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Composed: 1956
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone), harp, and strings

The troubles and adventures of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide are nearly as varied and pitiable as those of Voltaire’s optimistic hero. Lillian Hellman may have suggested collaborating on Candide to Bernstein as early as 1950, a time when the composer was much involved in music theater projects. Trouble in Tahiti premiered in 1951 and Wonderful Town opened in 1953. (This was also the period when West Side Story was gestating.) In 1954 Hellman switched her attention – also diverted by a subpoena from the House Un- American Activities Committee – to The Lark, her adaptation of a play by Jean Anouilh. Bernstein wrote incidental music for it, and the following year The Lark opened on Broadway, where it ran for 229 performances.

Thoroughly enthused about Candide, Bernstein persuaded Hellman to adapt it as a neo-Classical operetta, rather than the play with incidental music that she had envisioned. After a few out-of-town performances, the new work opened in New York City December 1, 1956. It closed less than three months later, after 73 performances. For a contemporary opera, that would have been a phenomenal run – for a Broadway show, it was a flop, for which Hellman’s book received most of the blame.

Bernstein quickly moved on to other things, such as West Side Story and the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. Candide had a few different performances in the 1950s and ’60s, and a new complete production in 1971 (with some new music by Bernstein), which opened in San Francisco and reached Los Angeles and Washington DC, but not New York. In 1973, however, it got a complete makeover, with Bernstein’s permission but not his participation.

Harold Prince directed a cut-down and rearranged one-act version, with new orchestrations and a new book, for which Hugh Wheeler won a Tony Award. This version was then expanded back into two acts, with much of the cut music restored (although also reordered) in orchestrations by John Mauceri. It was premiered by New York City Opera in 1982. Mauceri then began yet another version for Scottish Opera, this time with Bernstein’s help. They restored much of the original order, with new work on the book (and connecting narrations) by John Wells (Wheeler having died). This was first performed in 1988, and provided the basis for the 1989 concert version that Bernstein conducted and recorded as his final thoughts on the work.

Whatever the travails of Candide as a whole, its overture has become a hugely popular concert classic. (The New York Philharmonic, in honor of its former music director, now has a tradition of playing the Candide Overture without a conductor.) Though it does touch on some of the show’s great tunes, the dashing overture is also a shapely sonata form with points of canonic imitation and a sparkling Rossini crescendo to close.

— John Henken