In 'Candide,' Bernstein Fuses Philosophy And Comedy

Jun 6, 2015
Originally published on June 8, 2015 1:37 pm

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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That's exhilarating fanfare that tops one of the most iconic American compositions - Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." The operetta will be performed next weekend by the Baltimore Symphony under the baton of our friend Marin Alsop. She joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks very much for being back with us, maestra.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be back, Scott, thanks.

SIMON: So this piece was first performed almost 60 years ago. And talk about an all-star cast of creators. We mentioned Leonard Bernstein, of course, but Richard Wilbur the poet and Lillian Hellman worked on the lyrics. There was a revival later that a young Stephen Sonheim worked on the lyrics. But what happened with this original show?

ALSOP: Well, the original show didn't fare so well, but I think it's because there were so many creative minds working on it. And I think it was almost too clever for its own good and way ahead of the curve for what the audience was expecting.

SIMON: It's based on a 1759 satire, of course, by Voltaire. A young man named Candide has a kind of Eliza-Professor Higgins relationship with his mentor, Professor Pangloss, who wants to show him the complications of the real world. What's the story they try to tell?

ALSOP: Well, it's probably the most complicated story and simple story at the same time. So Pangloss's - he espouses this doctrine of philosophical optimism so that all good things happen because we live in the best of all possible worlds. So everything that happens is for the best. That's the premise. And so Candide, who's quite naive in his own way and he wholeheartedly takes this on board, but then he's put to the task. And trial after trial, war and storms, natural disasters, murder - I mean, mayhem. You can't imagine - I mean - and it reaches, of course, the theater of the absurd. And yet, through it all, he hangs on to this concept that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

SIMON: Let's listen to some of the music. Leonard Bernstein himself conducting a production with the London Symphony and Chorus. Life is happiness indeed.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maximilian, singing) Life is pleasant. Life is simple. Oh, my God, is that a pimple? No, it's just an odd reflection. Life and I are still perfection. I am everything I need. Life is happiness indeed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Life is happiness indeed.

ALSOP: In this one musical, in this one operetta, Bernstein must touch on every single genre of European music ever written. And yet, he does it in a way that is so distinctively Bernstein, yet it's not really a parody. It's almost an homage to all things European.

SIMON: And I think it's safe to say the best song about flogging I've ever heard.

ALSOP: (Laughter) Yeah, you have to have one of those.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. Well, let's hit this up. Candide and Pangloss are blamed for causing a volcanic eruption, and the grand inquisitor orders them to be tortured.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fe. What a sunny, summer sky. What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fe. It's a lovely day for drinking and for watching people fry.

ALSOP: What a day for an auto-da-fe. It's a lovely day for drinking and for watching people fry. I mean, it's this opera comic approach to these absolutely hideous and terrifying words.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Shall we let the sinners go or try them? Try them.

ALSOP: So this is what is called the auto-da-fe, which is really the, you know, the test of faith. And for Bernstein this is also drawing a parallel to everything that was going on with the committee on un-American activities. So there's a lot more at play here than just the obvious.

SIMON: Marin, you've conducted this before...

ALSOP: I have.

SIMON: With a smile on your face.

ALSOP: Always with a smile, but I think that people originally just didn't quite - they couldn't comprehend that this was the ultimate parody, the ultimate satire, because the approach is all, you know, happy and jolly and this almost frivolous and yet the message is very, very serious underneath.

SIMON: Let's listen to what might be one of the best-known pieces of music from the operetta - "Glitter And Be Gay."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Glitter and be gay, that's the part I play. Here I am in Paris, France.

ALSOP: Oh, it's just so incredibly melancholic, isn't it?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Again, this parody of the bel canto opera, the lamenting and the angst involved in that. And then suddenly you turn the corner and it's - you know, it's a completely different world.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, vocalizing).

ALSOP: This is opera for everyone that thinks they don't like opera, you know, because it's fun. It's making fun of itself, and yet, at the same time, it's absolutely original and beautiful music.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Is it true?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Is it you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Cunegonde.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Candide.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Cunegonde.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Candide.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Cunegonde.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) Candide.

ALSOP: Every single musical selection in this piece has a double entendre or a triple or a quadruple. And so when we get to this aria, a duet "You Were Dead, You Know," it's a parody, of course, of the operatic tradition of, you know, there - always someone has to die otherwise it can't possibly be a great opera. So now here we are singing about how we thought you were dead and you were dead, you now? And so, you know, it takes in so many hysterical meanings.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Dearest, how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayonetted, too.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing) That is very true, but love will find a way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Candide, singing) Then what did you do?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cunegonde, singing)We'll go into that another day. Now let's talk of you. You are looking very well.

SIMON: And tell us about the last number, "Make Our Garden Grow."

ALSOP: Well, finally in the end, Candide and the love of his life, Cunegonde, plus a sort of a ragtag of their - of characters from the show, they end up together. And they run into a Turk who talks to them about being happy because he has his farm and he has his children and his family, and he grows things. And they look at him and they realize that perhaps this is happiness indeed. And they decide to settle in together as almost an extended family - sort of an odd family of people who live together, who enjoy each other's company and live authentic lives living off the land. And for me, this is truly one of the most beautiful pieces ever written.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2 AND #3: (As Candide and Cunegonde, singing in unison) We're neither pure nor wise nor good. We'll do the best we know. We'll build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow and make our garden grow.

ALSOP: After this entire show, which is so clever and so complicated and so much business going on, finally you end with this beautiful ensemble number that captures I think the essence of what Bernstein truly believed, that ultimately it's all about humanity and living authentic lives.

SIMON: Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform "Candide" next weekend. Hear it for yourself. Marin, thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: Oh, thank you for having me, and I look forward to seeing you at "Candide." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.