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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