Overture to Candide
During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Leonard Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman decided to use Voltaire’s satirical novel Candideas a vehicle to make a political statement. According to Hellman, the novel attacks “all rigid thinking...all isms.” Bernstein thought that the charges made by Voltaire against his own society’s puritanical snobbery, phony morality and inquisitorial attacks on the individual were the same as those that beset American society – especially creative artists in all media.
After two years of intermittent cooperative work, the play opened in the fall of 1956. It failed – all but the overture. This became a staple of orchestral repertoire and one of Bernstein’s most endearing, most frequently performed works. It reflects the breakneck pacing of Voltaire’s satire with its worldwide adventures and buffoonery, interspersed in places by mock-tender moments.
In 1974, equipped with a new libretto which concentrated on its madcap humor rather than its political and social message, Candide, now billed as a musical, was successfully revived. It achieved 741 packed performances in the Broadway Theater, but the composer was still not satisfied. Two operatic versions followed in 1982 and 1989, and CD of the latter’s, one of Bernstein’s last recordings, became a bestseller.
Bernstein did not change the whirldwind overture that that almost trips over itself with its cross rhythms and themes crowding in on each other. But there's method in the madness; the overture is in perfect sonata form. Its first theme, the crashing opener, the second contrasting lyric theme taken from the duet between Candide and Cunegonde. And with a nod to the master overture writer of Western music, Bernstein ties it all up with a big Rossini-type stretta.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Unsure of his ability to compose symphonies, Brahms took fourteen years to finish his first in 1876. Its critical and popular success, while far from overwhelming, gave him the confidence to try his hand at a symphony again, and this time with much greater assurance; thus it took him just a few months in the summer and fall of 1877 to compose his second. The contrast between the two can be compared to that between Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies, and the parallel can be extended to the environment that gave them birth. Brahms spent the summer of 1877 in Pörtschach, an out-of-the-way village in the Austrian countryside, from where he wrote to Eduard Hanslick: “So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to step on them.” The symphony’s sunny spirit – especially the last two movements – and relatively transparent orchestration harks back to the young Brahms of the two orchestral serenades (1856-60), and has less of the dense orchestration that permeates much of Brahms’s symphonic writing. It induced one of Brahms’ friends to exclaim: “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach!”. But true to Brahms’s nature, the symphony has its darker moments. Clara Schumann commented on the somber mood in parts of the first movement, and when a friend objected to the gloom and harshness of the trombones in the second movement, the composer replied that it reflects his habitual melancholy.
Brahms kept all but his closest friends in the dark about the character of the new work, hinting that it was tragic, somber, dirge-like, and - adding facetiously - would require the orchestra members to wear black crêpe armbands. The premiere in Vienna on Dec. 30, 1877, under the baton of Hans Richter, was an unqualified success, the ebullient third movement having to be repeated at the insistence of the enthusiastic audience.
The Symphony presents many original and ingenious variations on traditional symphonic forms, including ways of integrating the movements thematically. It opens with a gentle, lilting theme, the opening three notes of which, in the cellos and basses, comprise a motivic element that pervades the first movement. The motive appears sometimes in the melody, at others as an accompanying figure. Yet, offsetting this persistent kernel is a considerable array of themes, some of which find the little motive embedded within them, as in this rhythmically varied version that opens the second theme. Once audiences are attuned to listen for it, they can find it everywhere. The second theme in f-sharp minor is one of those places where Hanslick's perceived sunshine temporarily hides behind the clouds of Brahms's melancholy. There is also a heart of darkness in the development. Nevertheless, good weather prevails by the end with a gentle coda recalling the recurring motto and ending with a restatement of the first theme.
Like the preceding movement, the Adagio non troppo is packed with thematic material, but this time the sunshine pretty much stays behind the clouds from the start. Here Brahms breaks down two longer themes into fragments, using the three-note motto from the first movement as an integral part of the second thematic group. The reprise of both sections is in free variation, reminiscent of the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The movement concludes with a wistful coda.
The Scherzo opens with a beautiful allegretto grazioso solo for the reed woodwinds, accompanied by pizzicato cellos. The Trio sets the traditional contrast of mood with a change from triple to duple meter and an abrupt increase in tempo and new orchestration emphasizing the strings. Brahms, however, does not use the customary new thematic material for the Trio, but rather a radical transformation of the Scherzo theme. The Trio gradually winds down in tempo to blend smoothly into a free variation of the Scherzo reprise.
The finale, the most festive movement Brahms ever wrote, begins, however, with a sotto voce rhythmic variation of the three-note motto from the opening movement, here as the once again in the cellos and basses. The movement is in modified sonata-rondo form with the following second theme. Brahms freely develops both themes in the intervening episodes, ending with an ebullient coda and a final trumpet fanfare.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|