By Robert Simon and Jane Rausch
“Who could ask for anything more?” – the last line of George Gershwin’s 1930 hit song “I Got Rhythm” – sets the tone for this afternoon’s concert which features compositions from three distinguished 20th-century American composers: Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), Ferde Grofé (1892-1972) and George Gershwin (1898-1937).
In 1953, mid-way in his multi-faceted career, Leonard Bernstein had already composed the music for two Broadway hits: On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953) when he was asked by his friend, the award-winning playwright Lillian Hellman, to consider adapting Voltaire’s Candide for the musical theater. Voltaire (1694-1778), one of the greatest 18th-century European authors, was in his best satirical mode when he wrote that novella in 1758. In the show, we follow the picaresque adventures of Candide, the quintessential innocent, his not-quite-so-innocent ladylove Cunegonde, and their foolish but beloved mentor, Dr. Pangloss. The latter’s unshakable belief that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” unwittingly leads each to witness or suffer all varieties of scams, calamities, and near-death experiences around the globe. Candide ultimately rejects Pangloss’ belief and embraces a practical philosophy: the secret to happiness is to avoid excessive idealism and simply to “make one’s garden grow.” This he proceeds to do, with Cunegonde at his side.
By way of background, in the early 1950s our country was in the midst of bitter controversy over the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the militant anti-Communist “crusade” instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hellman and other liberal thinkers saw “sinister parallels” between what was then going on in Washington and the infamous Inquisition trials a few centuries earlier. The latter energized Voltaire’s satirical humor which, in turn, colored Hellman’s adaptation of his novella. For the lyrics, Hellman engaged the talented poet Richard Wilbur with a few assists from Bernstein, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker.
The production opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956 and flopped. Some reviewers considered the book too cerebral and heavy-handed, and Bernstein’s music too sophisticated. Happily, the show didn’t die then and there. A very successful original cast recording was produced and Bernstein’s music grew steadily in popularity. Since then, Candide has been successfully remounted many times here and abroad with numerous revisions, many aimed at softening Hellman’s polemic thrust. The show’s sparkling overture is now one of the most frequently performed staples of the orchestral repertoire. Based on music from the show, it is written in a skillfully compact, modified sonata form. The overture’s pace is engagingly frenetic, and full of contrasting textures and exciting rhythmic shifts.
Ferde Grofé (né Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé) was born in 1892 on Manhattan’s East Side. He received most of his musical training, starting at age five, from his mother, a professional cellist, and his uncle, who was concertmaster of the Los Angeles Symphony. His father’s early death, followed by the arrival of an unsympathetic stepfather, resulted in his leaving home and wandering the country for three years doing all sorts of odd jobs. All the same, he developed into a very versatile and competent musician. He was a violist for ten years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and played piano and violin with theater and dance orchestras.
By 1919 Grofé was engaged as pianist-arranger by Paul Whiteman, the leader of one of the most successful dance orchestras of the day. With some further study, and under Whiteman’s influence, he innovated what became known as the “big band sound” in American popular music. Grofé later parted amicably with Whiteman and embarked on a series of original works where the popular idiom was treated symphonically. Some aspect of “Americana” almost always provided the subject matter. The most successful of these was the Grand Canyon Suite, a group of five very atmospheric tone pictures. Whiteman had commissioned the work in 1931 for his 20-piece band, and Grofé later rearranged it for full orchestra. It appealed strongly to a broad range of music lovers, including Toscanini, who also conducted it. From the 1930s through most of the 1950s the third movement of the suite, “On the Trail,” with its simulated clip-clop of horses’ hooves and braying of a pack donkey, was the theme music for a very popular one-hour variety program on radio – and later on television – sponsored by Phillip Morris cigarettes.
George Gershwin was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1898, the second of four children of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in a warm, close-knit family. As a kid he was an indifferent student, an irrepressible bundle of energy, and evinced only limited interest in music. When he was 12, however, his parents bought an upright piano intended for his older brother, Ira. George’s innate musical talent quickly became apparent, and he effectively took over the instrument from Ira, who didn’t really mind. (Ira later became a top-flight lyricist, and his brother’s closest collaborator.) George made rapid and remarkable progress with a series of local teachers. By age 14 he found an important mentor with Charles Hambitzer, who, recognizing he had a jazz-oriented prodigy on his hands, worked to broaden his pupil’s musical horizons by taking him to concerts and operas, and firming his foundation with piano classics. Hambitzer also brought in a prominent teacher, Edward Kilenyi, to give George lessons in theory. Accommodating George’s interests, both urged him to try adapting jazz, which he so instinctively loved, within classical forms. This provided an important backdrop to his later career.
Determined to gain practical experience with popular music, he left high school at 15 to become a song plugger at $15 per week for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher. The job’s long hours of singing and playing the firm’s songs for many performers helped turn him into a highly skilled vocal accompanist as well as an outstanding pianist with a powerful, fluid technique, and a rich harmonic and rhythmic palette. Within two years he was writing popular songs. His song “Swanee” (1919) was a smash hit that led to a recording in 1920 by Al Jolson, the “Frank Sinatra” of the day. From the sheet music and the several hundred thousand recordings of the song sold that first year alone, George’s royalties exceeded $10,000, a very tidy sum indeed back then. His career had really started taking off, and the momentum was sustained right up to the time of his tragic death from a brain tumor at age 38 in 1937. If anything, his popularity has increased in the years since, both here and around the world.
Unlike most of his Tin Pan Alley contemporaries, George frequently took time from his very busy commercial schedule for serious music study with a succession of prominent teachers and composers. One result of these efforts was Three Preludes, three short piano pieces which he wrote in 1926. Each prelude is an example of early 20th-century American classical music as influenced by jazz, and Gershwin described Prelude No. 2 as “a sort of blues lullaby.” Written in C-sharp minor, it begins with a subdued melody winding its way above a smooth, steady bass line. In the second section, the key, tempo, and thematic material all change, but the opening melody and bass return in the final section.
At this point George was rapidly expanding his circle in the performing arts and high society. Frequently invited to parties and host to many at his own place, he quickly became a favorite because he was happy to sit at the piano, sometimes for hours, and dazzle his listeners with exciting renditions of popular favorites – his own, or by others – as well as with his remarkable powers of improvisation. Among his many admirers was the dance band leader Paul Whiteman who had an extensive classical background before embracing jazz. In late 1923, when planning a major concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music,” he asked George to compose a jazz work for piano and orchestra. George had never attempted to write such a piece and knew very little then about orchestration. Moreover, he was very busy at that time with the Boston try-out of his latest Broadway-bound musical, Sweet Little Devil. He therefore gave Whiteman an “I’ll-think-about-it” reply, intending ultimately to decline. But he was galvanized into action when Ira noticed a brief newspaper article – probably planted by Whiteman – claiming that George was working on a “Jazz Concerto” for that concert with his band on February 12, 1924. Over the next three hectic weeks, George conceived and drafted a two-piano version of the work while Whiteman’s accomplished arranger, Ferde Grofé, orchestrated it as the freshly written manuscript was handed over to him, page by page. Ira suggested the Rhapsody in Blue title as well as the work’s beautiful, slow melody that he had found in one of his brother’s sketchbooks. Rhapsody in Blue was the high point of the concert, receiving popular raves along with highly mixed assessments by the critics. It furthered its composer’s ambition “to bring jazz to the concert hall” and gave another firm boost to his career. George was on a roll, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow, as anyone who knew him well could attest.