Leonard Bernstein: Candide Overture
Mahler: Symphony No.1
June 2020 at 7:30 pm
Program Note: NJPO Season Finale
Leonard Bernstein: Candide Overture
Candide is an operetta with music composed by Leonard Bernstein, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire. The operetta was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, but since 1974 it has been generally performed with a book by Hugh Wheeler which is more faithful to Voltaire’s novel. The primary lyricist was the poet Richard Wilbur. Other contributors to the text were John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, John Wells, and Bernstein himself. Maurice Peress and Hershy Kay contributed orchestrations. Although unsuccessful at its premiere, Candide has now overcome the unenthusiastic reaction of early audiences and critics and achieved enormous popularity. It is very popular among major music schools as a student show because of the quality of its music and the opportunities it offers to student singers.
Mahler: Symphony No.1
The Austrian composer’s first symphony meshed the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem with the architectural cohesion of earlier models. His crazily ambitious project changed the genre forever.
It’s one of the most spellbinding moments of symphonic inspiration in the 19th century: the opening of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. It’s not a theme, an idea, a melody, or a rhythm, but a state of being: a seven-octave-spread A, played as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra. It’s the symphony as space as much as time, and whatever its familiarity to us 21st century sophisticates, when we hear this music, we should try and recreate some of the sense of wonder that audiences at the piece’s premiere in Budapest in 1889 must have felt, when Mahler – not yet 30 – conducted the symphony.
That’s only the first of the stunning symphonic shocks of the new in this symphony. And while it’s possible to trace an ancestry of this ultra-spacious opening through the inchoate rustlings that start many of Bruckner’s symphonies, which Mahler knew well (he had transcribed Bruckner’s 3rd for two pianos as a teenager), back to the primeval beginnings of Beethoven’s 9th, the stasis and quietness of Mahler’s 1st take those models into another dimension. You can’t possibly know it at this stage of the piece, but this is going to also be the most earthy symphony yet written, with a slow movement that incorporates street bands, klezmer inflections, and the tune known as “Frere Jacques”, and whose final movement will rail against the cosmos with symphonic music’s most terrifying expressionist outburst, and which, at the end of its drama, will find a sheer musical joy that’s both a transcendence of the bodily and the spiritual, in the most uninhibited, tumultuous noise the orchestra had yet made.
Back in 1889, the piece had five movements instead of the four you hear in concert halls today, and it also had a narrative of sorts, implicit in the title – Titan – Mahler gave his piece. He wrote out some of the meanings of his “Titan: a Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony” at a later performance in 1893: the first movement represents “the waking of Nature after a long winter”; there originally followed the movement – “Blumine” – that he subsequently withdrew from the symphony; the Scherzo meanwhile was “The wind in my sails”. Mahler says that the slow movement, with its opening double-bass solo (probably, although not definitively, the whole double-bass section rather than a single player) with the Frere Jacques tune, is a satiric cartoon of “The Hunter’s Funeral” turned into musical life, a vision of a hunter’s coffin drawn by animals; the finale he calls “Dall’Inferno” – From Hell, “the sudden explosion of despair coming from a deeply wounded heart”.
By 1896, however, Mahler was calling the piece merely “Symphony in D Major”. The change of thinking is typical for Mahler, who rejected most of the programmes he devised for his other early symphonies. But it’s not because the “so-called Titan” no longer suggested all of those programmatic images, but rather that Mahler didn’t want to limit the music’s range of possible meanings, which are wilder, more cosmic, and more profound than any single programmatic formulation could suggest.
It’s also because, as Mahler must have realised, this piece contains and represents the world of nature, a world of human satire, of personal emotional trauma, turned into universal experience, but it achieves all of that through the nuts and bolts of the precision of its notes (even if they were notes that Mahler was tinkering with all his life; even after the last time he performed this symphony, in New York in 1909, Mahler was making changes to the orchestration).
Composer George Benjamin told me about his favorite note in the symphony – the tuba’s low F in the first movement – but there are plenty of others! There’s the way the symphony’s final victory is prefigured in the music you hear in the fast section of the first movement, the achingly moving slow music at the centre of the finale that balances the terrifying cry into the abyss the movement opens with, the way Mahler paces the final climax, storming the orchestral heavens with an apotheosis of D major.
Mahler’s First laid down the gauntlet for a new kind of symphony that would fuse the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem with the architectural cohesion of earlier models. And more: in meshing them together, and by incorporating everything from the sounds of the world around him, in nature and on the street, to his latest poetic and philosophical obsessions, Mahler wanted his symphonic journey to encompass the whole world. It’s the most crazily ambitious symphonic project in the genre’s history – and it starts here.