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Bernstein vs Voltaire: The Meaning Behind Candide

21 November 2017

Leonard Bernstein, Bernstein: Candide; Barber: Adagio; other American masterpieces

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Many of the societal injustices that Voltaire so skillfully exposed, encompassing experiences from slavery to complacency, from poverty to hypocrisy, were still very much evident during Bernstein’s time. We may never know Voltaire's exact intention in Candide, but at least we do know Bernstein’s, writes Matt Adomeit.

An 18th century philosophical adventure novel may at first glance appear to be an unlikely source of inspiration for one of Leonard Bernstein’s greatest masterpieces. Sure, Voltaire’s Candide was immensely influential and controversial when it was first published in 1759, a time before the existence of modern democracies and the established separation of church and state, but is it still truly relevant 200 years later? The fact that Bernstein leapt so willingly at the idea of bringing Candide to the stage indicates that our 20th and 21st century minds still have much to learn from one of the great works of the enlightenment.

Candide in its operetta form underwent a long and tortured history. The original 1956 production on Broadway was a flop, with much of the criticism directed at Lillian Hellman’s libretto for missing the quick wit and charm of Voltaire’s original prose and Bernstein’s score. There were numerous revivals and revisions over the course of over three decades, and Bernstein finally finished what he considered to be his “final revised version” in 1989, a year before his death. Most of the versions that are popularly heard today are adaptations of that 1989 revision, and the overture has independently gained notoriety as a concert piece in it’s own right.  

The central and namesake character of Candide is a wide-eyed and innocent young man under the tutelage of the philosopher Pangloss, who attempts to impart in his pupil an attitude of boundless optimism as championed by German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Like the titular character from Don Quixote and many other great works of satire, Candide’s naivety provides a perfect foil for the brutal realities of real life he witnesses, which include mutilation, natural disaster, slavery, and disease. Throughout the whole experience, even as their fortunes fluctuate wildly, Pangloss constantly rationalizes each setback as the best possible outcome, as he does in this memorable excerpt from the 1989 libretto:

Though war may seem a bloody curse
It is a blessing in reverse.
When cannon roar both rich and poor
By danger are united
‘til every wrong is righted.

Bernstein’s nearly lifelong obsession with the work appears deeply tied to his personal beliefs regarding humanism and service. Many of the societal injustices that Voltaire so skillfully exposed, encompassing experiences from slavery to complacency, from poverty to hypocrisy, were still very much evident during Bernstein’s time, as they are of course to this day. Introducing Candide from the podium of a 1989 London Philharmonic Concert, Bernstein gave his own take on Voltaire’s message: 
“Sectarian religion is always an incitement to conflict, and optimism as a strict belief therefore breeds complacency, induces lethargy, inhibits the human power to change, to progress, to rise against injustice, or to create anything that might contribute to a generally better world.”
The perception of exactly how much Voltaire believed in the possibility of humankind to change these conditions usually hinges on the final and most quoted line of the novel, “we must cultivate our garden.” There has been a long debate over whether this famous phrase was advocating action towards improving the society or turning inwards and focusing on private, practical concerns. We may never know Voltaire's exact intention, but at least we do know Bernstein’s.

Matt Adomeit


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