Bernstein: Overture to Candide

Overture to Candide

Chic celebrity he may have been, bellwether of contemporary American life, his patrician features and cultivated New England voice familiar to millions from his many appearances on radio and television. And yet Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was something of a throwback to an earlier age when to be a musician meant to encompass the whole of the art rather than to segregate oneself into a well-defined specialty. Bernstein could do everything, and he could do it all well: composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, writer.

Candide was a product of Bernstein’s Broadway years (Wonderful Town, West Side Story). Based on Voltaire’s 1759 satire concerning the misadventures of the guileless naïf Candide and his sweetheart Cunégonde, the show was only a modest success during its original 1956 run, probably due to its perceived intellectualism. Later revivals, most with a book by Hugh Wheeler in the place of Lillian Hellman’s original, have been more successful. However, those revivals have added, subtracted, reshuffled, and restructured the piece as later librettists—Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, John Wells, Richard Wilbur, even Bernstein himself—have come and gone, each leaving his or her mark. There can be no ‘definitive’ version of Candide.

Bernstein provides a scintillating Overture that crackles with the rhythms of the mid-eighteenth century, busy and almost frenetic, a kissing cousin to that dazzling tour de force that kicks off Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Unlike the Mozart, however, Bernstein’s score incorporates tunes from the show proper: “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, “Battle Music”, “Oh, Happy We”, and perhaps most memorably, the soprano throat-scorcher “Glitter and Be Gay.” (That last will be familiar to some as the theme song for Dick Cavett’s landmark television talk show.)

In its beefed-up 1957 version for full symphony orchestra, the Overture quickly took its place as Bernstein’s most frequently performed work. It can be heard in its theatrical scoring in the original cast recording, but it’s Bernstein’s own recordings—1960 with the New York Philharmonic and 1983 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic—that are most familiar. In 1989, one year before his death at age 72, Bernstein gave Candide a thoroughgoing overhaul. Happily, this version was captured in a splendid full-length recording, preserving this iconic American musician’s last thoughts on his beloved, polymorphic problem child.

—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(July 2016)