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.