Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

Marin Alsop discusses Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which she conducts with the LSO on Saturday 8 & Sunday 9 December 2018. Having worked closely with the composer across her career, Marin draws on her unique insight into Bernstein’s sensibility for music, words and theatre to bring this this semi-staged production to life with director Garnett Bruce. 

Marin Alsop 1 credit Adriane White CopyBernstein often said, ‘Every author spends his entire life writing the same book’. And, of course, the same applies to composers. Probing and exploring those existential questions that haunt each of us was a hallmark of Leonard Bernstein, both as a person and as a composer.

Bernstein was not satisfied unless he was immersed in discussing major issues and upending and questioning the status quo, often with irreverence and insouciance. That was what made him so much fun to be around and imbued his music with such depth and dimension for me – Bernstein’s music stands on its own artistically but this subtext in every piece he composed creates a relevant and intensely compelling narrative that enables us to examine below the surface .

How many people would even consider turning Voltaire’s satirical novel from 1758, Candide, into a musical theatre piece, let alone jump at the opportunity?

When renowned playwright Lillian Hellman approached Bernstein with the concept, they delighted in the idea of drawing a parallel between Voltaire’s satirical portrayal of the Catholic Church’s blatant hypocrisy (in routinely torturing and killing thousands) and the inquisition-like tactics being implemented by the US government under the aegis of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Voltaire’s charges against society in 1758 – puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual – all rang true for Hellman and Bernstein and they set out with a zeal to create a show that would capture the 20th-century Voltaire viewpoint.

Candide may be the most laboured-over Broadway show in history, with tens of incarnations since its inception.

While there is clear brilliance, especially in the musical score, the show fell victim to its own lengthy agenda and its authors’ cleverness. Candide may be the most laboured-over Broadway show in history, with tens of incarnations since its inception.

But there can be no doubt about the musical score, which was conceived by Bernstein as a Valentine card to European music. There are few composers who could construct a score where European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz, mazurka, and polka are interwoven seamlessly with bel canto, Gilbert and Sullivan, grand opera and Bernstein’s own ‘Jewish tango’; and almost none, other than Leonard Bernstein, who could do so with such brilliance and sincerity

It reminds me of an evening I spent with LB where we started out talking about a Schumann symphony and ended up with him playing every Beatles song ever written! Connecting the dots was his genius for me, but the fact that he never lost his capacity to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind was his gift to the world.

After the clever clarity of his overture and the biting sarcasm of the ‘Auto-da-Fé’, to bring us full circle to the unwavering optimism of ‘Make our Garden Grow’ is Bernstein at his best.

Marin Alsop Baltimore 2008 live 2 Grant Leighton

Find out more about the LSO's Candide, being performed on Saturday 8 & Sunday 9 December