BERNSTEIN: A White House Cantata

BERNSTEIN A White House Cantata Kent Nagano, cond; June Anderson (The First Lady); Barbara Hendricks (Seena); Thomas Hampson (The President); Kenneth Tarver (Lud); Victor Acquah (Little Lud); Keel Watson (Henry); Neil Jenkins (Admiral Cockburn); London Voices; London SO.  DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 289 463 448-2 (80:09)

As one might expect, there is more to Leonard Bernstein’s compositional legacy than the music with which the public is generally familiar. For example, there is the musical show called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Back during the early 1970s, when the notorious Watergate break-in and its sequelae were on everyone’s minds, and the Bicentennial celebrations lay just ahead, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner got the idea for a project that would confront the vulnerability of democratic ideals to the willfulness of power, not to mention the precariousness of the democratic foundation of this nation in the first place, predicated as it was on the “little white lie” that “all men are created equal.” Lerner was able to interest Leonard Bernstein in this idea, and the two came up with a musical, structured according to an “Upstairs-Downstairs” concept, in which vignettes rooted in the first hundred years of the American presidency were juxtaposed against episodes involving a black couple who worked as servants in the White House—hence the show’s subtitle, “a musical about the problems of housekeeping.” An additional level of structure involved the actors portraying themselves in the process of rehearsing their roles. During the course of preparing the first production there was a great deal of adjusting and restructuring. (Bernstein reportedly composed more music for 1600 than for any of his other theater works.) Then, opening in New York in 1976, the show closed after seven performances.

While subsequent explanations for its failure included the self-reassurances that audiences “weren’t ready for it,” because it was “ahead of its time,” “too demanding” for a Broadway show, etc., there was some recognition on the part of the responsible parties that it was “too preachy.” One can well imagine the reactions of the Broadway show audiences to the notion of two white liberals moralizing self-righteously to them about American racism.

Nevertheless, in the long run Bernstein and others felt that there was some good material in the show that was worth salvaging. Indeed, he did use portions of it in Songfest, A Quiet Place, the Divertimento, and the overture Slava! But many felt that there were some worthwhile song lyrics as well. As recently as 1992, a lyricist named Erik Haagensen reworked the material in one more effort to structure a viable musical show. Staged at the University of Indiana, and then at the Kennedy Center, the production drew some encouraging responses. Bernard Holland wrote in the New York Times, “With some tough, smart editing, it might have a future, situated somewhere between Broadway and the opera house. Impresarios at both ends of the theater business should have a look.”

Well, I suppose that by the time this feature appears in print, the story may be old news to readers of this magazine, thanks to the Bernstein publicity machinery. In any case, the Bernstein and Lerner estates took such a look, and assigned to Charlie Harmon, music editor of the Bernstein estate, the task of reworking the large quantity of material into a cohesive entity. Working with Sid Ramin, the orchestrator of the original show, Harmon came up with an 80-minute work designed for concert presentation, entitled A White House Cantata. It was first produced in this form in London, in 1997. This recording was made there the following year, but for reasons not made clear to me, was not released until now.

Leonard Bernstein was a larger-than-life character, a major celebrity whose identity spread far beyond the world of classical music. But being a highly visible, gossip-besieged celebrity wasn’t enough for him, nor was being recognized as one of the greatest conductors of his time, nor was being a charismatic promoter of classical music to those outside the usual audience, nor was being a composer whose music became part of the mass-culture of its time. Bernstein craved acceptance as a great serious composer—not just one whose music was enjoyed by listeners, performed frequently, and earned its composer lots of money (all of which he achieved). He also wanted his music to be recognized for articulating the most profound spiritual and existential issues of the 20th century—like his beloved Gustav Mahler, for example. But what Bernstein seemed not to understand was that the level of popular success and, indeed, celebrity he attained mitigated against his acceptance as a serious artist. In this country we expect our “serious” artistic prophets to be misunderstood, neglected social outcasts—not facile, charismatic polymaths. So, in his inimitably flamboyant way, Bernstein did a good deal of public hand-wringing, bemoaning the abuse his music had suffered at the hands of critics whose assessment of his artistic stature fell short of his own pretensions. By the 1960s he had begun burdening his work with a portentous, self-conscious striving for profound existential relevance—at its worst in the Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish” (1963) and Mass (1971)—that ultimately proved to be his greatest weakness. (For me the most telling moment of the wonderful PBS documentary Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note was when daughter Jamie recalled, “I remember when he was writing 1600, and he said, ‘You know, I think this is going to be a really important work,’ and my heart sank. I thought, ‘Uh oh, important. Why is he worrying about that? Why does it have to be important?’ But he worried about this a lot. It had to make world peace, to, uh, unseat governments. He just kept upping the ante on himself.”) On the other hand, his celebrity led critics (and the public as well) to feel enough sense of familiarity with Bernstein to take the liberty of admonishing him, scolding him for his perceived failures of character, rather than simply evaluating the substance of his work on its own terms.

These thoughts are prompted by listening to this first recording, reading the accompanying promotional material, and reflecting on the Bernstein phenomenon. Now, ten years since Bernstein’s death, the dust has begun to settle, and it becomes increasingly possible to view his music more “objectively,” and also to observe the role played by his own works within the 20th-century American concert repertoire, now that he is no longer a personal presence on the cultural scene. Most significant is the realization that a large portion of Bernstein’s concert music is deeply and securely ensconced in the active repertoire, with no sign of abatement. Pieces like the Chichester Psalms, the Serenade for Violin et al., and the ballet Fancy Free are solidly entrenched. Add to them the music that originated in other genres, such as the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the Candide Overture, the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. Then consider how pieces like the anemic Clarinet Sonata from the early 1940s and a handful of minor chips from the workshop floor have been vaunted into the spotlight. There is not much danger of Leonard Bernstein’s contribution as a composer being forgotten. Indeed, his importance as a composer is only further confirmed by recent efforts to spin off material that may have been discarded prematurely or otherwise overlooked. And there is no escaping the fact that much of Bernstein’s music exhibits the high energy and infectious exuberance that characterized his personality in general. There is also no escaping the fact that most of his music is rife with undigested ideas borrowed from Copland, Stravinsky, Mahler, and his other favorite composers. Nevertheless, the best of Bernstein—West Side Story, the Chichester PsalmsTrouble in TahitiPrelude, Fugue, and Riffs, and the music from On the Waterfront—could not be mistaken for the music of any other composer. These works reveal an amazing facility, particularly with vernacular musical idioms, which he used convincingly and with great sophistication, while a characteristic haunting lyricism marked by a tender, innocent vulnerability—though perhaps derived from the simple lyrical style cultivated by Aaron Copland in the first movement of his Clarinet Concerto, for example—was perhaps Bernstein’s most distinctive stylistic feature.

Which brings us to A White House Cantata. As per Bernard Holland’s observation, the style of the work falls “somewhere between Broadway and the opera house.” It comprises two parts, the first twice as long as the second. Uncharacteristically for a Bernstein work, it opens with a prelude quite subdued in tone (based on material used for the Whitman setting in Songfest), and closes with a rather Stravinskian hymn, not as heartfelt as its words and gestures suggest. In between are selections from the presidential numbers in alternation with selections from the servant numbers, styled in such a way that the former lean in the direction of clever satire and wit, while the latter contribute more sincerely felt emotion. On the whole, the music is engaging, catchy, very sophisticated, and unmistakably Bernstein, although there is nothing in it that approaches the dramatic intensity and devastating lyrical beauty of West Side Story or the clever brilliance of Candide. The closest thing to a “hit song” is “Take Care of This House,” sung by Abigail Adams to Lud, the Black servant, as a boy. This song, whose motifs are embedded within the musical structure of the work, had already begun to develop a life of its own (along with “Dream with Me” from Peter Pan) as one of Bernstein’s “lost gems.” But as attractive as it is, it doesn’t approach the best of Bernstein’s show tunes. Personally, I prefer, “This Time,” a restless number filled with intense longing, sung by Seena (Lud’s wife). Projected magnificently by Barbara Hendricks, this may be the musical highpoint of the show. This number directly follows “The Monroviad,” which is the moral and dramatic crux of the show, a bed-time dialog in which Eliza Monroe confronts and challenges her husband James regarding the constitutional compromise that resulted in a Black’s being valued at three-fifths of a White. Other notable selections include the poignant love-song “Seena,” “Sonatina,” when British troops invade the White House during the War of 1812; here the music, in a brilliant 18th-century-style parody, depicts the transformation of the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven” into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There is also a lovely Menottian episode involving Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes during the final section of “Duet for One.” Some of the remaining material is too cutesy or too obvious for my taste, but I suppose I should qualify that statement by admitting that I dislike most music of the “Broadway” genre, Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s being occasional exceptions. The musical performances are mostly fine, although June Anderson, as the “first ladies,” becomes a little “hooty” when stressed.

In summary, every fan of Bernstein’s theater music will want to acquaint himself with A White House Cantata, but no one is likely to place it among the composer’s finest creations.