The production of Peter Pan in 1950 featured Leonard Bernstein’s music and lyrics, but was a complete disaster. The national tour of the show was cancelled half-way through, and the play was overshadowed by a 1954 production, based on the same book. Leonard Bernstein’s works are usually huge successes.
So why was Peter Pan such a disaster?
Journey to Neverland
When Bernstein was asked to contribute to Peter Pan, he was only asked to provide a few dances and incidental cues. Peter Pan was supposed to be a play, not a musical. But Bernstein found himself entranced by the show, and ended up writing seven songs with his own original lyrics.
Bernstein was in Europe during the rehearsal period for the show, and relied on Musical Coordinator True Rittman to incorporate his music.
“I am shocked by the idea of my name in lights on this show!”
– Bernstein after the opening of PeterPan in 1950
Changes and More Changes
Bernstein’s music was drastically changed by Rittman’s decisions. Rittman incorporated dialogue and created reprises. Wendy’s final song “Dream with me” was cut, and replaced with a reprise from one of her earlier songs, “Who am I.” The show also added a death scene for Captain Hook, and two songs, “Plank Round” and “Neverland,” were combined with new lyrics to create a song for thiss cene. Most of the instrumental numbers were replaced and the songs were altered to accommodate spoken narration and new introductions. Bernstein also wrote an entirely new song, “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy,” for the national tour of the show where Lawrence Tibbett played Hook, until the tour was cancelled.
The show is difficult to characterize as it was not recorded and is rarely put on by theater companies, as the 1954 musical version was drastically more successful.
The music Bernstein wrote for Peter Pan, however, was classic Bernstein and very similar to other music he had written. Certain songs, such as “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy,” have the same odd intervals and disjointed or bouncy quality. Overall most of the songs have a childlike quality, fitting with the topic of the play.
So why was Peter Pan such a failure for Bernstein?
Bernstein’s play was a failure–such a failure that the national tour was cancelled midway through–for several reasons. Firstly, Bernstein composed his own lyrics, something he was completely new to. As a result, they weren’t very good. His lyrics in “Captain Hook’s Soliloqy” center around Hook’s desire for fame, using odd and clunky lines such as “Oh glittering bauble!” to refer to fame. The incorporation of the music was clunky, as huge changes were made without Bernstein being there to oversee them. The original sound track was restored by Alexander Frey in 2001, but by then it was a little too late for the 1950 Broadway production. Overall, it was Bernstein’s inexperience with lyrics and poor musical incorporation that sunk the show.
I decided to interview four musicians about their thoughts on Leonard Bernstein as a composer. I specifically chose musicians so they would have some background knowledge about Bernstein’s work. The four musicians I interviewed are: Dan Krenz, a graduate student studying conducting and a trumpet player; Amy Clark, a violin player; Lauren Chen, a flute player; and Neal Hampton, a Brandeis music professor and conductor of the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra. Let’s see what they had to say!
Question 1: What was your first experience with a Bernstein composition and what were your first impressions?
Amy : “I heard West Side Story when I was six or seven and my brother was playing in the pit. I loved it. I was sitting in on rehearsals and learned all of the songs because I found it so cool and interesting.”
Lauren: “I’m not entirely sure what my first experience was with a Bernstein composition (mostly because I have been attending concerts with my family since I was quite young, and I don’t remember the earliest concerts)—but the first experience that I can remember most clearly is listening to West Side Story. I loved the upbeat vibrancy, energy, and playfulness of the music—it was so unlike most of the orchestral music I had heard in the past.”
Professor Hampton: “Playing an arrangement of West Side Story in high school orchestra. It was the first time I saw such complicated rhythms.”
Dan: “First experience with a Bernstein composition: That’s a tricky one. I honestly probably do not remember exactly what my first experience was but one of my earliest memories was coming across this video of Bernstein conducting Candide. I remember just thinking how fantastic it was. It’s such great music and watching him conduct by dancing and flirting with the orchestra was very enticing.”
Question 2: What made Bernstein’s composing style so unique?
Amy: “I think it was how he incorporated jazz into his music. It always sounded very American to me.”
Professor Hampton: “You feel his personality in his music: his unabashed extroversion, his eclectic tastes which ranged from Mahler to Broadway to a number of contemporary American composers.”
Dan: “The thing about Bernstein’s music is that it always sounds like Bernstein. He truly did live through his music. In every piece that I have encountered of his I have found this to be the case. No one else could write the music he did, and that’s a good thing.”
Question 3: How did Bernstein’s compositions fit into the genre of “American classical music” that he wanted to create?
Dan: “Bernstein was very interested of the idea of an “American” style of classical music. As you know he studied with Copland and was a big fan of Gershwin. His ties to both the orchestral world and Broadway made him a renaissance man who really tried to bridge the gap in this American style. Of course, a lot of his music is infused with Jazz which is a truly American idiom. I know that Bernstein was really concerned with leaving a legacy with his music. He wanted to be known for that. I would certainly say that he has achieved that right?”
Professor Hampton: “While some of the language was similar to his contemporaries he included popular dance elements (broadway/jazz) in his music.”
Question 4: Why do you think many of Bernstein’s compositions aren’t as well known as West Side Story or Candide?
Amy: “Like any composers he is going to have pieces that gain more acclaim than others. On top of that they are really incredible to listen to.”
Lauren: “I suspect that West Side Story and Candide might feel more accessible to audiences that are not as familiar with what we might consider more “traditional” classical music… and so these two compositions end up being the ones that people know best among Bernstein’s works. In some ways it might actually be a self-perpetuating cycle—e.g., an orchestra might gravitate towards playing West Side Story or Candide rather than a lesser known work that might not be as well-received by an audience.”
Dan: “West Side Story was a massive hit, it’s hard to achieve higher than that. With Candide, people really only know the overture and not the story or the other music from it. Every composer has some pieces, for whatever reason, are more recognizable than others. Everyone, even non-musicians, know’s the opening to Beethoven 5. But the number drastically drops off for people that can sing the theme from the last movement. It doesn’t really bother me that Bernstein’s other work is not as well known. That’s true for everyone. There are a number of factors that can create one piece to become the most recognizable of a composer’s output.”
Professor Hampton: “West Side Story became familiar because it was a Broadway smash which was then made into a hit movie. I’m not sure about Candide.”
Question 5: Favorite Bernstein composition?
Amy: “West Side Story. I was so excited by it when I was little it just has a place in my heart.”
Lauren: “I really like the premise behind his Anniversaries piano compositions (“Four Anniversaries,” “Five Anniversaries,” “Seven Anniversaries,” and “Thirteen Anniversaries”), where each movement of each piece is written for a specific person.”
Dan: “It’s hard to pick a favorite. Although, right now I’m working on his Serenade and the more I look into it, the more I am enjoying it.”
Professor Hampton: “Bernstein Serenade”
Question 6: Favorite Bernstein piece you’ve conducted or played? Why?
Amy: “I had a lot of fun playing his mass.”
Lauren: “I think among his orchestral works, I’ve actually only played Candide and West Side Story (as one might have expected considering my previous answers). If I had to choose one, I might lean more towards Candide just because I played it a little bit later on and felt that I was better able to appreciate it.”
Dan: “I’ve never actually played any Bernstein and I’ve only conducted one: Candide Overture! Conducting it with the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra last semester was a really incredible experience for numerous reasons but that was the only piece that I have ever performed.”
Professor Hampton: “”Chichester Psalms. A beautiful piece of liturgical music. Perfect piece for the Brandeis Orchestra and Chorus.”
As we can see, musicians have similarities and differences when it comes to Bernstein’s compositions. It is interesting to see how different musical backgrounds can influence experiences with Bernstein compositions. It seems that many people’s first experience with a Bernstein composition is West Wide Story, but as people get farther into their musical careers they come into contact with some of his lesser known compositions. I think most of us can agree that Bernstein’s compositions have elements that sound uniquely Bernstein and that he was certainly a talented composer who wasn’t afraid to take risks.
I have always been interested in listening to and playing chamber music and have been drawn to the dynamic of working together in a small group and amazed by the amount of incredible chamber music repertoire available. When I started taking this class I was curious if Bernstein had written any. Although Bernstein is not known primarily for his chamber works and other smaller scale pieces, the ones that he did write show a lot about his ability to take risks, experiment, and push the boundaries of classical music.
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Bernstein’s first published work was a sonata for clarinet and piano written in 1942. Bernstein wrote it after his first few summers at Tanglewood and the piece has a few connections to Tanglewood; it was dedicated to clarinetist David Oppenheim who Bernstein met during the summers of 1940 and 1941 at Tanglewood, and the first movement “opens with a musical line reminiscent of Hindemith who was the composer-in-residence at Tanglewood in 1941”(1). The piece features walking bass lines, syncopated rhythms, and elements of jazz. Bernstein used compositional techniques that he would later use in West Side Story. (2)
The Boston premier took place at the Institute of Modern Art and featured Bernstein on piano, and the New York premier took place a year later at the New York Public library also featuring Bernstein on piano and featuring David Oppenheim on clarinet. In 1943, Oppenheim and Bernstein released the first recording of the piece. The piece is now a standard in Clarinet repertoire (3). As with many of his pieces, the dedication and the connection to Tanglewood show that this piece had a significant personal meaning for Bernstein, and the elements of jazz show us that Bernstein’s love for incorporating jazz started at an early age.
Serenade for Violin solo, strings, and percussion
In 1954, Serenade for Violin solo, strings, and percussion was first performed (4). The Serenade developed into a five movement piece featuring violin, harp, string orchestra, and percussion. It is a little large to be considered a chamber piece, but does not feature the full orchestra, and thus is considered by some to be a chamber work. The piece was written for a few reasons; It was a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation originally from 1951, and satisfied a promise Bernstein made to write a piece for his friend and famous violinist, Issac Stern. (5) Bernstein dedicated the piece to the memory of Serge Koussevitzky and his wife, Natalie.
The piece is based on Plato’s dialogue, “The Symposium”. In the dialogue, which is concerned with the nature and purpose of love, there are a series of speakers. Each speaker starts by pointing out what they agree with or disagree with from the previous speaker’s remark, and build upon what they said (6). The music is structured in a similar way, in which musical ideas from previous movements and phrases are expanded upon and refined in later on in the piece (7). Though this was not the first time someone composed a piece based on themes from classical literature, Bernstein’s concept of writing a piece so closely based on the text’s form shows a lot about his creativity and willingness to experiment with his compositions, in the same way that he experimented with incorporating Jazz and musical theatre based sounds into the classical music he wrote.
Halil for flute, piano, and percussion
Bernstein’s attention was for the most part diverted away from chamber works for the next few decades, other than some short pieces. In 1981 Bernstein returned to write Halil, a sixteen-minute piece for flute, piano, and percussion (8). The piece was dedicated to a talented nineteen-year-old Israeli flutest who in 1973 was killed in his tank in Sinai. Bernstein said, “Halil (the Hebrew word for “flute”) is formally unlike any other work I have written, but is like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the treatment of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love and the hope for peace.” (9) Bernstein talks about how the piece represents conflict in its tonality with an opening 12-tone row and ending with a diatonic final cadence, two contrasting sounds. Bernstein said “I never knew Yadin, but I know his spirit”(10). The piece not only teaches us that Bernstein was not afraid to do the somewhat provocative act of dedicating a piece to an Israeli, but also shows us an example of the tension Bernstein often created in his music, showing conflict between the tonal and ton-tonal forces.
Whether he was experimenting with form, the inclusion of jazz or theatre elements, tonality, or the use of a particularly controversial meaning to his piece, Bernstein was never afraid to push the boundaries of what it meant for a piece to be considered “classical”. This confidence bled over into his life as a conductor, performer, teacher and humanitarian, and is part of what contributed to him becoming an American icon.
Revolvy, LLC. “‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (Bernstein)” on Revolvy.com.” Revolvy, www.revolvy.com/page/Sonata-for-Clarinet-and-Piano-%28Bernstein%29.ttps://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/34/sonata-for-clarinet-and-piano
Revolvy, LLC. “‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (Bernstein)” ‘
“1980 To 1990 | Leonard Bernstein Timeline 1918-1990 | Articles and Essays | Leonard Bernstein | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/leonard-bernstein/articles-and-essays/leonard-bernstein-timeline-1918-1990/1980-to-1990/.
“Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein, leonardbernstein.com/works/view/23/serenade-after-platos-symposium.
“Leonard Bernstein at 100.” – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
“Leonard Bernstein at 100.” – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
“Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein, leonardbernstein.com/works/view/18/halil-nocturne.
“I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer.” – Leonard Bernstein
Prior to my sophomore year of high school, I had not truly understood the significance and influence of the composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian that was Leonard Bernstein. It was not until my participation in the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in 2016 that I truly began to recognize Bernstein as a composer of great importance due to his unique talent of composing for both orchestras and vocalists. In that particular summer, I sang Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” with the Young Artists Chorus and was also able to watch the Young Artists Orchestra perform various orchestral works by Bernstein. With that said, I became quite intrigued by the complexities and variation of different styles of music in Bernstein’s compositions, especially Candide.
In class, we discussed Candide as an operetta based on Voltaire’s novella with the same title and inspired story lines, yet I decided I would further analyze four of my favorite pieces in this operetta: the overture, “Best of All Possible Worlds”, “Glitter and Be Gay”, and finally, “Make Our Garden Grow.”
The overture immediately gives the audience a taste of what to expect throughout the operetta by incorporating various tunes from other songs in the performance into the overture, including “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, “Oh, Happy We”, and “Glitter and Be Gay.” There are various nuances to the performance elements of the overture (different orchestrations exist) when dealing with a full symphony orchestration vs. a theatre-sized orchestration, especially. The instruments and usage of percussion effects in the composition changes and is evaluated depending on the orchestration, and in the case of a full symphony orchestration, instruments and percussion effects are doubled. The outcome of such is an increase in volume, thus increasing the dramatization of the piece.
While the operetta first premiered in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, the overture was first performed in concert by the New York Philharmonic in 1957, and quickly escalated into becoming one of the most popular orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer.
Here is a clip of Bernstein conducting the overture in a concert performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in December of 1989. Pay attention to the little dance that Bernstein does in the beginning!
The Best of All Possible Worlds
“The Best of All Possible Worlds” is sung following the vibrant overture and finally introduces the audience to the different personalities and voices of the characters that they will become invested in throughout the operetta’s duration. Dr. Pangloss, in particular, takes center stage when explaining his optimistic, yet unrealistic philosophy on life to Candide, Cunegonde, Maximilian, and Paquette. He claims that despite the current circumstances of where they are living (Westphalia, their home, will soon be part of a war), and through life’s trials and tribulations, Westphalia is a place that is “the best of all possible worlds.”
Here is a clip from a May 2004 Candide concert with the New York Philharmonic. Make sure to listen for moments of the overture!
This quite catchy piece is highly upbeat and has consistent energy, and it also showcases the individual personalities and unique qualities of each of the characters before they are explored more in depth through the remainder of the operetta. Bernstein allows for this specifically to happen through his usage of having the characters pause and think before singing their next verse, as well as respond to each other using the same rhythmic patterns and call and response techniques.
Glitter and Be Gay
“Glitter and Be Gay” is centered completely on Cunegonde, and she dramatically sings this aria from start to finish as she stands in the home of two wealthy men in Paris. She decries the situation she is in in front of the audience, one where she is forced to accept jewelry and appear happy, when she is really lamenting her life and the unfortunate, tiring journey she has been on up until this moment (she is seemingly killed during Westphalia’s war, but somehow turns up alive in Paris). The aria itself changes in many ways throughout its duration, with an emphasis on a variety of different tempo markings, as well as the intensity of its drastic range. Impressively, this aria includes three high E flats, two staccato, and one sustained; as well as numerous high C and D flats scattered throughout. Beyond this, the character and theatrical elements are also very demanding, as Cunegonda must sing and act with a specific satirical quality that Bernstein wanted to showcase through his music.
Here is a clip from a BBC production of Candide in 2015.
Make Our Garden Grow
“Make Our Garden Grow” is the final piece of music in Candide, and it is reflective of the moment that Candide and Cunegonda exchange vows after finally being reunited following their individual journeys and adventures throughout the operetta. As each character sings individually, the chorus reunites with the two and everyone sings together and embraces one another in the community. The orchestra emphasizes the celebration, but a more powerful moment occurs at the end when the orchestra stops playing, allowing the voices of the characters and choir to take center stage and emphasize the message of coming together as one as the operetta concludes. In response to this particular piece by her father, Jamie Bernstein has said: “The soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself.” The greater takeaway for the audience is that while no individual or community is ever perfect, we can all work together to grow and become better, not only for ourselves, but for the people we love around us.
Here is a clip of Bernstein conducting “Make Our Garden Grow” from the same 1989 concert.
I chose to discuss Leonard Bernstein’s religious beliefs and his work, “Kaddish”. His father was rabbinical and he was always very impressionable in terms of this.
Leonard Bernstein composed “Kaddish”in 1963. His religious values were always public just like his political views. He spent time in Israel and even worked with the Israel Philharmonic in 1948. His father, Samuel, was an orthodox Eastern European Jew, but was apart of a conservative temple. Bernstein participated in services at this temple and the choir and organ are said to be important pieces to the start of his musical career. A quote from 1990 says “I used to weep just listening to the choir, cantor, and organ thundering out”.
He apparently heard his first piece of classical music at this temple as well. It is clear already, that his father’s religious values had a great effect on Bernstein’s childhood and his path to music. People came from all over on Friday nights to listen to the music played, so Bernstein was not the only one affected by the sound. “Bernstein’s third symphony, “Kaddish,” was completed in 1963 and focuses on the Jewish mourners’ prayer in Aramaic and Hebrew that affirms God with no mention of death.
He premiered this piece shortly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In it, Bernstein argues with God through powerful music and strong narration” (Rudin 2018). The piece has a full choir, a boy’s choir, a soprano soloist, and a narrator. Watching this online doesn’t do it justice, but it is creates an emotion and almost anxiety similar to the response you typically get when listening to “Age of Anxiety”.