In 1977, celebrated cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich began his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
His second weekend on the job was an unusual one: following in the footsteps of composers like Beethoven, who often premiered several pieces in a single concert, Rostropovich invited Leonard Bernstein to premiere three new works (Songfest, Slava! A Political Overture, and Three Meditations from MASS) and to share the podium for two.
Bernstein conducted the heart of the October 11, 1977 concert: Songfest.
Originally commissioned for an American bicentennial celebration in 1976, Bernstein couldn’t complete the work in time and the commission was scratched. According to Jack Gottlieb, the piece, however, remained a “comprehensive picture of America’s artistic past, as seen in 1976 through the eyes of a contemporary artist”:
[Bernstein] envisioned this picture through the words of 13 poets embracing 300 years of the country’s history. The subject matter of their poetry is the American artist’s experience as it relates to his or her creativity, loves, marriages, or minority problems (blacks, women, homosexuals, expatriates) within a fundamentally Puritan society.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and Songfest is dubbed “a diversity-fest, a song cycle of acceptance” by Mark Swed of The Los Angeles Times:
Walt Whitman confesses to being ‘he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips.’ Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalls his hormones awakening in a penny candy store. The Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos refuses to be the property of spouse or boss.
Each of the songs corresponds to a single poem — except for number five, which incorporates two:
I. “To the Poem” (Frank O’Hara)
II. “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
III. “A Julia de Burgos” (Julia de Burgos)
IV. “To What You Said” (Walt Whitman)
V. “I, Too, Sing America” (Langston Hughes) / “Okay ‘Negroes’ ” (June Jordan)
VI. “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (Anne Bradstreet)
VII. “Storyette H. M.” (Gertrude Stein)
VIII. “If you can’t eat you got to” (e.e. cummings)
IX. “Music I Heard With You” (Conrad Aiken)
X. “Zizi’s Lament” (Gregory Corso)
XI. “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
XII. “Israfel” (Edgar Allan Poe)
The first song, based on “To the poem” by Frank O’Hara (1926 – 1966), provides a window into the work as a whole: poetic and political, with a dose of humor and paradox. The text of O’Hara’s “To the poem” goes like this:
Let us do something grand
just this once Something
small and important and
unAmerican Some fine thing
will resemble a human hand
and really be merely a thing
Not needing a military band
nor an elegant forthcoming
to tease spotlights or a hand
from the public’s thinking
But be In a defiant land
of its own a real right thing
Bernstein “ironically misplaces syllabic accents of certain words (e.g. ‘someTHING’ and ‘eleGANT’),” said Gottlieb describing the first song of Songfest. “Furthermore, he uses a full brass section at the precise moment when O’Hara’s words tell us: ‘not needING A milItaRY band.'”
Songfest was Bernstein’s first major work since Dybbuk.
- Related: Paul Hume describes Songfest for The Washington Post, two days before the 1977 premiere.
Slava! A Political Overture for Mstislav
The program opened with a Bernstein composition written specifically for this concert and the symphony’s new director: Slava!
In typical Bernstein fashion, the title of this piece is no less than a triple play on words. “Slava” is the Russian word for “glory;” it’s also the name of an old Russian folk tune quoted by composers from Beethoven to Rimsky-Korsakov and beyond. “Slava” is also a popular nickname for men whose names end in -slav — like, for example, Mstislav himself, for whom the piece is dedicated.
Gottlieb described the first theme of Slava! as “a vaudevillian tune redolent of political campaign high jinks” and the second theme as “a canonic tune in 7/8 time” with electric guitar, noting that both are “based on songs from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” (1976) Bernstein’s failed Broadway show about the White House residents and America’s racial injustice.
The original performance included a taped recording of Bernstein and friends (Michael Wager, Adolph Green, and Patrick O’Neal) shouting election campaign slogans amid a cheering crowd.
Slava! was Rostropovich’s first world premiere as conductor and music director of the National Symphony (October 11, 1977).
Three Meditations from MASS
A new work called Three Meditations from MASS rounded out the concert of world premieres, conducted by Bernstein with Rostropovich as solo cellist. (Composed for the opening of The Kennedy Center in 1971, the “richly eclectic MASS arguably summed up Bernstein’s preoccupations as an artist, and its premiere on that occasion was of enormous significance for his sense of cultural mission.”)
Since MASS is primarily a dramatic stage production, these excerpts can convey at best only a certain limited aspect of its scope and intention. Essentially it is concerned with a celebration of the Roman ritual using the Latin text of the Catholic liturgy; but simultaneously there is a subtext in English reflecting the reactions, doubts, protests, and questionings — positive and negative — of all of us who are attending and perceiving this ritual. By “all of us” I mean to include all who are assembled on stage and, by extension, the audience itself.
To our knowledge, The Kennedy Center’s October 11, 1977 concert is the first, and only, trifecta of Bernstein world premieres. Thank you, Rostropovich, for leading the way!
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Program notes from Jack Gottlieb courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
More Bernstein at 100
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Want more great Rostropovich and Bernstein musical magic? Watch Bernstein conduct Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor with Rostropovich and the Orchestre National de France, courtesy of medici.tv.