Music Appreciation: Slava! by Leonard Bernstein

With the appearance of “Slava!” on our music stands this semester in community band, I decided now was as good a time as any to chat about this fun piece by Leonard Bernstein. For those of you who have followed the blog since the beginning, you might remember my post from a couple of years ago on Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” I’m way past due for talking about another Bernstein piece!

Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich playing cello.

Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich playing cello. Photo by music2020; used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Shostakovich composed “Slava! A Political Overture” to honor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in his first season as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a prominent cellist in addition to a conductor, and he worked with many composers to bring new cello works to the repertoire. This piece for orchestra is titled after Rostropovich’s nickname, “Slava.”

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I’ve played this piece a few times and have listened to it too many times to count. But it’s always been the band version (transcribed by Clare Grundman). I knew it was originally composed for orchestra in honor of Rostropovich, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. I learned some things while researching this post! For one, the concert band version has a different subtitle: “a concert overture.” It turns out that it’s more than just a simple subtitle change. The original version (which is what I’ll dissect later) has a section in the middle that’s cut for the band version. This section is a vamp that accompanies a pre-recorded tape of parodied political speeches. I had no idea this part existed until now. If you’d like to read some more of the background of the piece, head over to the Kennedy Center’s website.

 

Bernstein sure knows how to start with a bang! We start with a rush down through the orchestra that ushers in an accompaniment. The basses aren’t content with their usual “oom” to someone else’s “pah,” so they add in a run of notes every few beats. The lead trombone starts the melody at 0:08, a jaunty tune that slides around a bit. Another brass voice takes over at 0:15, followed by a muted trumpet. The accompaniment punctuates each shift. More voices join the fun at 0:20, continuing the theme through its first half. (Note: Composers are great recyclers. To hear a previous incarnation of this theme, head over to this video around the 4:15 mark to hear “Grand Old Party” from the Broadway flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”). Composers are great recyclers. Click To Tweet

At 0:26, most of the group is in on the action to begin the second half of the theme. It starts out very similar to the first iteration, with different voicing and some other little differences (I love how at 0:31 it sounds like the trombone is laughing). The tune gets passed around some more and we build toward the end of the theme. There’s a great horn line starting at 0:41 that echoes the melody. The final lick (0:44) makes you think it will end on a nice chord, but instead it immediately rushes headlong into a recap of the intro.

However, Bernstein being Bernstein, he doesn’t continue into a repeat of Theme A. He takes through a busy, helter-skelter type of transition to lead us into the next theme.

“Pooks!”

(“Pooks” was the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog. This particular outburst is omitted from the band version)

Now we settle into an active, yet constrained, accompaniment (1:05) compared to what was happening during Theme A. We’ve moved into 7/8 time. There are seven eighth notes per measure, but at this speed, we hear it as a lopsided three beats (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Once the soprano sax solo* begins Theme B (1:11), it’s easier to hear those three larger beats. There’s an undulating accompaniment pattern underneath the soloist. (*Thanks to a keen-eared reader that also heard another instrument playing the theme with the sax. I thought I heard something, but couldn’t quite tell. Based on the instrumentation, I’m wondering if it’s electric guitar. Have any of my reader played this in orchestra to know for sure?)

(Once again, Bernstein pillages material from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” though I think it’s rather evident that this music was worthy of receiving new life. This time the source song was called “Rehearse.” Check out this video around 8 minutes in for the full song, although it’s also part of the overture)

At 1:36, we modulate abruptly and get the accompaniment in a new key. The melody is now in the upper voices; but as usual, the horns steal the show with their echo starting at 1:40. We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). The two lines converge at the end, then the trumpets barge in at 2:03 with a call back to the intro. There’s some back and forth between various instruments, ended by a snare drum hit that comes across as a parental, “Enough!” (2:08). There’s one final burst from the other instruments to finish their thought.We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). Click To Tweet

Immediately we jump back to the intro, but with different and reduced instrumentation that leads us to the vampy, political section (2:10). We hear various snippets of fake political speeches, which are appropriately capped off with a blow from a siren whistle (the instrumentation lists I’ve found show slide whistle, but this recording sure sounds to me like a siren whistle is being used).

The full orchestra comes in joyously with Theme B (2:46), including the horns’ echo, though this time there’s more of a balance between the primary line and the echo. At 3:09, we shift immediately into Theme A, with a vastly different group of instruments than what we heard at the beginning of the piece. More folks join in at 3:20, filling out the sound, and pretty much everyone is in by the time we get to the last bit of the first half of the theme (3:26) and the start of the second half.

Bernstein dials it back a little so that we get the same type of interplay between voices at 3:32 as we did the first time through all of this. But the rest of the group isn’t content to remain on the sidelines, and they join the party again at 3:39. They get to the last phrase of the theme, repeat it, but then give us a third time that’s altered just a bit rhythmically. There’s the briefest moment of silence before everyone brilliantly and enthusiastically gives us a final taste of Theme B (3:51). The tune is altered ever so slightly, but to me it’s just enough to give this last bit some extra oomph and sound rather triumphant. We get one last quick change back to a itty bitty part of the intro (3:57), then a sudden, quiet, sustained chord for a few beats until the musicians shout out, “Slava!”, and then the final, quick notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me for Bernstein’s rousing overture. See you next time!

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Bonus Features: Overture to Candide

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This will be a fun bonus post for me!  I get to share more fantastic music from Candide.  One type of musical theater and opera overtures includes snippets of music from the full songs you’ll hear later in the show.  Bernstein employed this technique in the overture to Candide, although he also adds a theme that, to my knowledge, does not appear again in the show. That theme is the initial rippling string and woodwind melody.

It may be beneficial to read a synopsis of the plot of Candide.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  I have popcorn.

1) Here is “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, from the Chicago production I saw a couple years back.  Can you hear what made it into the overture?  It’s very brief, but it’s there.  This song is at the beginning of the show.  It sets up the optimistic philosophical views of Pangloss the tutor.

2) Next up is the music from the “Battle Scene”.  You won’t hear the familiar part right away, but keep listening.  At 1:23, you’ll hear a theme that does double duty in the show.  Pay attention to that horn melody!

3) After that is “Oh, Happy We”.  This one should be fairly obvious, as Bernstein kept this theme intact and it’s featured prominently in the overture.  Remember the horn melody I told to you pay attention to? That’s the first part of this theme, although that setting sounds much harsher due to it being a battle scene. This song entertains me – the disparity between Candide and Cunegonde’s thoughts of what marriage will be like is just too funny!

4)  This might be my favorite song in the whole show (it’s hard to choose!) – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  Cunegonde has agreed to marry Don Fernando, the governor of Buenos Aires.  Of course, this is after she’s been violated by two other men earlier in the show, who then were slain by Candide.  So Cunegonde decides to marry this other dude, and is trying to reconcile her actions with how she had been raised.  Which leads to my favorite line of the song: “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!”  Listen for the laughter I hinted at in my previous post.

I’m giving you two versions for this song.  First up is by Kristin Chenoweth.  I feel she really embodies the essence of Cunegonde in this performance – remember Cunegonde’s lyrics during “Oh, Happy We”?  If you like this performance, there’s a DVD available of the entire show.

I’m so glad I stumbled upon this next one, and I would love to see the visuals of this performance.  Alas, all we get it audio, but I’m sure it will still entertain.  So how many of you knew that Madeline Kahn could sing?  I also wanted to add this one as her cause of death, ovarian cancer, is very personal to me, having lost both my mother and grandmother to it.  So here’s to all those wonderful ladies!

Before I close, I wanted to share this cool chart I found as I was researching this post.  It provides a nice visual of the themes of the overture and where they appear.  My only quibble is that the Fanfare is also part of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”.

Here’s one more piece from Candide, even though its melody is not present in the overture.  But it’s such a gorgeous piece that I had to include it.  Besides, it’s the last song of the show so it seemed fitting to put it here.  Enjoy “Make Our Garden Grow”:

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Music Appreciation: Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein

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Candide

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in the Huntington Theatre Company’s CANDIDE. Directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman (2011). Photo by T. Charles Erickson. (CC BY 2.0)

I couldn’t wait too long before talking about the Overture to Candide.  Leonard Bernstein is probably known best for his music for the musical West Side Story (which is awesome as well), but I can’t get enough of one of his other musicals: Candide.  The show is based on the book of the same name, a satirical work from 1759 written by Voltaire.  The musical version has a long and complicated history, beginning with the first production from the 1950s.  The link in the previous sentence has a good summary of the ups and downs of the show, and does a much better job describing it than I would.  I had the good fortune to see Candide on stage in Chicago a few years ago.  There were even more changes, but I enjoyed the production immensely and am glad I finally got to see it.

I love this piece so much I had the opening and closing bits as my Windows startup/shutdown music for years.  Until Windows 7 took away the option to customize that *grumblegrumble*  Maybe I should use it as a ringtone instead…

I love that this video was on YouTube, because I think it’s great to see Lenny himself conducting the piece.

Bernstein immediately grabs your attention with a huge timpani hit and a brass fanfare.  Then away we go with a fast, rippling melody in the strings over a slightly shifted oom-pah support (the strong bass beats are actually on count 4 instead of the naturally dominant 1).  The melody finishes and the fanfare repeats itself.  While the melody starts off the same for the second time, it veers into raucous new territory at 0:28.  Well, not really new.  Go back to 0:15 and listen to the trombones (the camera even focuses on them).  Sound familiar?  Nice foreshadowing by the bones there.

(Cute dance at 0:28, Mr. Bernstein!)

This new theme is presented in full force with a emphatic echo by the low voices.  The second time through, however, is a little lighter, using trumpet, xylophone, possibly some upper woodwinds.  The strings have a pizzicato accompaniment on the offbeats instead of the heavier trumpet/trombone offbeats from the first time around.

Next we have a dialogue between the forceful brass, basses and percussion and the chirpy winds and strings.  I don’t know exactly why, but I love playing that loud bass part (0:40).  For some reason, I find that part quite satisfying on my bass clarinet (at least in the band arrangement; I’ve never played the orchestral part).  Maybe it’s because I get to pretend I’m a timpani.

Bernstein takes us through a development section, manipulating the original fast melody and giving it to various soloists – flute, clarinet, and bassoon.  After a few neat blips from a clarinet, the piccolo grabs the melody, then takes it on a path down through the winds into the “slow” section.  I love that descending line, how it passes between piccolo and clarinet with some pizzicato strings for accents.

The “slow” section (1:22) is reminiscent of Festive Overture (aha – another overture!) in that the underlying tempo of the piece does not change.  The note values are longer, which give it the effect of feeling slower.  Try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with each syllable getting one beat.  Now keep that beat going, but have each syllable last for two beats.  Hear how that changes the mood of the melody?

Anyway, back to the piece.  This is another one of those gorgeous melodies that gives me goosebumps.  The first time through, the melody is so lush coming from the violas.  Violas don’t always get a lot of love – they’re not the flashy violins, nor the big, cool basses.  But Bernstein gives them a chance to shine here.  The upper strings join in on the second time through, and this time you can hear a neat countermelody joining in (1:34).  I get jealous of the folks who get to play it!  At 1:46 we get into the B section of this theme, mostly the same rhythm as before but a different melodic line.

From there we have a bit of an interjection by the woodwinds that brings us back to the A section of the theme.  Now the horns get that beautiful countermelody (along with the piccolo, but honestly, I’m all about the horns at that point).  After drinking in that rich sound, Bernstein wakes us up with an abrupt return to the fanfare from the beginning of the piece.

This time, though, we hear the theme in a quieter manner, with a flute solo on the melody (2:21), joined by some wicked sawing by the first violin at 2:28.  Bernstein reprises his dance moves at 2:33.

We return to the forceful brass/chirpy strings theme at 2:38.  We don’t stay here long, though, and move back into the slow theme.  But notice how he takes the chirps in the strings and carries them over the slow melody (a duet between oboe and horn).  I love the descending line in the chirps at 3:01.

And the horns return in all their glory at 3:05.

At 3:18 we start to transition into the final section of the piece.  We have more dialogue between winds and strings, with a quick pause before diving into completely new territory. The bassoon gets a quick oom-pah going, with a fun little melody in the flute.  Does it sound like laughing to you?  It should.  Stay tuned for the bonus features for this piece and you’ll get to hear the full effect of the laughing theme.  But until then, listen to how the theme gets echoed in the strings (3:32), then in the horns (3:38).  It builds for a bit before charging off in yet another direction, this time with the trumpets playing a new melody (3:34).

I love how Bernstein gets this to all work out at 3:34, as he has the melody and accompaniment at odds with each other.  It’s kind of hard to explain without resorting to drawing, but the melody is in a fast two with an odd measure of 3 thrown in, while the accompaniment is in a faster 3 throughout.  It’s one of those parts where you have to trust yourself and not listen too much to what others are doing.  Usually, I feel a musician needs to listen to everyone else in the group just as much as she listens to herself, but there are certain times when you really have to focus on your line only and watch the conductor for “beat landmarks”.  (Tangent: I played the piece Tempered Steel in community band, and I was the only one in this one part of the music who had a rhythm that was continually at odds with everyone else. I had to be aware of the rest of the group, but I couldn’t focus my ears on them too much or else I would start playing with them instead of against them).

So the trumpet melody gets repeated and grows in intensity until 4:03, where we hear the fanfare again. But this time it doesn’t stick around for long before we hear modulations of the original fast theme.  Those don’t last for long, either, and we’re back to the trumpet theme one more time.  The horns really show off at 4:21 with their bold statement of the slow theme, punctuated by the timpani.  We get one last flourish from the winds and strings, a soft, short chord, then a final boom!

Stay tuned for the bonus features post – I have some fun things to share!

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