Discover more from Ageless Mind Project Newsletter
Adventures in Mindful Listening
Bernstein and Candide
Greetings. My name is Joshua Berrett, and I am co-founder of the Ageless Mind Project. It will be my pleasure to take you on Adventures in Mindful Listening.
In this post, we’ll be listening to one of my favorite pieces of music - Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Overture to Candide. But before we dive in, let me give you some historical background for the piece. Candide is based on the novella Candide: Or Optimisme by the 18th century French gadfly, Voltaire.
In 1939 Bernstein, at the age of 20 during his senior year at Harvard, directed a very leftist, pro-labor opera by Marc Blitzstein entitled The Cradle Will Rock. This reflected his early interest in social justice and works by writers such as Voltaire.
In writing his biting satire, Voltaire had been deeply shaken by news of the devastating effect of the Lisbon earthquake on All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, 1755, when upwards of 30,000 of the faithful perished. Think about it. We are dealing here with fundamental questions that are timeless. How to maintain a sense of optimism as well as a belief in a benevolent God in a world corrupted by so much hypocrisy, both within the church and beyond, not to mention by the many excesses of human vice.
In the 1950s, similar issues hit Bernstein very hard. When his operetta Candide premiered in 1956, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s televised anti-Communist hearings were dominating the news. This was also when many in labor unions and the performing arts were blacklisted, accused of subversion, and ousted from their jobs. Lillian Hellman, who wrote the original lyrics for Candide, was one such person. And Leonard Bernstein himself was blacklisted by the FBI, cut from CBS Television, and faced a State Department that refused to renew his passport.
In addition, though he married Felicia Montealegre Cohn in 1951, Bernstein was leading a double life as a gay man.
Let us now turn to the overture itself. In four-and-a half minutes, we are treated to a listening experience of boundless energy that captures some of the fast-moving action of the novella. Bernstein’s overture brims with brio. It is a quintessential statement of Bernstein’s sense of activism. To borrow from two of the show’s song titles, “Oh, Happy We” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” the overture evokes Voltaire’s world in which life is happiness indeed. Those living that life believe that this is the best of all possible worlds…until they are expelled from their “Garden of Eden.” “Glitter and Be Gay,” quoted four times in all, is a showpiece for Cunegonde, Candide’s sweetheart. It includes such memorable lines as, “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are.”
But Bernstein calls all this into question with his opening three-note fanfare, which is heard twice more in the course of the overture. By the way, this three-note fanfare is again profoundly personal for Bernstein. It harkens back to the call of the shofar, the ram’s horn that he heard as a child in the synagogue he attended on the Jewish New Year.
These fanfare notes anticipate Maximilian’s word, “OBJECTION” in the ensemble number “The Best of all Possible Worlds,” when he questions the glib rationalizations of his teacher, Doctor Pangloss. The three-note fanfare and the battle scene music foreshadow what is about to come in the body of both the novella and the operetta. They anticipate the horrible twists and turns that are to shape the coming-of-age journey of the lead characters - the guileless Candide and his beloved Cunegonde - once they have been cast out of their earthly paradise, the castle of Baron Thunder-ten -tronck in Westphalia.
You can listen to the|CANDIDE Overture by clicking HERE.
To get you started, I’m providing a listening guide for the opening minute or so below.
0:00 - Opening 3-note fanfare and the giddy excitement at the castle
0:40 - Battle scene music
1:22 - “Oh Happy We” with a build-up of intensity, and the first quote from “Glitter and be Gay.”
3:24 - The first quote from “Glitter and be Gay.”
Listen now to the CANDIDE Overture, part of an historic 1989 concert performance of the whole operetta with Bernstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra:
Some Questions for Discussion
Were you able to hear each quotation?
How did hearing those quotations enrich your understanding of the music and its message?
What other pieces of music or composers would lend themselves to mindful listening?
Please share your thoughts, suggestions, and questions in the comment section below.
NOTE: If you have trouble accessing the link, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Joshua Berrett
Dr. Joshua Berrett has been offering Music Is Brain Food courses through lifelong learning institutes since 2012, after he retired as Professor Emeritus from Mercy University. He is a violinist and the author of many publications on music, including “Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz” (2004).
To learn more about Josh and his work, visit https://www.agelessmindproject.org/music-is-brain-food/
We highly appreciate donations, which can be made by clicking the PayPal Donate button below:
Most of all, we are eager to hear from you in the comments section below. What are you interested in exploring with us? What concerns you? What kind of ageless mind do you want to design?
Copyright 2023 Ageless Mind Project. All Rights Reserved.
Ageless Mind Project Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.