Candide Goes to College

When I was a music major in college, I wondered what it would have been like to have known Mendelssohn, Liszt, Mahler and Gershwin. I found out.

Author Gottlieb (left) and mentor Leonard Bernstein go over last-minute details at Italy's Teatro La Fenice in September 1959.
Author Gottlieb (left) and mentor Leonard Bernstein go over last-minute details at Italy's Teatro La Fenice in September 1959.

It is the last of the graduate students’ monthly get-togethers with Leonard Bernstein, and it has been a most instructive, but unorthodox, encounter. The scene is a college classroom on a muddy campus in Waltham, Mass. Within a few years the young Brandeis University will replace the classroom’s three-story house with the more lasting Slosberg Music Center. But it is 1954 and we are in a reconverted framework 
building called Roberts Cottage. Seated at the piano is a nervous student composer (yours truly) with an audience of his peers and faculty composers Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger and Irving Fine. However, the focus of attention this evening is on a special guest, playwright Lillian Hellman. She is here at the invitation of Mr. Bernstein, the peripatetic professor of this particular seminar.

The student is about to perform an operatic excerpt of his, based on the 1759 novella “Candide” by Voltaire. In this incident, Candide is bilked of his gold by a fake Cunégonde working in cahoots with swindlers acting as a maid-in-waiting, an abbé and policemen.

The performance over, dutiful applause, and Professor Bernstein comments to playwright Hellman, “Quite a different approach, isn’t it?” She agrees, and the two collaborators of a work in progress — a comic operetta called “Candide” — go on to discuss problems in general about which stylistic route to travel from Westphalia to Eldorado and back. It is an engrossing dialogue capped by composer Bernstein performing for the first time in front of an audience what was — at that time — the opening number, “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “The Old Lady’s Tango,” also known as “I Am Easily Assimilated.” The latter he sings (well, a kind of singing) in a distinctive Jewish-Polish accent.

Bernstein’s unique teaching manner has already crystallized by this time, prior to his television exposure. Who else would attempt to conduct a college course for a full semester based on a not-yet-completed theatrical endeavor? Composers, as a rule, are notoriously guarded about their unfinished works, but here is an instance where a developing musical work becomes a kind of textbook syllabus. One assignment has been to write battle music. But how? Ominously, as Prokofiev did in “Alexander Nevsky”? Or victorious bombast à la Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? A month later, various student attempts have been tried, mostly abortive. Then Bernstein presents his solution: a deceptively simple takeoff on a march-step that mocks tonic and dominant relationships.

Another enlightening section concerns the knack of the song cue, how to sneak music in, over and under spoken words. One source of pedagogical inquiry is a lecture-demo on how Beethoven used melodrama in “Fidelio.” The most potent musical examples, however, are vividly illustrated in an analysis of scenes from Marc Blitzstein’s opera “Regina” (based on Hellman’s “The Little Foxes”). Blitzstein himself is another seminar guest. One is haunted by the memory of the two Steins — Bern and Blitz — performing fragments of “Regina” with unabashed enthusiasm.

Certainly Blitzstein had some influence on the theater works of Bernstein. But more than melodic associations, Blitzstein’s insights are also an inspiration in how to frame a song within a dramatic context and how to use background music under dialogue. Furthermore, the styles of both composers are suffused with a healthy eclecticism, and, in “Candide,” Bernstein luxuriates in this propensity. The globe-trotting plot allows him to poke fun at national musical forms, a subject that had intrigued him ever since his Harvard University thesis, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.” Thus we have a conglomerate of tango, polka, mazurka, barcarolle, Neapolitan bel canto, Germanic chorale, an extravagant coloratura aria that mocks the French “Jewel Song” from Faust, a Venetian waltz (not to be confused with the Viennese style used for the “Paris Waltz,” which is confusing enough) and a schottische.

“Candide” begins bucolically at the Baron’s castle in Westphalia, where “Life Is Happiness Indeed.” The Baron’s son Maximilian (from Latin, “the greatest,” as so he regards himself), his perhaps chaste sister, Cunégonde (Latin, cunnus, “vulva”) and his bastard cousin Candide (Latin, candidus, “white,” hence a blank slate) are under the tutelage of Dr. Pangloss (from Greek, pan, “all,” and glossa, “tongue”; in other words, a windbag). Without putting too fine a point on it, Bernstein, in setting the word happiness, stresses the last two syllables. In fact, in the score itself there are two broken lines that draw a phallic outline from Candide’s “hap-” to the simultaneous uttering of “-piness” by Cunégonde and the servant girl Paquette (French for “daisy”). Alas, our hero, about to be caught in flagrante delicto with Cunégonde, is banished, and goes forth into the world. His adventures encompass an outrageous journey that finally — like Dorothy in Kansas — brings him back home again. Or, to put it another way, if he had ever lost his virginity, he finds it again.

Transforming all this farrago into music, Bernstein said, “We play hopscotch with periods, jumping around in musical style. … The particular mixture of style and elements that goes into this work makes it perhaps a new kind of show. … There seems to be no really specific precedent for it in our theater, so time will tell.”

Indeed, time has told. The original Columbia cast album established an enormous cult following, particularly on college campuses. In fact, it may well be the only show recording that achieved greater popularity than its original stage production.

A Manhattan-based composer who has written for the concert hall, the theater and the synagogue, Jack Gottlieb is the senior member of the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York. From 1958 to 1966, he served as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. This article is adapted from his 2010 memoir, Working with Bernstein, with permission from Amadeus Press.

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