Musical Reasons to Be Optimistic

Thursday, January 05, 2017 - 10:01 AM

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano in 1955. Bernstein’s 'Candide', which dealt with hope in challenging times, comes to New York City Opera, starting Jan. 6 (Library of Congress. Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

It is no secret that 2016 was a year that even the coarsest expletive could not effectively describe. Apart from a fractious political season at home, dreadful turbulence abroad and enduring the hottest year on record, many people seemed to face personal challenges that were overwhelming. As Claudius says in Hamlet, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

Would you consider me an insensitive Pollyanna — or just plain wrong — if I say that even in this collective meltdown there might be reasons for optimism?

I look for illumination and understanding wherever I can find them. For me, the art and ideas of the Italian Renaissance and the enlightened and complex views of 18th century thinkers, writers and composers provide fertile terrain for reflection and inspiration. Michelangelo and Voltaire lived in troubled times, awful in different ways than what is going on now. And yet they gave us a legacy of wisdom, beauty and consolation forged in the face of terror and uncertainty.

Let’s not forget a group of enlightened men and their brilliant, courageous wives who optimistically created a nation that is imperfect, often troubled and yet capable of great things when it answers to what another extraordinary American, Abraham Lincoln, described as “the better angels of our nature.” If ever there was an optimist in the face of adversity, it was Lincoln.

If I were to be in the nation’s capital in the period from Jan. 19-22, I would make sure to be at the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony Orchestra and its music director-designate, Gianandrea Noseda, in a program of American music by composers such as Bernstein, Gershwin and John Williams and works inspired by Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. One of the pieces will be Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait read by Phylicia Rashad.

John F. Kennedy would have turned 100 on May 29, 2017, and the Kennedy Center is devoting a series of performances and initiatives to the man and his connection to the arts and humanities. You can lament that this project harkens back to a lost, more cultured time and a president who said, “we must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” I see it optimistically as an opportunity for all of us to draw inspiration and, rather than be despondent, choose to roll up our sleeves and ask what we can do for our country. I have my plans.

The NSO concert will also include the fanfare Bernstein composed for Kennedy’s inauguration. Another reason for optimism: Bernstein’s Candide comes to New York City Opera, starting Jan. 6. It is a hot ticket and additional performances have been added. This show, which lies in the sweet spot between Broadway musical and opera, was composed by Bernstein (with an original book by Lillian Hellman that has been added to by several other writers) at a time when the McCarthyism was rife in America and rights to belief and to privacy were threatened. It premiered on Dec. 1, 1956.

The Voltaire book that inspired this show is my second-favorite novel, after Don Quixote. Cervantes wrote about a nobly romantic knight errant whose idealism gains no respect in a callous society. It is deeply moving, but makes one feel that there is no place in the world for a kind-hearted optimist. Voltaire wryly named his book Candide, or Optimism, and like all timeless works of art, it defies easy description or understanding. The title character is a guileless young man who has been tutored in optimism and, despite the horrors visited upon him and other characters, he clings to the formulation from his teacher, Dr. Pangloss: “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Look at that 12-word sentence and repeat it out loud 12 times, putting the emphasis on each successive word. As you do that, note how the imagery and concept changes as if you were slightly shifting a kaleidoscope.

Is everything for the best only in the best of all possible worlds? Given that few people would say that 2016 was the best of all possible worlds, are Dr. Pangloss and Bernstein telling us to give up hope? To despair? To make the best of a bad situation? Or to do what we can to make things the best we can in our daily lives?

Voltaire, in his enlightened fashion, understood that tragedy and comedy coexist in life. But he concludes the book with Candide expressing a resolute optimism as he says, “il faut cultiver notre jardin” — "We must make our garden grow."

One source of my optimism comes when I encounter young people who so love what they are studying that they are willing to make sacrifices and face obstacles to learn and grow. . At a New York Philharmonic concert on Dec. 29, I met three bright, enthusiastic students from Rochester, New York, who train at the Eastman School of Music. Alan Gilbert led a bracing program of works by Copland, William Bolcom and Wynton Marsalis, who sat in with the Philharmonic and some of his players from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I thrilled to the rapture these three young people experienced in the presence of the artistry on the stage of David Geffen Hall. Music fires their spirits.

They told me how they awakened to the glory of music. For me it was Haydn’s trumpet concerto. When I was a very small child, it was the first piece of music I reacted to, dancing around in my crib and experiencing the pure joy that music can provide. I did not understand the music. I felt it. My approach to music, despite everything I have learned about it in my lifetime, is to put my analytical brain on hold and let myself feel it. This means letting the music flow into your ears and your being. Let me assure you that your spirit will be lifted and your mood gladdened if you let the sheer beauty of music have its way with you. Don’t even try to understand it. Just be optimistic.

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Comments [11]

John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Coming late to this blog, but adding my notes, and sharing the fears of Geo from St. Louis, in light of the latest Trump threat to DACA....

How long will it be until his ICE "brownshirts" march into Juilliard and start deporting the Mozarts, Glasses and Beethovens of our generation?

Jan. 26 2017 11:26 AM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Sadly, there is no reason to be optimistic for the next 4 years, if not longer, given the disaster that the incoming administration is already and will be, in its anti-intellectualism, contempt for facts and reality, and utter lack of diplomatic skills and understanding, just for starters. In terms of the arts and music, there's already talking about gutting the NEA and the NEH. Anyone who is "optimistic" in the face of such an environment is in serious denial.

Jan. 19 2017 11:30 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I was correcting a typo I made regarding the finale "Make Our Garden Grow" from the Amberson vocal score, plate 44203. I was referring to Mr. Bernstein's title and not to the Voltaire quote, but I inadventently changed "our" to "your".

Jan. 08 2017 02:47 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

to Les in Miami (where it must be warmer than New York): In the musical Candide, the text is "make YOUR garden grow". However, I was quoting Voltaire's original “il faut cultiver notre jardin" where he says "one must make OUR garden grow."

Jan. 08 2017 11:17 AM
DaveS from New York, NY

I'm mostly optimistic because of the change in leadership this country will enjoy, but the musical perks do help.

Jan. 07 2017 08:50 PM
stephany tiernan from Boston

I am regularly disappointed that there is very little programming or discussion of a major American composer, Charles Ives, who was the greatest idealist, optimist and fiercely democratic musician of the 20th century. His essay, the Majority, is based on his belief in the democratic system and the great wisdom of the majority that will always rise to the call when needed.

His kind of idealism could be what is missing today, and his music is a musical melting pot of American culture made into a whole and personal artistic expression of "truth", as you have quoted Kennedy.

His music can be a little challenging, but maybe we all need a little challenge too!

Jan. 07 2017 08:27 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

It's "Make Our Garden Grow", not "Your Garden".

Jan. 06 2017 06:34 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Bernstein and the librettists were of two minds about the final spoken words after "Make Your Garden Grow". The 1956 and Brooklyn versions, the latter of which I attended, and I should play the records to be sure of the exact quote, is something like "Heavens, the pox!", that really puts a damper on it, I think But the most recent Scottish version ends with the more benign "Any questions?" As a serious listener, I wish I could share the optimism about music expounded upon in this post, but I don't, so I'll stick to records, tapes and C.D.'s.

Jan. 06 2017 06:22 AM
Andy Speirs from Honolulu, HI

Fascinating article good sir, but I must respectfully disagree-- If there are too many people turning inwards to tend to their own respective gardens, then we'll all be sitting with a veritable abomination of desolation in no time. Now more than ever, we all need to redouble our earnest efforts and remake this world into an honest-to-goodness garden if ever we are to gaze upon a single patch of green again!

Jan. 06 2017 05:14 AM
Michael Romano from NYC/Tokyo

Thanks so much Fred--your evocation of the historical perspective, and the difficulties faced in times gone by, helped me feel better about our present situation. And of course, the music!

Jan. 05 2017 06:03 PM
Ellen L Lienhard from West Chester, PA

Thanks, Fred, I needed that; especially the excerpt from Candide.

Jan. 05 2017 04:05 PM

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