POP: American Masters
Leonard Bernstein always said he wanted to write “the Great American Opera.” He probably came closest with Candide (1956), which he labeled “a comic operetta.” Based on Voltaire’s satirical novel of 1759, it chronicles the misadventures of Candide, a naive, pure-hearted youth, and his much more tough-minded sweetheart, Cungégonde.
Opening on Broadway on December 1, 1956, Candide was perhaps a bit too intellectually weighty for its first audiences and closed after just 73 performances. Bernstein was less concerned over the money lost than the failure of a work he cared about deeply. The critics had extolled its marvelous score, and Bernstein and others kept tinkering with the show over the years. With each revival, Candide won bigger audiences. In 1989, the already seriously ill Bernstein spent his last ounce of vital energy recording a new concert version of the work. “There’s more of me in that piece than anything else I’ve done,” he said.
From the very beginning, though, the Overture was a hit and swiftly became one of the most popular of all concert curtain- raisers. Brilliantly written and scored, flying at breakneck speed, it pumps up the adrenaline of players and listeners alike. It features two of the show’s big tunes: the sweeping, romantic one is Candide’s and Cunégonde’s love duet “Oh, Happy We,” while the wacky, up-tempo music is from Cunégonde’s fabulous send-up of coloratura-soprano arias, “Glitter and Be Gay.”
Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned in January of 1924 by Paul Whiteman, the best-known American bandleader at the time, for his concert titled, ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, with the goal of alerting the public audience to the importance and influence of jazz music. It was premiered on February 12, 1924 at the Aeolian Theater in New York with Gershwin as the soloist and was orchestrated by Ferde Gorfé, Whiteman’s personal arranger.
George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue at the young age of 25, as a way to present himself as a more serious composer. Labeled as a “jazz concerto”, it is scored for solo piano and jazz ensemble and exhibits characteristics of popular song forms while highlighting elements of jazz and blues within its free-form outline.
The title itself was thought up by Ira Gershwin who was inspired by the abstract names of James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s paintings such as Arrangement in Gray and Black. This curious title piqued the interest of the Gershwin brothers and they then created a musically equivalent title with the word “blue” suggesting “the Blues” and in addition, jazz.
The premiere of this piece hit the public audience by storm which led to Ferde Grofé eventually reworking the orchestration to fit the more commonly seen arrangement today with piano solo and symphony orchestra.
With the threat of impending war, Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, with its look back at an America of homespun values, was tremendously appealing. Copland accepted the invitation to compose the musical score for the screen version of life in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. He explained, "For the film version, they were counting on the music to translate the transcendental aspects of the story. I tried for clean and clear sounds and in general used straight-forward harmonies and rhythms that would project the serenity and sense of security of the story." Copland arranged about ten minutes from the film score for a suite. It is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.
Though he was a fairly prolific composer and a gifted arranger with a long career, Ferde Grofé’s present-day fame rests almost entirely on his orchestrations of George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue (especially the original jazz-band version and a later one for full symphony orchestra) and on his own 1931 Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé was the arranger for conductor Paul Whiteman, who led the premieres of both Rhapsody in Blue and the Grand Canyon Suite with “His Orchestra.” The Suite, like the orchestral works of Gershwin, has long been popular with audiences at both classical and pops concerts, and in earlier decades it was recorded not only by “pops” conductors like Arthur Fiedler but by Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Antal Dorati. Today it shows up on classical programs much less often than, say, An American in Paris, but it remains a landmark in American music for its vivid scene-painting, memorable tunes, and brilliant display of orchestral colors.
There are five separate movements:
“Sunrise.” Few natural phenomena have been pictured in music more frequently—and memorably—than dawn. A music lover’s list might merely begin with Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, Debussy’s La Mer and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome. Grofé’s dawn, quite memorable in its own right, starts out simply with a timpani roll, a quiet sustained chord for the strings, and ascending scales for the clarinets. The piccolo offers the beginning of a musical theme that soon turns into birdcall. Other instruments echo the piccolo’s opening notes while the flute tries a new melody, followed by the English horn’s fuller melodic extension of the piccolo phrase. More and more instruments join in, with the violins and violas eventually offering a counter-melody that seems to grow out of all that has been heard before. Since this is not just any sunrise but the spectacle of intensifying light revealing one of the world’s most stunning landscapes, the music becomes grand indeed, as the full orchestra joins in and the tempo increases like an overexcited pulse.
“The Painted Desert.” Serving as a kind of slow movement to the symphonic Suite, this section portrays an early-morning desert scene, presumably shimmering in intense heat. Unresolved chords and a hypnotic harp figure set the scene, while bass clarinet and violas offer an erratic musical theme. At the climax of the movement the violins offer a warmer, lovelier version of the theme, but the music subsides into the eerie quiet with which it began, with English horn and bass clarinet in high register trailing off.
“On the Trail.” The scherzo of the Suite, this movement is by far the most famous, both for its lumbering yet bouncy theme that suggests a train of burros descending into the canyon and for its “cowboy song” (so named in the anonymous notes prefacing the printed score), first played in full by two horns. The music was heard in 1933 on Grofé’s own radio show, sponsored by Philip Morris, and for many years after used in the latter’s cigarette commercials.
This movement opens with the orchestra giving a gigantic “heehaw,” echoed by a solo violin, which goes on, surprisingly but delightfully, to play an extended cadenza with a preview of the themes to come. The oboe introduces the burros’ cantering theme. Evidently these animals bolt rather than remaining stubbornly in place, since on several occasions the music speeds up rapidly before slowing to a halt, with the bass clarinet playing the role of the unmanageable beast. Eventually, with the canter replaced by a grander, dreamier orchestral background (perhaps we are near the surging Colorado River) the trombones take over the cowboy song. An unexpected interlude follows: a cadenza for celesta. (The score’s program notes mention reaching a ‘”lone cabin” which happens to have a music box that plays while the travelers stop “for refreshment.”) At the end of the movement the burros must be approaching their stable, because the cantering theme becomes a very rapid gallop before a final few heehaws.
“Sunset.” Surely there are far fewer musical sunsets in the orchestral repertoire than sunrises. One that Grofé may have recalled is the finale of The Fountains of Rome (1917), which has a few similar harmonies as well as the hint of church bells. “Sunset” opens with horn fanfares and their echoes on muted horns, with some recollection of the “dawn” theme (just as twilight shares a similar dimness of light). A murmuring figure for woodwinds and celesta sets the background for the movement’s main melody, a sweetly harmonized theme for violins and violas, with a mostly descending note pattern.
“Cloudburst.” Storms in music may be even more numerous than dawns (one could compile quite a list from operas alone, from Rossini to Wagner, Britten and beyond). Grofe’s contribution is, like his dawn, spread across an epic canvas. He begins the movement surprisingly with a reprise of the cowboy song from “On the Trail,” now played tenderly by strings alone. The English horn brings back the strings’ big dawn melody from the first movement, while the strings offer a striking new theme, a passionate one with each upward leap followed by a gradual descent. After a clarinet takes up the English horn’s own dawn melody, the new theme is repeated with full orchestra.
Soon the orchestra becomes hushed, with only a solo cello wavering between two notes and a gong shimmering in the background. In the truly spectacular storm that follows, Grofé uses his expertise in orchestral colors to create dazzling effects of rising wind and lightning flashes followed by distant rolls of thunder, building up to a terrific onslaught. At one point the storm seems to die away, then rushes back as the Suite reaches its ultimate climax: now the passionate theme from earlier in the movement is played in tandem with a heroic restatement of the cowboy theme. One final outburst of the storm music is overridden by one last triumphant assertion of the cowboy theme.