked on and produced his comic operetta Candide. Only slightly less remarkable than the 45 days that separated the openings of Verdi’s Il Trovatore and La Traviata, Bernstein produced Candide and West Side Story with premieres only nine months and 25 days apart.
The works are entirely different from one another, and yet Bernstein’s signature musical language is unmistakable in both.
Candide’s performance history was tortured. Like Beethoven’s Fidelio, it was to be constantly revised in the 30 years following its premiere. Versions appeared in 1973, 1982, 1989 and there were even further posthumous revisions in 1993 and 1999. The list of collaborators reads like a Who’s Who of the literary elite of the time: Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, John La Touche, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, as well as the composer himself. One has the impression that Bernstein was never fully satisfied, and kept striving to go beyond himself.
Bernstein accepted the form, structures and conventions of the American musical, but had more to say than would fit into the relatively comfortable and reassuring earmarks of the genre in the 1950s. The late 1940s and ‘50s were a period of post-war optimism and self-assurance. At the same time, it was also the era that produced Senator Joseph McCarthy, intensified investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee, saw the expansion of entertainment blacklists and the misuse of questionable evidence—all politically repressive measures that ruined careers on unsubstantiated accusations.
This had hit Bernstein close to home. Not only he, but his mentor Aaron Copland and his collaborator Lillian Hellman had also been subjected to political persecution. Copland’s opera The Tender Land (1954) was criticized for its left-leaning subtext. Over a thousand pages of FBI files on the two composers was compiled, several hundred of which have been released under Freedom of Information Act requests. Arthur Miller (himself convicted for refusing to cooperate with the McCarthy hearings) wrote The Crucible, which retold the story of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the McCarthy era. It premiered at the Martin Beck Theater four years before the first performance of Candide in the very same theater.
As author Meryle Secrest observed, both Hellmann and Bernstein wanted to make an artistic statement on behalf of human freedom and thought they had found the right vehicle in Candide. Hellman commented that it attacked “all rigid thinking…all isms.” Bernstein wrote:
Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority—aren’t these all the charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers? And they are also charges made by Voltaire against his own society.
There is no question that the ism of McCarthyism was on both of these creative minds. Witch hunts, blacklists and the Court of Public Opinion were latter-day reflections of the Spanish Inquisition, which gets more than a passing mention in all the versions of Candide.
Voltaire’s Candide, charts the fantastic life experiences of an innocent and optimist young man (as his name suggests) and his eventual disillusionment with the ideals proclaimed by his philosophic mentor Dr. Pangloss (himself based on the target of Voltaire’s ridicule, Gottfried Leibniz). “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” serves as his mantra. Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of a Baron, and Candide, in love, will separately and, eventually, together learn of life through an unending series of humiliations, wars, beatings, rapes, swindles, earthquakes, shipwrecks and cruelty.
In the end, a Dutch amateur philosopher, Martin, a proponent of Pessimism, and Pangloss, the obstinate Optimist, argue their way into a cul-de-sac. The ripened Candide and Cunegonde deliver their message in the finale “Make Our Garden Grow”:
And let us try before we die to make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure nor wise, nor good; we’ll do the best we know.
(This is a later development from the original idea of Hellman “Life is neither good nor bad, life is life, and all we know.”)
A metaphysical moral?
I remember an old Chinese proverb. When I searched for it online, I found that it had many different variants but the essence is this: If you want to be happy, there are a number of short-term alternatives: kill a pig and eat it, get drunk, get married. But to be happy forever, plant a garden and help others. The finale of Candide, which functions like the moral, is an inspiring, tender and grandiose Mahlerian hymn. It respects the convention of musical comedy in that everyone is alive at the end (as opposed to 19th-century Italian drama where at least one leading character must die), but it is not simply a saccharine happy ending. It has metaphysical and musical weight.
In a recent New York Times editorial, the Harvard philosophy professor Sean D. Kelly recalled his teacher and friend Hubert Dreyfus, who had passed away at the age of 87. Kelly draws attention to the competing 17th- and 18th-century Italian and German approaches to finding meaning in our existing routine. Mr. Kelly found a statement in his lecture notes which he suspects was left there by his mentor: “The goal of life, for Pascal, is not happiness, peace or fulfillment, but aliveness.” The pursuit of those three ideals consumes all of our lives—most of all, perhaps, those of creative artists. These goals are or at least seem to be unattainable, but the pursuit is the very act of living.
Leonard Bernstein, through his innumerable activities—musical, poetic, artistic, political and humanitarian—embodies the pursuit and, above all, the “aliveness.”
It is that which we celebrate this year.
About this author
James Conlon, one of today’s most versatile and respected conductors, is Music Director of the LA Opera and Principal Conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, Italy, where he is the first American to hold the position in the orchestra’s 84-year history. Conlon has conducted nearly every major American and European symphony orchestra since his 1974 debut with the New York Philharmonic. He served as Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival for 37 years (1979–2016), holding one of the longest tenures of any director of an American classical music institution, and is now Conductor Laureate. Mr. Conlon has also served as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (2005–15); Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera (1995–2004); General Music Director of the City of Cologne, Germany (1989–2002); Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1983–91); and has conducted more than 270 performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Visit: JamesConlon.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesJConlon.
About this content
This post originally appeared on the LA Opera website. Reprinted with permission, courtesy of LA Opera.