Program Notes

Divertimento for Orchestra

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

COMPOSED: 1980. Bernstein composed this work on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and it was “dedicated with affection to Boston Symphony Orchestra on celebration of its first centennial”

WORLD PREMIERE: September 25, 1980, in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony. Bernstein refashioned the ending in 1983 into the version heard in this concert

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY— October 2008. Benjamin Shwartz conducted portions of the work in Music for Families concerts as part of an SFS tribute to Bernstein. In June 2008, Edwin Outwater conducted the Waltz movement only at a Music for Families concert. These are the first subscription performances of the complete work

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and 2 piccolos (2nd piccolo doubling 3rd flute), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba (doubling baritone euphonium), timpani, 4 snare drums, bass drum, pairs of cymbals and large cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, woodblock, 2 Cuban cowbells, sandpaper blocks, rasp and maracas, 3 bongos and 2 conga drums, 4 temple blocks, trap set, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, chimes, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

THE BACKSTORY  A lesser known item in Leonard Bernstein’s catalogue, the Divertimento for Orchestra is a set of eight bagatelles, mostly running from one to two minutes apiece, that together add up to a fifteen-minute suite rich in charm, variety, and autobiographical import. Bernstein composed it in September 1980, so ten years before his death. Several substantial works lay ahead in his final decade, most notably his opera A Quiet Place (1983-84) and his song-set Arias and Barcarolles (1988), but he was generally slowing down as a composer even as his calendar remained dense with conducting engagements.

He had experienced a wrenching setback in 1978 with the death of his wife, Felicia Montealegre, after a painful struggle with lung cancer, following nearly twenty-seven years of marriage. (Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the Bernstein home; when his own life ended, it was due to a lung tumor, progressive emphysema, and a series of pulmonary infections.) Commitments still crowded his schedule, but he announced that he would take an extended sabbatical in 1980 to devote time to composition.

He had recently suspended plans for an opera based on Lolita, but he started his “year off” (actually he set aside thirteen months, beginning in December 1979) by pursuing two separate projects with theatrical overtones. For a few weeks, he worked with his lyricist friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green on a musical film, to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola, about the innovatory automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker. The project was shelved. With writer Arthur Laurents he pursued a musical tentatively titled Alarums and Flourishes, set in Renaissance times. Bernstein seems to have wanted to emphasize its more serious, psychological overtones, while Laurents pushed for a more bluntly entertaining feel. Finally, on July 4, Bernstein pulled the plug on that project, too, regretting that it had become “more and more Broadway-ish.” He was halfway through his sabbatical and had nothing concrete to show for it. 

But in April, the Boston Symphony had invited him to write a piece in honor of the orchestra’s centennial, which would be celebrated during the upcoming 1980-81 season. The Boston Symphony was dear to his heart. He had grown up in Boston, graduated from Harvard, and in 1940 spent his first of many summers at that orchestra’s Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood), making his first appearance as a symphonic conductor (leading two movements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade) and studying conducting with Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony music director, who would become his mentor. He maintained a lifelong attachment to the orchestra, conducting it in at least 133 concerts, his last appearance there taking place only a couple of months before his passing.

THE MUSIC  How could he not write a piece for the centennial? Suddenly his sabbatical found a new focus: his Divertimento for Orchestra. At first, he planned it to be just a single morsel—the music that now stands as the first movement of the eventual composition. He titled it Sennets and Tuckets, those being terms Shakespeare used in his stage direction to denote fanfares. (In Elizabethan stagecraft, a sennet signals the ceremonial entrance or exit of an actor portraying a king or other person of very high rank, while a tucket is a more generally applicable musical flourish; note how the words are cousins to the standard Italian musical terms sonata and toccata.) Into this snazzy miniature (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, and at one point also marked Con gioia!—“With joy!) he worked the melodic mini-motif of the pitches B-C, meant to encode “Boston Centennial”; it is clearly emphasized in the final few measures. Since time for composing was available, he just kept going beyond what he had initially planned and promised, incorporating the B-C sequence into every ensuing movement. In this opening movement, listeners may also pick up a brief allusion to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.

The Waltz (Allegretto, con grazia) is for strings alone. It is not a “normal” waltz in 3/4 time, though. This one is in 7/8 meter, off-kilter to most listeners. Bernstein apparently meant it to evoke the “waltz” in 5/4 meter that is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, a particular favorite of Koussevitzky’s—and so a personal valentine to his original champion at the Boston Symphony. (Bernstein later fashioned this movement into a song for his daughter Jamie’s twenty-eighth birthday.) The Mazurka (Mesto, molto moderato) changes timbre entirely, employing double-reed woodwinds (oboes, English horn, bassoons, and contrabassoon) plus harp, and near its end, the solo oboe, injects the plaintive cadenza Beethoven had written for it in his Fifth Symphony—an in-joke that caused great hilarity among the Boston Symphony’s musicians at the Divertimento’s first rehearsal. Next comes a Samba (Allegro giusto) with a Latin flavor accentuated by a colorful percussion section. By this point, listeners may be sensing that the composer is also thinking back through his own catalogue of compositions—here and there indulging in fleeting reminiscences of On the Town, West Side Story, Candide, or other works.

The Turkey Trot (Allegretto, ben misurato) is again an odd-metered movement—dancing with a limp, or perhaps drunk, in measures that alternate between four and three beats. Bernstein salvaged this music from the aborted Tucker movie. Sphinxes (Adagio lugubre) is the shortest movement, less than a minute long, proposing a twelve-tone row. Its title is the same as a curious, minuscule movement in Schumann’s piano cycle Carnaval, a span so ambiguous that it is unclear whether Schumann expected it to even be played. This leads without a break into Blues (Slow blues tempo), scored for brass and percussion—with memories of Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, perhaps?

The concluding movement, In Memoriam; March: “The BSO Forever, has a dual personality. The “In Memoriam” section (Andante) is a solemn canon scored for three flutes with light touches of percussion at the end. Bernstein’s amanuensis Jack Gottlieb explained that this “quiet meditation” recalls “the conductors and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra no longer with us.” The mood changes entirely, and the tempo quickens, for the “March” section (Doppio movimento, alla Marcia). Things get giddy here, with Bernstein for some reason remembering snatches of the Radetzky March as if viewed through the prism of Candide; this makes natural use of his B-C motif. Toward the end he has the piccolos play a chirping descant and stand up along with the brasses, much as they might in a Tanglewood rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever, and trombones are instructed to lift their bells in the air (shades of Mahler’s Third). 

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Paavo Järvi conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)  |  John Williams conducts the Boston Pops (Philips)

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, by Paul Myers (Phaidon) 

(February 2018)

Please wait...