Overture to “Candide”

Composer: Leonard Bernstein

Transcribed: Clare Grundman

Composition Notes

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin spearheaded a campaign against communists in the United States during the period 1950–56. Aggressive questioning of suspects by groups such as the House Un-American Activities Committee and investigation of government employees, entertainment industry personalities (the Hollywood blacklist), educators and union activists often resulted in loss of employment, destruction of careers and sometimes imprisonment. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was heavily involved in these activities. Most of these actions were later overturned as unconstitutional and blatantly illegal. This “witch-hunt” was so prominent in our culture that a new term, “McCarthyism”, came into existence to describe accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

Famed playwright Lillian Hellman, herself blacklisted, was outraged by these violations and agreed to write a musical version of Voltaire’s Candide with Leonard Bernstein, also blacklisted for a short time, in reaction to her persecution. Hellman wanted the work to be a play with incidental music but Bernstein convinced her to do it as a comic opera. He was convinced this would become “The Great American Opera.” The work opened on Broadway in 1956 but closed after only 73 performances because its language was overly intellectual for audiences and Bernstein’s music was too operatic. The overture, however, was conducted by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in January 1957 and became an instant hit on the concert stage. The overture continued to flourish over many years while numerous attempts to bring an acceptable Candide to the public had increasingly better results. The last contact Bernstein had with a newer version of Candide was in 1989. Even though he was seriously ill and would die the following year, he spent what energy he had recording a new concert version. He once wrote: “There’s more of me in that piece than anything else I’ve done.”

The Overture to Candide became a signature piece for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, which played the overture at his memorial service in 1990 without a conductor, a practice that is still continued. Up to now they have played it at least 19 times without a conductor. They included the piece as an encore at their historic concert in North Korea on Feb. 26, 2008. Bernstein would have loved the irony of the situation since the most memorable line of Candide comes from an idea first stated by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and rephrased by Candide: “In this best of all possible worlds, everything is for the best.”

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