Bernstein: Arias and Barcarolles

Arias and Barcarolles (orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin)

LEONARD BERNSTEIN
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City

The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017-18 season.

COMPOSED: 1988

WORLD PREMIERES: May 9, 1988. The premiere was held at the Equitable Center auditorium in New York City, as a benefit for Young Concert Artists. It was presented in a version for 4 singers—soprano Louise Edeiken, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, and baritones John Brandstetter and Mordechai Kaston—with piano 4-hands, played by the composer and Michael Tilson Thomas. The cycle was first heard in its version for 2 voices on April 22, 1989, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Tel-Aviv, Israel, with soprano Amalia Ishak and baritone Raphael Frieder;  the 4-hand pianists were Irit Rub-Levy and Ariel Cohen. The orchestration heard in these performances was created in 1993 by Bruce Coughlin. It was unveiled September 26, 1993, at the Barbican Centre in London, with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the London Symphony Orchestra, and soloists Frederica von Stade and Thomas Hampson

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—June 2005. Soprano Jennifer Aylmer and baritone Nathan Gunn were soloists, with MTT conducting during the SFS Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice Festival

INSTRUMENTATION: In addition to solo soprano and baritone singers it calls for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet and alto saxophone), bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, brake drum, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, low gong, low tom-tom, police whistle, rain stick, slapstick, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, trap set, triangle, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone, and strings (either a solo string quintet or standard orchestral sections)

DURATION: About 29 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Throughout his career, Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as a composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. Time for composition was potentially the most endangered in the mix that packed his date-book, and he had to take special care to see that it didn’t get entirely crowded out by his day-to-day obligations as a performer. That he left as large an oeuvre as he did is a testament to his astonishing musical fluency and to his embrace of a wide variety of American styles.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bernstein was schooled at Harvard (where he graduated in 1939) and, following advanced work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, returned to his home state. There he worked at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and was taken under the wing of Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony. In 1943, he moved to New York, the city with which he would become most famously associated. While working as assistant conductor to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein stepped in at short notice—on November 14, 1943—to substitute for an ailing conductor (Bruno Walter) at a Philharmonic concert and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1958, he began a decade-long tenure as that orchestra’s music director.

By that time, he was already making a mark as the first conductor to truly harness the power of the rapidly developing medium of television. A generation of music lovers received some of their earliest indoctrination through his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, a series of fifty-three broadcasts that began in his first season with the New York Philharmonic. (He continued to oversee the series until he handed it off in 1972 to Michael Tilson Thomas, then the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony.) But Bernstein had already established a presence on television several years before he inaugurated the Young People’s Concerts. In November 1954, he presented his first special on Omnibus, a Sunday-night show that ran from 1952 through 1961, originally on the CBS network, then on ABC and finally NBC. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation and hosted by Alistair Cooke, it exemplified the medium’s highest aspirations, purveying insightful programming on topics in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Bernstein presented seven Omnibus installments on a variety of musical topics. His first, using Beethoven’s sketches for his Fifth Symphony to explore the composer’s decision-making process, became a classic. Bernstein included its script in his 1959 essay collection The Joy of Music, along with those of his other Omnibus topics, which included American musical theater, the innovations of Stravinsky, and the brilliance of Bach.

THE MUSIC  Many of Bernstein’s compositions reflect his grappling with personal issues. In Arias and Barcarolles, his last major piece, he addressed matters relating to family. The title had been bouncing around in his mind for some years before this song cycle finally became attached to it in 1988. Bernstein owed the name to—of all people!—President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Following a White House concert in 1960, at which Bernstein appeared as conductor and soloist in Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Eisenhower hazarded a stab at music criticism. Referring to the Gershwin, he informed Bernstein: “I liked that last piece you played. It’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.”

Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles went through several incarnations, beginning as a piece for four singers with accompaniment of piano four-hands, then reduced to only two singers with piano four-hands, and finally appearing in two different orchestrated versions. The full orchestration performed here was made by Bruce Coughlin in 1993, three years after the composer’s death. An acclaimed orchestrator of theater and film scores, Coughlin deftly captured what seems an entirely authentic “Bernstein sound.”

Arias and Barcarolles is a very personal cycle, if sometimes lighthearted. On the whole, it qualifies as affectionate, but, this being Bernstein, it is not without a measure of vacillation, frustration, and even cynicism. Its seven songs—solos or duets—are framed by a Prelude and a postlude (Nachspiel). Each of these (except the Prelude) carries a separate dedication, in most cases encoded as initials or acronyms. All the poems are by the composer himself except for “Little Smary,” which he attributed to his mother, and “Oif Mayn Khas’neh,” which is a Yiddish poem by Yankev-Yitskhok Segal.

Even the Prelude and Nachspiel have vocal components. In the Prelude the two singers proclaim the premise that will inform the entire cycle: “I love you,” a sentiment that from the outset is far from simple. The forthrightness of the singers’ avowals is not reflected by the turbulent accompaniment. The soloists are even instructed to deliver this loaded phrase non espressivo (without expression) and “neutral.” That this is a work of musical autobiography is clarified by the self-reference contained in the initial sonorities, an allusion to Bernstein’s ever-popular Candide Overture, and to the fact that this opening movement’s music had originated as a song Bernstein wrote in 1984 for the wedding of his daughter Jamie.

Irony continues in “Love Duet,” in which the song itself is equated to a romantic relationship: how to describe its particulars, how it unrolls, how the performers treat it, how long it will last. The text of “Little Smary” (for mezzo-soprano) is Bernstein’s remembrance of a story his mother, Jennie, used to tell him when he was a child. (It’s dedicated “for S.A.B.”—his sister Shirley Anne Bernstein, who doubtless also recalled the story.) He accordingly attributed the poem to his mother, although his own memory and refining hand may have had a role in it. (As a result of this published authorship, Jennie Bernstein, at an advanced age, was conferred membership in ASCAP as a lyricist.) It is the tale of a little girl who loses a favorite stuffed animal outside only to find that it miraculously reappears on her windowsill. When Little Smary realizes her toy is lost she cries disconsolately to a half-minute of German Expressionist angst—“extreme Mahler” perhaps, or even Alban Berg. When the lost toy is found, the music leaps in Straussian ecstasy.

Though upbeat in its way, “The Love of My Life” (for baritone) is a song of uncertainty and regret. Has the singer missed the love of his life without knowing it, or has it just not arrived yet? This movement’s style recalls Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place, and the dedication (“to SWZ, for KO”), cements the reference to that earlier work, which had a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth (“SWZ”) and featured baritone Kurt Ollmann (“KO”). “Greeting” (for mezzo-soprano) provides what may be the only unalloyed adult certainty in the whole cycle: the astonished contentment a parent feels on the birth of a child. Here Bernstein reaches back to a song penned in 1955 when his son Alexander Serge was born. The hushed sense of wonder contributes a clarifying effect amidst the cycle’s emotional ambivalence

That “Oif Mayn Khas’neh” is in Yiddish relates it to Shmuel Bernstein, the composer’s father, who spoke Yiddish and was descended from generations of Hasidic faithful, including many rabbis. On emigrating from Eastern Europe to America in 1908, he became known as Samuel. He married in 1917 (unhappily, it would turn out), and the following year the first-born baby, Leonard, was born. Being a practical businessman, Sam showed no support for his son’s inclinations toward a musical profession. In this song (for baritone) we witness the wedding celebration of a tradition-bound Jew who, with the other attendees, marvels at the irresistible music making of a carefree young musician—a klezmer—whose fiddling moves everyone to dance, even as they disapprove of his questionable commitments to basic tenets of Judaism. This song carries the dedication “for M.T.T.” Bernstein viewed Michael Tilson Thomas as a musical son, and the two teamed up on the piano bench when the first incarnation of Arias and Barcarolles was premiered in 1988.

 “Mr. And Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” (for mezzo-soprano and baritone) is based on a real incident. In 1982, Bernstein spent some weeks at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study of Indiana University where parts of his opera A Quiet Place received a workshop reading (A Quiet Place involves the gathering of an estranged family—father Sam [!], a son, a daughter, and a bisexual son-in-law—on the occasion of the mother’s funeral. It is probably not coincidental that Bernstein’s wife had died in 1978.) During his residency, Bernstein grew friendly with Charles Webb (dean of Indiana University’s School of Music) and his wife, Kendra. In this number, we encounter the couple trying to calm down their two sons at bedtime so they can privately discuss a pressing family matter—their impending move to a new city where Charles had accepted a new job, a decision he has just decided to reverse. This was indeed the Webbs’ situation when Bernstein knew them. In the end, the sons (echoing the music of the wayward gang members in West Side Story) are still quietly at their mischief as mother and father put this domestic crisis, and themselves, to bed.

The brief, Schubertian Nachspiel has no words, but both singers hum dreamily throughout. This closing section carries the dedication “In memoriam . . . .” Bernstein had recently included it in his Thirteen Anniversaries for Piano (1988), dedicated there to the memory of his friend Ellen Goetz, but it had actually been composed two years earlier as a song titled “First Love (for My Mother, March 1986),” written for Jennie Bernstein’s 88th birthday. The text of that song, though absent in the Arias and Barcarolles setting, provides the key to its meaning:

My First Love, Jennie B.,
Eighty-eight, young to me.
My second love is eighty-eight too.
Eighty-eight keys that sing to you . . .
Thus do I dedicate Eighty-eight
To my first two loves.

James M. Keller

Portions of this essay appeared earlier in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and the Edinburgh International Festival and are used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings:  In the arrangement heard here, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and baritone Thomas Hampson (Deutsche Grammophon; currently available as a re-issue from ArkivMusic)

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale)  |  Leonard Bernstein: American Original, edited by Burton Bernstein and Barbara Haws (Collins)  |  Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, by Misha Berson (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books)  |  West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, edited by Elizabeth A. Wells (Scarecrow Press) 

(September 2017)