Program Notes

Edward K. (“Duke”) Ellington

Born: April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C.

Died: May 24, 1974, New York, New York

Night Creature

  • Composed: 1956, on commission from Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air
  • Premiere: 1956, Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air, Carnegie Hall, New York
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), oboe (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, bassoon, 2 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bongo drums, maracas, suspended cymbals, drum set, jazz bass, harp, piano, strings
  • Duke Ellington’s influence on American music is far-reaching. Not only did he blur the lines that existed between popular and classical music, but Ellington also challenged the cultural hierarchy that devalued Black music. Throughout his nearly five-decade career, Ellington used his music as the platform to promote racial pride, historize the Black experience in America, and advocate for social change and racial understanding. He also had a whimsical side that underscored some of his more experimental works like the opera Queenie Pie and the tone poem Night Creature.

In the 1950s, when jazz shifted to an aesthetic centered on smaller ensembles, Ellington continued to chart of course of experimentation that positioned the jazz orchestra as the vehicle for an idiom of American concert music. Along with pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams, he was instrumental in elevating the jazz suite and tone poem as vehicles for advancing the modern orchestral jazz aesthetic that appeared in the 1940s. Most of Ellington’s compositions in this idiom were written primarily for standard jazz orchestra (big band) instrumentation. However, in 1955, he extended his compositional voice to include the symphony orchestra. Commissioned by Don Gillis for the Symphony of the Air, Night Creature premiered in Carnegie Hall the same year, but was not recorded by Ellington until 1963.

The composition is a three-movement nocturnal fairytale that explores the activities of the insects, monsters and creatures that rule the night. Each movement portrays a different scenario and also different melodic and thematic material.

The first movement, “Blind Bug” tells the story of “a blind bug who comes out every night to find that because he is king of the night creatures, he must dance. The reason he is king, of course, is that being blind, he lives in night all day, and when night really comes, he sees as well as anyone else, but with the difference that he is accustomed to not seeing. So, he puts out his antennae and goes into his dance, and if his antennae warn him of danger, he pauses, turns in another direction, and continues bugging the jitterbugs.” This movement is pure Ellingtonia and a reminder that he never conformed to conventions that defined the sound of the commercialized jazz idiom that grew in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. The riffs and rhythms are funky, smooth, and sophisticated providing the perfect palette for this nocturnal dance.

The second movement, “Stalking Monster” is “concerned with that imaginary monster we all fear we shall have to meet some midnight, but when we meet him, I’m sure we shall find that he too does the boogie-woogie.” This movement takes on the identity of a concerto grosso with groupings of instruments scripting small ritornelli that build on the “stalking” motive introduced by the piano and drums at the beginning. This blues-tinged ostinato is developed through the introduction of different riffs that alternate with solos played by violin, trumpet and alto sax . Emblems of Ellington’s style, like growling trumpets, and trombones, complex rhythmic and melodic interplay between sections of instruments, are present throughout.

The underpinning of the clave rhythm of Afro-Cuban music as well as the inclusion of bongos, maracas and claves in the third movement, invokes comparisons with Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” which became a staple in Ellington’s performance repertory. “Dazzling Creature” portrays the culminating event of nocturnal activities—the entrance of the Queen of the Night.

“Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come out at night—they come on, each thinking that before the night is out, he or she will be the star. They are the restless cool whose exotic or erotic animations, no matter how cool, beg for recognition, mainly from the queen, that dazzling woman who reigns over all night creatures. She is the theme of the third movement. sitting there on her high place and singing, ‘I want to be acknowledged’ (in D major), or ‘Who but me shall be desired?’ (in A-flat), or ‘Who has the taste for my choreography?’ (in A minor). After having made each of her subjects feel that Her Majesty sings only for him or her, who is individually the coolest or craziest, her high-toned highness rises and snaps her fingers. As they stomp off the handclapping, everybody scrambles to be in place, wailing and winging into the most overindulged form of up-and-outness.”

In 1974 Alvin Ailey choreographed a series of dances to this music. Night Creature is one of many Ellington compositions that remains a staple in the famed dance company’s repertory.

—Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle

George Gershwin

Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York

Died: July 12, 1937, Hollywood, California

An American in Paris

  • Composed: 1928
  • Premiere: December 13, 1928, New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 saxophones doubling on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sax, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, crash cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, ratchet, suspended cymbals, tenor drum, wood block, bass drum, 2 tom-toms, 4 taxi horns of different pitches, celeste, strings
  • In 1928, George Gershwin was not only the toast of Broadway but of all America, Britain and many spots in Europe, as well: he had produced a string of successful shows (Rosalie and Funny Face were both running on Broadway that spring), composed two of the most popular concert pieces in recent memory (Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F), and was leading a life that would have made the most glamorous socialite jealous. The pace-setting Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 had shown a way to bridge the worlds of jazz and serious music, a direction Gershwin followed further in the exuberant yet haunting Concerto in F the following year. He was eager to move further into the concert world, and, during a side trip in March 1926 to Paris from London, where he was preparing the English premiere of Lady Be Good, he hit upon an idea, a “walking theme” he called it, that seemed to capture the impression of an American visitor to the city “as he strolls about, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” He worried that “this melody is so complete in itself, I don’t know where to go next,” but the purchase of four Parisian taxi horns on the Avenue de la Grande Armée inspired a second theme for the piece. Late in 1927, a commission for a new orchestral composition from Walter Damrosch, music director of the New York Symphony and conductor of the sensational premiere of the Concerto in F, caused Gershwin to gather up his Parisian sketches, and by January 1928, he was at work on the score: An American in Paris. From March to June, Gershwin was in Europe, renewing acquaintances in London, hobnobbing with Milhaud, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Ibert, Ravel and Boulanger in Paris (Ravel turned down Gershwin’s request for some composition lessons, telling him that anybody making as much money as he did hardly needed instruction), meeting Berg, Lehár and Kálmán in Vienna, and working on An American in Paris as time allowed. He returned to New York in late June to discover that the New York Symphony had announced the premiere for the upcoming season. The two-piano sketch was finished by August 1st, and the orchestration completed only a month before the premiere, on December 13, 1928. An American in Paris, though met with a mixed critical reception, proved a great success with the public, and it quickly became clear that Gershwin had scored yet another hit.

For the premiere, Deems Taylor collaborated with the composer to produce the following insouciant description of An American in Paris:

“You are to imagine an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts without preliminaries and is off at full speed at once to the tune of The First Walking Theme, a straightforward diatonic air designed to convey the impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety. Our American’s ears being open, as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxicabs seem to amuse him particularly, a fact that the orchestra points out in brief episodes introducing four real Paris taxi horns.

“Having safely eluded the taxis, our American apparently passes the open door of a café where, if one is to believe the trombone, La Maxixe is still popular. Exhilarated by this reminder of the gay 1900s, he resumes his stroll through the medium of The Second Walking Theme, which is announced by the clarinet in French with a strong American accent. Both themes are now discussed at some length by the instruments, until our tourist happens to pass a church, or perhaps the Grand Palais—where the Salon holds forth. At all events, our hero does not go in.

“At this point, the American’s itinerary becomes somewhat obscured. It may be that he continues down the Champs-Elysées, and that when The Third Walking Theme makes its eventual appearance our American has crossed the Seine and is somewhere on the Left Bank. Certainly it is distinctly less Gallic than its predecessors, speaking American with a French intonation as befits that region of the city where so many Americans foregather. ‘Walking’ may be a misnomer for despite its vitality, the theme is slightly sedentary in character and becomes progressively more so. Indeed, the end of this section of the work is couched in terms so unmistakably, albeit, pleasantly blurred as to suggest that the American is on a terrasse of a café exploring the mysteries of Anise de Lozo.

“And now the orchestra introduces an unhallowed episode. Suffice it to say that a solo violin approaches our hero (in the soprano register) and addresses him in the most charming broken English; and his response being inaudible—or at least unintelligible—repeats the remark. This one-sided conversation continues for some little time. Of course, one hastens to add, it is possible that the whole episode is simply a musical transition. This may well be true, for otherwise it is difficult to believe what ensues: our hero becomes homesick. He has the blues; and if the behavior of the solo trumpet be any criterion, he has them very thoroughly. He realizes suddenly, overwhelmingly, that he does not belong to this place, that he is that most wretched creature in all the world, a foreigner.

“However, nostalgia is not a fatal disease—nor, in this instance, of over-long duration. Just in the nick of time the compassionate orchestra rushes another theme to the rescue, two trumpets performing the ceremony of introduction. It is apparent that our hero must have met a compatriot; for this last theme is a noisy, cheerful, self-confident Charleston, without a drop of Gallic blood in its veins. For the moment, Paris is no more; and a voluble, gusty, wise-cracking orchestra proceeds to demonstrate at some length that it’s always fair weather when two Americans get together, no matter where. Walking Theme Number Two enters soon thereafter, enthusiastically abetted by Number Three. Paris isn’t such a bad place after all: as a matter of fact, it’s a grand place! Nice weather, nothing to do until tomorrow, nice girls. The blues return but mitigated by the Second Walking Theme—a happy reminiscence rather than a homesick yearning—and the orchestra, in a riotous finale, decides to make a night of it. It will be great to get home; but meanwhile, this is Paris!”

—Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Leonard Bernstein

Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts

Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

Overture to Candide

  • Composed: Completed in August 1956
  • Premiere: October 29, 1956, in its first preview at the Colonial Theatre in Boston; the show reached Broadway on December 1 of that year, at the Martin Beck Theatre. 
  • Instrumentation: (symphonic version played here): 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drums, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone, harp, strings
  • The story of Leonard Bernstein’s musical comedy—or operetta, or opera—Candide is convoluted and, in the end, rather unhappy—an unfortunate situation for a work whose music and lyrics are overwhelmingly ebullient and madcap. Voltaire is to blame for the whole affair, since it was his novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759) that so captivated Bernstein that he struggled for more than three decades to find the right way to translate it for the musical stage.

To Voltaire we owe the tale of the wide-eyed hero Candide, whose trips to distant points of the globe invariably turn into dismal misadventures, much though he may be assured by his idealistic tutor, Doctor Pangloss, that everything is for the best. He wrote his novella in the span of three weeks, as a charming but persuasive rebuttal to the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz’s metaphysical assertion that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” a necessary consequence of God being a benevolent deity. Voltaire, however, saw bad things happening all around, including such contemporary occurrences as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (which may have killed up to 100,000 people) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63, which was leaving bodies strewn on battlefields throughout Europe). The whole idea struck Voltaire as palpably absurd. How does blatant violence fit into Leibnitz’s contention?, he asked. What about shipwrecks? What about the Spanish Inquisition? Candide has to deal with them all in the course of this tale, and by the time he gets back to his native Westphalia he has become a wiser, if more cynical, young man, intent on finding happiness where he can, come what may, and content in just making his garden grow. [First page of 1762 English edition of Voltaire’s Candide]

In the fall of 1953, Lillian Hellman suggested the idea of collaborating with Bernstein on a stage work based on Candide, after an earlier collaboration they had flirted with, on the subject of Eva Perón, had failed to take root. By January 1954, Bernstein was firmly committed to the project, which he initially envisioned as a full-scale three-act opera. Hellman began fashioning Voltaire’s volume into a book for the show, and John Latouche and Richard Wilbur were enlisted to pen the lyrics, although Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself all added further contributions to the script. Candide opened in New York on December 1, 1956 and played for 73 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre—which is to say, long enough to have proved in some measure respectable (and certainly long enough to pique the interest of many sophisticated music lovers), but not long enough to be considered a success by any stretch of Broadway’s imagination.

In the course of later emendations, Candide was transformed considerably. Hellman did not allow her book—neither her words nor the locales she specified—to be used for the 1973 version staged by Hal Prince at the Chelsea Theatre Center. So, on that occasion, a new libretto, reduced to a single act from the original two, was created by Hugh Wheeler, with Stephen Sondheim joining Wilbur, Latouche and Bernstein on the list of the show’s lyricists; unfortunately, some marvelous musical numbers needed to be omitted for this incarnation of the show. Permutations, combinations and revisions of either or both of those two versions charted Candide’s uncertain history, some emphasizing the score’s operatic elements, others its musical comedy streak. Bernstein was directly involved in at least seven versions of Candide, none of which proved definitive, although each had his blessing at least provisionally. In 1989, the composer led a concert performance in London—in a version happily preserved on recordings—that stands as his last sign-off on the opera that had eluded him for 33 years.

But through all the turmoil, the Candide Overture remained essentially untouched. Why change it? From the outset it was popular, a perfect piece of bubbling optimism and knowing skepticism. In his Overture, Bernstein had achieved the flavor he seems to have sought for the rest of the piece. In 1956, Bernstein scaled up the Overture’s orchestration for a full symphony orchestra—this was the only alteration effected on this piece—and in this guise he introduced it as a standalone work with the New York Philharmonic on January 26, 1957. Within two years it would be played by nearly a hundred orchestras, rapidly becoming his most frequently performed symphonic composition.

The Overture prefigures the show by drawing principally on two vocal melodies that are prominent in the stage work. Following some can-can material and a theme that, in the show, occurs at the destruction of Candide’s native Westphalia, we hear a tender (though swiftly flowing) tune that will later resurface as the love duet “O Happy We,” sung by Candide and his girlfriend, Cunegonde. [Barbara Cook and Richard Rounseville sing “Oh, Happy We,” from the original cast album] Curiously, Bernstein had originally intended “Oh, Happy We” as a duet for the characters of Tony and Maria to sing in another show-operetta-opera that was gestating at the same time—but West Side Story is a different matter altogether, and the considerable trading off of material between those two very different works is a subject best saved for another time. Near the Overture’s end, after all manner of musical jokes, Bernstein tips his hat to Rossini and has the orchestra repeat a little tune over and over, growing ever louder. The motif he selects for this honor is extracted from Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” which was interpreted in the original production by the indelible Barbara Cook. [Barbara Cook sings “Glitter and Be Gay,” from the original cast album] Separated from Candide by various disasters and believing that he has died, Cunegonde is getting by in Paris when she sings this aria, sharing her amorous favors with influential men, taking consolation in beautiful jewelry.

—James M. Keller

* Portions of the Bernstein notes appeared previously in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony and are used with permission. James M. Keller is in his 24th year as Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and was formerly Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and a staff writer-editor at The New Yorker. The author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press), he is writing a sequel volume about piano music.