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Bernstein: Overture to “Candide”

Leonard Bernstein (1918–90) was the first US-born conductor to be at the helm of a major American orchestra with his appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969.In addition to a very busy international conducting career and intense collaborations with the Israel and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, he composed music throughout his dynamic career, ranging from ballets and symphonies to light-hearted songs and remarkable stage musicals.Bernstein himself always said he wanted to write “the Great American opera.” He probably came closest to that with Candide, written in 1956, which he labeled “a comic operetta.” It is based on Voltaire’s satirical novella of 1759 and tells of the misadventures of Candide, a naive, simple, and pure-hearted young man, and his sweetheart, Cunégonde.

Candide opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956. It was perhaps a bit too intellectual for its first audiences, and it closed after just seventy-three performances, seemingly successful for “classical music” performances, yet not quite sufficient for the financial success of a Broadway show. Bernstein was less concerned over the loss of money than the failure of a work he cared about deeply. He is quoted to have said, “there’s more of me in that piece than anything else I’ve done.” Indeed, with each revival, Candide won bigger audiences. In 1989 Bernstein himself recorded the work, spending some of his last vital energy (he died the following year).

The overture was well received from the start, and it promptly became a very popular curtain-raiser. Brilliantly scored, it has a certain type of vitality that is not easy to match. A similar level of energy may be found in John Adam’s little gem Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The overture’s scoring of percussion instruments is not innovative, but it is extremely detailed and subtle. The xylophone, triangle, and glockenspiel are used to highlight some notes and to accent some tutti passages. The timpani, bass drum, and snare drum are combined in a very clever way, creating rhythmical structures that occasionally intertwine with what the rest of the orchestra is doing. After the extremely vivid opening, which seems like a horse carriage moving at a fast speed (similar to an old silent film!), a middle section, lyrical and tender in nature, arrives. The excitement in the overture is increased to conclude the piece, with the return of the opening material and an acceleration of the tempo, much in the way Schumann would do in the Finale of one of his symphonies.

For piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, E clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, strings

Composed 1955–56 in New York

First performed with the operetta, December 1, 1956 at the Martin Beck Theater, New York; first performed as concert overture January 26, 1957 by the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducting

Published by G. Schirmer (New York, 1957)

Duration about 4 minutes

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