Time to Make Our Garden Grow


Watering flowersIn this part of the world, it might finally be safe to get our gardens growing.  The winter of 2014 brought a record amount of snow, and I’m glad it’s all gone.  The last frost has passed, the grass is growing, and flowers can go in the flower beds.  Vegetable gardens can be planted and I can start looking forward to fresh tomatoes that actually taste like a tomato.

I will get back to the garden theme in a few minutes.  Leonard Bernstein was one of the most talented and versatile musicians that America ever produced.  He was a fine pianist, one of the world’s greatest conductors, and a top rate composer.  One of his most often performed pieces for orchestra is the Overture to Candide.  Candide is a novella by the philosopher Voltaire that was published in 1759.  It is a satire with a sarcastic tone, and one of the most influential writings from the “Age of Enlightenment”.  You can read the whole book in translation online here.

Candide, a novella by Voltaire

Bernstein wrote the music for an operetta Candide based on Voltaire’s novella.  It was first performed in 1956, but was revised by Lenny over the years with a “Final Revised Version” appearing in 1989.  If you have two and a half hours on your hands, you can watch a concert performance of the complete operetta with Leonard Bernstein conducting here.

Candide, operetta with music by Bernstein

The Overture to Candide has entered the repertoire of the symphony orchestra and is frequently performed.  It is a true overture to a theater work, where you are introduced to some of the melodies from the operetta.  In a simplistic sense, this kind overture is like a greatest hits medley played before the show.  Melodies from songs such as “Glitter and Be Gay”, “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Oh, Happy We” are included in the overture.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein was music director for the New York Philharmonic for many years, and they have a special tradition when they play the Overture to Candide.  After he died in 1990, the New York Philharmonic played the work at a memorial concert without a conductor.  It’s a powerful tribute that they repeat to this day, always performing this piece with an empty conductor’s podium.  This is no small musical feat, considering the changing tempos and meters contained in the Overture.

Here is a performance with Bernstein conducting in 1989.

Overture to Candide

One of the most moving parts of the operetta is actually the finale entitled “Make Our Garden Grow”.  (See I told you I would come back around to the gardening thing.)  It would obviously be a difficult aesthetic feat to have included the finale music of a work in the beginning overture, so this is not one of the tunes Lenny included in the Overture to Candide.  There are many trite references I could make to the music in this number “growing” and “blossoming” as it builds to the big finish, but I want to think I’m better than that.  I’m probably not, but I want to think so.

Here is a great performance of the closing of Candide.

Make Our Garden Grow

Happy Gardening!


Crimea River

Dmitri Shostakovich is a Russian composer whose musical career is entangled with the history of Soviet Russia.  He lived from 1906 to 1975, and in his lifetime saw the Bolshevik revolution overthrow tsarist rule, the Russian civil war, and the totalitarian Soviet State.  He saw the regimes of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.  Living in Russia under Stalin was a life of continual fear, for yourself, your friends and your family.



The early career of Shostakovich had great success as a pianist and a composer.   He had a Mozart-like ability to compose very quickly. He could compose entire pieces in his head, and would only have to write out the final draft on paper.  His memory was the stuff of legend, and he reportedly could play the entire 16 hours of the Wagner Ring cycle of operas from memory.  He could play almost anything he had heard at the piano.  One of his own operas, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was initially one of his great successes when it was premiered in 1934.  At least until Stalin attended a performance two years later.

Stalin saw the opera in 1936, or at least until the part where he and the Politburo in attendance walked out.  Stalin disliked the sexual content of some of the opera as well as the dissonant character of the music.  Shortly after Stalin attended the opera, a negative editorial appeared in the Communist newspaper Pravda, entitled “Muddle instead of Music”.  If this wasn’t written by Stalin himself, it certainly was published with his approval.  A translation of the article can be read here.  http://www.arnoldschalks.nl/tlte1sub1.html

Stalin signing death warrants

Stalin signing death warrants

The threat embodied in the review, “This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly”, is particularly chilling in the atmosphere of one of Stalin’s Great Purges.  Millions of people died during Stalin’s regime at the hands of a firing squad or in the forced labor of the Gulags.  (Millions more died in famines due to disastrous government farm policies.)  There was no due process or fair representation.  People were just scooped up in the middle of the night and never heard from again.  Dissenters in the Communist Party, leaders in the military, and any perceived competition for Stalin were all victims of the Great Purge.  Writers, artists, intelligentsia and musicians were also targets if their work fostered anything the Party (Stalin) thought could be a dissenting view.  People lived in fear.  Shostakovich saw friends and colleagues disappear forever.  For a time he started sleeping in the stairwell outside his apartment so that his family would not be disturbed if the secret police came to take him in the night.  Dmitri kept a small bag packed for the rest of his adult life, wherever he lived, in case he was ever taken and arrested.

As a result of his official denuncification, Shostakovich ended up withdrawing his Fourth Symphony before it was performed.  It was never heard until after Stalin’s death.  Shostakovich survived by saying what was expected of him in public, and keeping more dangerous thoughts private.  His Fifth symphony helped rehabilitate his image to the Party, and in so doing literally saved his life.  He publicly called it “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”. He submitted the work to the Party officials, and represented it as a work about the struggle and heroism of the Soviet People.  As the officials were not terribly musically sophisticated, they believed what Shostakovich told them and approved the work.  Dmitri once said this (about meaning in his music), “Those who have ears will hear”.  The audience at the premiere heard a different message in the work.

For an audience of people who had suffered under Stalin, and had lost family and friends to the Purge, the work was full of overwhelming emotion.  People at the first performance openly wept during the slow movement.  It was an apt expression of their inconsolable grief.  Although the finale ends on a supposedly triumphant note, there is a great deal of irony in the music at the end.  It is rejoiceful, but it is a forced rejoicing.  It is a satire of a Stalinist victory hymn.  Shostakovich is quoted in Testimony, his private memoirs:

The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”

Here is a performance of the work with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, opus 47

Here is an episode of Keeping Score from PBS about the work.


In any event, the work rehabilitated Shostakovich in the eyes of the Party.  The Russian people continued to suffer, in World War II and afterwards in a second Stalinist Purge.  Dmitri experienced another falling out with the government powers, and another rehabilitation.  He survived, but lived in fear and dread his whole adult life.

Any resemblance in the above descriptions to current political events in the Ukraine is almost accidental.

Igor’s Asymmetry Racket

The last post was about the scandalous uproar at the ballet premiere of The Rite of Spring.  The riot at opening night of The Rite is one of the most famous stories in music.  On February 18, 1914 the music was played in its first concert performance (music only, no dance).  This orchestra premiere (nine months after the ballet) was well received and got wonderful reviews from the beginning.


The Rite of Spring is one of those unavoidable pieces of music for any musician living in the last hundred years.  Love it or hate it, one has to somehow come to terms with it.  The Rite of Spring has a subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.The structure of the piece is in two halves, with each half containing several scenes.  The first half is titled  “The Adoration of the Earth” and the second “The Sacrifice”.  The “storyline” is loosely about bronze-age rituals in pagan Russia. The second half concludes with a virgin (The Chosen One) dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to bring the tribe prosperity.  This is all not terribly accurate, historically speaking.  Joseph Kerman called it “dubious anthropology, but great theater”.  I would agree.

The earthy rhythms of the music are supposed to bring an element of “primitivism” to the tribal scenes. Stravinsky layers his musical material one on top of another.  He takes one bit of music with uneven rhythms and accents, then adds a layer of new material of a different length onto it. By adding more layers and repeating material of different lengths, the musical elements are always combining in different ways.  They don’t line up the same way every time. The resulting cacophony was lovingly termed “Igor’s asymmetry racket” by composer Harold Shapero. One of the best demonstrations of Stravinsky’s technique of combining music into polyrhythms is in a lecture by Leonard Bernstein.  Lenny gave this talk in 1973 at Harvard as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lecture series.  Below is a link to a 10 minute excerpt from that lecture series.

Leonard Bernstein speaking about The Rite of Spring

The video is an orchestra performance by the New England Conservatory . (Email readers click here)

Michael Tilson Thomas also did an hour long episode of the PBS program “Keeping Score” all about The Rite of Spring.  It is well worth the time to watch.

Keeping Score – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring