Friends and Colleagues: Bernstein, Brandeis, and the 1950s

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight’s concert gives voice to a web of interconnections. All five composers on the program knew one another and were, at one time or another, friends. The most active and close period of their engagement took place relatively early in Leonard Bernstein’s meteoric career—between his college days and 1957, the year West Side Story opened. Four of them (Wernick is the exception) studied at Harvard with Walter Piston, three as undergraduates. All five composers were influenced and supported by Aaron Copland and admired the music of Stravinsky. Four of them were born in and around Boston (save Berger, a New York native). And all had strong links to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood. All are American Jews whose careers flourished in the post-World War II era when the influence of anti-Semitism was on the wane. All five were associated with Brandeis University in its early years in the 1950s.

Leonard Bernstein served as a Visiting Professor at Brandeis from 1951 to 1956. Richard Wernick did his undergraduate studies at Brandeis, studying closely with Irving Fine. Fine taught at Brandeis from 1950 until his untimely death in 1962. Berger became the first holder of the Irving Fine Professorship at Brandeis. He and Shapero taught at Brandeis for decades until reaching retirement age. Shapero began in 1951 and Berger in 1953.

Berger was the senior member of this group. He pursued a distinguished career as a theorist and writer, and was a co-founder of the highly influential journal Perspectives of New Music. In terms of age, Fine was next in line. He was born in 1914 and was one of Leonard Bernstein’s closest friends. Bernstein was devastated by Fine’s death, as was Wernick, Fine’s protégé and eminent and devoted student. Many thought Fine the most gifted and promising of this group—the most likely to succeed Copland as the “dean” of American composers.

The most famous of them all, Bernstein, was born in 1918, two years before his close Harvard friend, Shapero. Shapero showed amazing promise early on—in his college years—as a composer. The symphony on tonight’s program was written when he was 27. It is widely considered his best work and one the great American symphonies. Bernstein was an early champion of the work. But Shapero, perhaps distracted by the security and civility of a tenured professorship, seems gradually to have stopped composing.

The four older composers often have been grouped together as exponents of a particularly American approach to musical modernism. The influence of Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, and, more directly, Copland encouraged the idea that new and distinctive “classical” music could actually capture the hearts and minds of the public and not inadvertently imply either a gulf between the classical and the popular or some aesthetic superiority over various forms of popular music. All five of these composers admired Marc Blitzstein. Bernstein was a particular champion. Together with Copland they held fast to an ideal of a culture particularly suited to democracy, art that was accessible to a wide literate audience, with an aesthetic cast in the lineage of Walt Whitman. The book version of Candide for the Bernstein score was written by Lillian Hellman, a writer who was controversial and outspoken, a colorful icon of liberal and progressive politics during the McCarthy era and throughout the 1950s. Fine, Wernick, and Bernstein all composed in explicitly popular genres.

The older four composers have been classified as American neo-classicists, and even as members of a “Harvard” school. More to the point is their shared penchant for transparency, compositional procedures of development, classical genres, a rhythmic vitality, and melodic instinct. If music can suggest words and ideas, this music evokes an optimism and brashness characteristic of America’s post war years—the nuclear war threat, the specter of anti-communist witch hunts, and the racial strife in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education notwithstanding. Wernick belongs to a subsequent generation, but he came of age in the 1950s and his lineage—his connection to Brandeis, his studies with Bernstein, Shapero, Berger, and, most importantly, Fine—place him squarely within this group, even though his music expresses its own independent, individualistic modernism.

Last but not least, all five of the composers on this program devoted a great deal of their time and energy to teaching. Bernstein became this nation’s most inspirational and influential teacher. He used the medium of television, as conductor and inspirational presence, to democratize access to the power and beauty of the classical musical tradition. Berger, Shapero, Fine, and Wernick excelled in the university classroom, and in Wernick’s case on the podium as well. Wernick has had a long and distinguished career with a substantial output of chamber and orchestral music. I was lucky enough to study with Wernick and play under him during his years on the faculty of the University of Chicago.

These five composers represent a parallel in music to the literary achievements of American Jewish writers from the same era—Saul Bellow, Louis Zukofsky, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and E.L. Doctorow, to name a few. Bernstein’s place in the repertory now seems secure. But the music of Fine, Wernick, Shapero, and Berger deserve a proper and permanent place in our nation’s concert repertory.

Leonard Bernstein, Overture to Candide

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died October 14, 1990, in New York City
Composed in 1956
Concert premiere on January 26, 1957 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein
Performance Time: Approximately 4 minutes

Despite its distinguished roster of collaborators, including Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur, among others, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has always posed a conundrum for those seeking to produce it. Candide, based on Voltaire’s picaresque 1759 novella, contains an embarrassment of riches that do not quite coalesce into a show. Hellman, who was an expert at concocting “well made” plays such as The Children’s Hour, was not experienced at writing comedy; Wilbur’s elegant verse is excessively clever at times; and Bernstein’s tuneful, touching, and varied music can often seem overwhelming.

In May of 1956, Bernstein, Hellman, and Wilbur, along with director Tyrone Guthrie, met on Martha’s Vineyard to work on Candide. By August, Bernstein had completed a score that consisted of some two hours of music and over thirty numbers. Candide opened in Boston for three weeks of tryouts, but garnered only modest success: the dress rehearsal ran far too long and the audience grew restive. A critic for Variety warned, “A major hurdle to acceptance is the somewhat esoteric nature of the satire . . . The musical needs severe cutting, especially in the second act.” Boston critics lauded the music, but found the book heavy-handed.

Despite pruning, the New York premiere on December 1, 1956 was far from an unmitigated hit. Walter Kerr, the powerful drama critic of the Herald Tribune, wrote that Candide was a “really spectacular disaster.” Audiences of the time were puzzled by the ways in which Candide flouted the conventions of musical theater, especially its lack of a standard romantic plot. The show ran for only seventy-three performances, but the scintillating original cast recording, conducted by Samuel Krachmalnick, was much praised and became a collector’s item. The overture to Candide, a cleverly designed potpourri of some of the show’s best tunes that Bernstein rescored for full orchestra, quickly became its composer’s most popular orchestral work. It was performed over two hundred times in the first two years after its publication and remains a concert favorite.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Arthur Berger, Ideas of Order

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 15, 1912, in New York City
Died October 7, 2003, in Boston, Massachusetts
Composed in 1952, on commission from Dimitri Mitropoulos
Premiered on April 11, 1953 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mitropoulos
Performance Time: Approximately 11 minutes

Reviewing a concert of Arthur Berger’s music in 1973, New York Times critic Donal Henahan characterized it as a “time capsule report” on the “postwar American academic establishment.” By using the dreaded word “academic,” Henahan did Berger’s music no favors. Indeed, Berger’s accomplishments as a perceptive music theorist, especially his articles about Stravinsky’s music, also served to put him in the dreaded pigeonhole of “intellectual” composer, ignoring the elegance, expressivity, and, indeed, charm of his work. His later reputation as a composer was hardly enhanced by his early jobs as a music critic in the days when a composer shaping public taste by writing for newspapers was not considered a conflict of interest.

Berger studied composition at New York University, the Longy School, and at Harvard, where his composition teacher was Walter Piston. As a composer who was also an insightful theorist, Piston became a model for Berger. Aaron Copland was another admired figure: before matriculating at Harvard, Berger joined the Young Composers Group that Copland had formed in New York. Berger’s love of Stravinsky was deepened by his study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris from 1937 to 1939. Upon returning to America, he taught at Mills College, where he studied informally with Darius Milhaud, and he later became the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University.

By the early 1950s, Berger became intrigued by the challenge of reconciling Stravinskian neoclassicism with Schoenberg’s serial techniques. Berger always remained loyal to Stravinsky, however, calling him “the greatest composer of our time.” Stravinsky’s influence is evident in Berger’s lovely orchestral score Ideas of Order, named after Wallace Stevens’ second book of poetry that was published in 1936. Berger’s score is a subtle theme and variations, and its first performance was well received by critics and audience alike. One commentator enthused that the score “was as simple and charming as a Haydn symphony.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Harold Shapero, Symphony for Classical Orchestra

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born April 29, 1920, in Lynn, Massachusetts
Died May 17, 2013, in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Composed in 1947 in Boston on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation
Premiered on January 30, 1948 in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Performance Time: Approximately 45 minutes

Harold Shapero was a precocious composer who enjoyed enormous success throughout his twenties. He matriculated at Harvard where his principal teacher was Walter Piston. Shapero admired Piston’s music while being somewhat exasperated by his teacher’s dry wit and Yankee reserve. At one point, when Shapero brought his brilliant 9-Minute Overture (1940) to class, Piston looked coolly over the score and remarked, “Well, if it were mine, I’d put two bassoons there.” During the summers of 1940 and 1941, Shapero studied at Tanglewood with Paul Hindemith, whose pedagogical method was to recompose his pupils’ music before their very eyes. Far more important for Shapero’s development than either Piston or Hindemith was Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied at Boston’s Longy School in 1942 and 1943. Boulanger confirmed Shapero’s predilection for the music of Stravinsky while analyzing with him the music of Mozart, Haydn, and, especially, Beethoven.

Shapero’s friendship with Leonard Bernstein was particularly fruitful during this period. Both Bernstein and Shapero loved jazz, and Shapero had first-hand experience with American popular music as an arranger for dance bands. Jazz influences are evident in Shapero’s attractive Trumpet Sonata (1940) as well as his Sonata for piano four hands (1941). Shapero and Bernstein played the first performance of this lively score, which is dedicated to “Bernstein and myself.”  Shapero’s music clearly influenced Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata (1942) as well as his ballet Fancy Free (1944).

The composition of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra marked the climax of Shapero’s early career. To create this score, Shapero drew upon Boulanger’s explications of Beethoven along with his love of Stravinsky and jazz. Shapero’s symphony is certainly among the finest neoclassical works by any American composer: each of the four movements is poised, and expressive. The warm and lyrical second movement, marked Adagietto, is particularly lovely. After its highly successful premiere, even the hypercritical Irving Fine hailed it as “an extraordinary achievement.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Richard Wernick, . . . and a time for peace

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 16, 1934, in Boston
Composed in 1995 in Boston
Premiered on June 18, 1995 by the Orchestra Filarmonica Della Scala conducted by Riccardo Muti with mezzo-soprano Freda Herseth
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

The distinguished American composer Richard Wernick was born in Boston and began piano lessons at the age of eleven. He studied at Brandeis University with Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger. In the summers of 1954 and 1955, he studied composition at Tanglewood with Ernst Toch and Aaron Copland, and studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wernick lived in New York, writing music for stage, film, and television. The importance of his work in these areas cannot be overestimated, as it gave the composer immense practical experience. Wernick then taught at SUNY Buffalo and the University of Chicago before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Among his responsibilities there was conducting the Penn Contemporary Players, an ensemble that he brought to national prominence. Wernick has received many honors, including grants from the Ford Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for his powerful and ecstatic Visions of Terror and Wonder.

Wernick has remained committed to reaching out to listeners. Due in part to his early experience writing for film and television, his approach to composition has always been principled and pragmatic. Wernick once commented to an interviewer, “I’m not writing to an audience which is illiterate and I’m not writing to an audience which is technically educated in music, but I do write for an audience that I assume has experience in listening to music and is willing to at least meet me halfway. So I’ll go halfway to meet them.”

When Riccardo Muti was the music director of Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1980s, Wernick served twice as his advisor for new music. The conductor and the composer formed a strong bond, which led to the commission of a powerful orchestral score entitled “. . . and a time for peace” (“v’yet shalom”). Composed for the 1995 season of the Ravenna Music Festival in Italy, “. . . and a time for peace” is scored for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra, the same forces as Visions of Terror and Wonder.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Irving Fine, Symphony (1962)

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 3, 1914, in Boston
Died August 23, 1962, in Boston
Composed in 1962 in Boston on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Premiered on March 23, 1962 in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch
Performance Time: Approximately 22 minutes

Irving Fine was born, educated, taught, and died in Boston. His childhood was miserable on a Mahlerian scale: his parents were an ill-matched and quarrelsome pair. As musicologist Howard Pollack has noted, there are numerous depictions of parents throughout his work. Some are chilling, some ironic, but few are benign. Unsurprisingly, this led Fine to seek out father figures, including Walter Piston, his teacher at Harvard, and Igor Stravinsky, whom he met in 1939. He found a loyal friend in Aaron Copland, with whom he taught at Tanglewood.

Given the circumstances of his early life, it is unsurprising that Fine cultivated a certain detachment in both his personality and his music. Piston, who combined reserve with rectitude, may have provided a model for Fine in this regard. (Piston resigned from the Harvard Musical Association in 1948 when one of its members blackballed Fine’s nomination because he was Jewish.) Fine became disenchanted with Piston’s music by the late 1950s, however, writing that his erstwhile teacher’s scores “no longer offers us any surprises.”

No such reservations marred his admiration for Stravinsky. This affection was only intensified by Fine’s study with Nadia Boulanger, who was the Russian composer’s most ardent and loyal champion. Indeed, the objectivity of Stravinsky’s neo-classical aesthetic had a profound and lasting influence on Fine’s music. Like Stravinsky, Fine was often drawn to droll subjects: one of Fine’s beloved scores in the repertory today is his witty Three Choruses from Alice in Wonderland for chorus and piano (1942).

Fine began to compose using Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone technique” slightly before Stravinsky began his own exploration of this method in 1951. Fine was never doctrinaire, however, and his serialized music evinces an admirable independence of thought. Fine’s late Symphony (1962) represents the culmination of his style in the directness of the opening movement, the Stravinskian wit of the second, and the unremitting tragedy of the finale. Sadly, Fine died of a massive coronary thrombosis at the age of forty-seven just eleven days after conducting the Symphony at Tanglewood.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Katherine Pracht, mezzo-soprano

Katherine Pracht

Appearing in the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht’s recent and upcoming engagements include her return to Opera Philadelphia as Flora in La Traviata, Meg in Falstaff with Opera on the James, and several concert appearances including Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the York Symphony, her return to Carnegie Hall performing a program of Sir Karl Jenkins’ works with Distinguished Concerts International New York, Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 with The Washington Chorus, composer Bright Sheng’s The Intimacy of Creativity 2017 festival at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and her debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony performing Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs.

During the 2014–15 season, Ms. Pracht was highly involved with Opera Philadelphia’s mission to workshop and perform new American operas, developing the role of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter in workshops of Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and covering the role in its world premiere performance, and also developing the role of Glenda in We Shall not be Moved. She performed the role of Meg in Little Women with Opera on the James and made her role debut as Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry with Florentine Opera. During that season, Ms. Pracht’s concert appearances included Elijah with the Blacksburg Master Chorale; Mozart’s Requiem with the Choral Society of Grace Church, NYC; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Black Pearl Orchestra; and Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky with the Georgia Symphony.

Ms. Pracht has been a Metropolitan Opera Competition Regional finalist in San Antonio, Memphis, and twice in Minneapolis, where, in 2006, she won the Outstanding Mezzo Award.

Fall 2016