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Bringing Context Into the Concert Hall

Leonard Bernstein Leonard Bernstein

Musicians’ lives are not confined to the concert hall. The world they live in shapes who they are and what they do. As a listener, how does knowing the details of a musician’s life and the context surrounding the creation of their works change your experience? Do you leave that at the door when you come into the concert hall?

In 1949, Leonard Bernstein and Dmitry Shostakovich came together with other artists and intellectuals to speak out against growing international tensions at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Bernstein’s participation in this event and the ensuing social pressures of the Cold War would shape much of his public life and music for decades to come.

 

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quick Summary

In the midst of completing his Fourth Symphony in 1936, Dmitry Shostakovich found himself and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District condemned by the Soviet newspaper Pravda for its abstract “formalism.” What this meant for his new symphony was an open question.

It was in the midst of completing his Fourth Symphony that Shostakovich found himself and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District the subject of the infamous article in Pravda titled “Muddle Instead of Music.” The Soviet publication blackballed the opera for what it called abstract Western “formalism” that did not mesh with the Soviet prescribed values of “socialist realism.” (“Socialist realism” was the government-sanction aesthetic philosophy that supposedly focused on communication in contrast to the “formalism” of the West that was preoccupied with musical structures without meaning.) With his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich thus faced the tenuous predicament of needing to make his personal expression and compositional style satisfy the requirements of his increasingly brutal government. Worse still, the official explanations of "Socialist realism" were far from clear, making it hard to know how Symphony No. 4’s mixture of epic tragedy and biting, satirical irony would go over for officials. (His next symphony, No. 5, which he described as a “response to just criticism” would feature a more extroverted, optimistic mood.) In the days leading up to the premiere performance of Symphony No. 4, according to Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich had a private meeting with the Secretary of the Composer’s Union who convinced him to withdraw the piece entirely. It would not be premiered until 1961. He also had to pay back his 300-ruble advance.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra

April 10, 2018 | 8 PM

Bernstein has four characters search for faith in a New York City bar while Shostakovich’s symphony flirts with danger. W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety,” an eclogue ...
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BERNSTEIN The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Summary

Drawing inspiration from W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 captured the domestic mood in the era of McCarthy, offering a bitter critique of the modernity in a more avant-garde musical language.

First composed in 1949 but revised in 1965, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 draws inspiration from W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, a book-length poem about the personal search for meaning in a world marked by the threat of war and the constant disruptions of vapid commercialism. Bernstein’s Symphony captured the domestic mood in the era of McCarthy, according to Phillip Gentry, offering a biting critique of the modern state of affairs. Bernstein completed the score to the Symphony on March 20, a mere five days prior to acting as a host for the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel along with other artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals, including Aaron Copland and future-Candide librettist Lillian Hellman. The Conference even featured a (Soviet-approved) speech from Dmitry Shostakovich. With an avant-garde style—uncharacteristic for Bernstein—the Symphony satisfied increasing political pressure for serious, difficult music to distinguish American art from the accessible and popular styles the Soviets required. (For participating in the Conference for World Peace, Bernstein, Copland, and Hellman all became subjects of FBI and CIA investigations.)

Related Event
Boston Symphony Orchestra

April 10, 2018 | 8 PM

Bernstein has four characters search for faith in a New York City bar while Shostakovich’s symphony flirts with danger. W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety,” an eclogue on man’s spiritual quest ...
Learn More ›

BERNSTEIN Candide

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Summary

Lillian Hellman’s libretto to Candide made direct jabs at Joseph McCarthy’s government inquisitions. But the larger arc of the work explores the idea of naïve optimism, a potent topic since Hellman and Bernstein both were called “dupes” in LIFE magazine for (supposedly) supporting Communism.

The libretto to Candide by Lillian Hellman made direct jabs at Joseph McCarthy and the “red scare,” most notably in the auto-da-fé scene. But the larger arc of the work explores the idea of naïve optimism and the disillusionment of the title character, a potent topic since Hellman, Bernstein, and the other participants in the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace were called “dupes” in LIFE magazine for (supposedly) supporting communism. While the characters had their eyes opened to the brutality of the world—like many Americans upon learning of the terror of Stalin—the culminating number “Make Our Garden Grow,” nonetheless offers closure and emotionally satisfying hope, with an ensemble number that, according to Elizabeth C. Crist, “celebrate[d] a grand, utopian ideal—the politically outmoded, progressive vision of community as a diverse collective forged through common experience and shared labor.”

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Candide

April 18, 2018 | 7 PM

Bernstein’s Candide, based on Voltaire’s satirical tale, is a superb fusion of Broadway flash and operatic virtuosity. Its quicksilver overture, dazzling ...
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BERNSTEIN Chichester Psalms

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Summary

As the fears of McCarthyism and the social pressures to write abstract music dissipated, Bernstein could freely express in Chichester Psalms from 1965 his belief in peace and unity in a musical language intended to be accessible and bring people together.

With Chichester Psalms from 1965, Bernstein brought back a familiar theme—his advocacy for peace and harmony. The work sets Psalm texts in Hebrew that are mainly in praise of God’s providence, and it ends with Psalm 133’s hopeful words: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Signaling the darker realities of the world around him in the second movement, Bernstein has the boy soloist sing Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shephard; I shall not want” while being violently disrupted by the distraught chorus asking “Why do the nations rage? And the people imagine a vain thing?” The intentionally tonal style of the work, as opposed to the serialist atonal aesthetic in compositional vogue at that time, drew on West Side Story and he reused material from a number he cut from the musical. But his choice was more than just an appeal to popularity, as he increasingly criticized the abstract avant-garde of the 1960s, even lampooning modern composers in a limerick he wrote for The New York Times about the composition of Chichester Psalms. As the fear of McCarthyism and the social pressures to write abstract music dissipated, Bernstein could freely express his belief in peace and unity in a musical language that aimed to be accessible and bring people together.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra

April 10, 2018 | 8 PM

Psalms soar heavenward on waves of irrepressible rhythm, and a keyboard masterpiece is painted in kaleidoscopic new colors. Commissioned by the Dean of England’s ...
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