Reclaiming My Time

Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

One of this country’s most versatile musicians, Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard University and at the Curtis Institute of Music. His long association with the New York Philharmonic began in 1943, when he was appointed assistant conductor. At the age of forty, he was named music director, the first native-born conductor to lead a major American orchestra. Along with his activities as conductor and pianist, Bernstein always found time to compose for both the concert hall and the Broadway stage.

His first musical was On the Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Some of the words are by Bernstein himself. After a try-out in Boston, it opened at the Adelphi Theater in New York on December 28, 1944, and ran for 483 performances. The Dance Episodes were extracted a year later for concert performances, the first by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under Bernstein’s direction, on February 13, 1946.

The story concerns three sailors named Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, and their adventures on shore leave in New York. In the subway, Gabey notices a poster for that month’s “Miss Turnstiles” and determines to find her. In the first Dance Episode, “The Great Lover Displays Himself,” Gabey dreams of wooing her. In the second, he watches another sailor woo an impressionable teenager in Central Park. In the final, “Times Square: 1944,” the three sailors compare notes and begin their night “on the town” to the tune of “New York, New York (it’s a helluva town).”

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

After the disastrous failure of his First Symphony in 1895, Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression. “Something within me snapped,” he said. “All my self-confidence broke down …. When the indescribable torture (of the première) had ended, I was a different man. During the evening I … hid myself, sitting on an iron fire-escape staircase …. Sometimes I stuck my fingers in my ears to prevent myself from hearing my own music …. No sooner had the last chords died away than I fled, horrified, into the street …. All my hopes, all belief in myself, had been destroyed.”

Among the effects of this despondency was a massive creative block: the composer found it impossible to compose. A friend suggested that Rachmaninoff consult Dr. Nikolai Dahl, an early hypnotist and amateur cellist. Every day, from January to April of 1900, he visited the doctor, who repeated over and over to his entranced patient: “You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with great ease. The concerto will be of excellent quality.”

As Rachmaninoff recalled later, “although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. Already at the beginning of the summer I began to compose. The material grew in bulk and new ideas began to stir within me – far more than I needed for my concerto. Out of gratitude I dedicated the Piano Concerto No. 2 to Dr. Dahl.”

The last two movements were introduced on December 15, 1900. Their success emboldened Rachmaninoff to finish the first movement and on November 9, 1901, the entire Concerto was given its first performance in Moscow. Rachmaninoff was the soloist; his cousin, Alexander Siloti, conducted the Moscow Philharmonic.

Biographer Geoffrey Norris says the work’s “almost unbroken lyricism has undoubtedly led not only to its phenomenal popularity but also to its being plagiarized by songwriters the world over.” Among the tunes purloined from the Concerto are Full Moon and Empty arms, Ever and Forever, If This Is Goodbye and This Is My Kind of Love.

Symphony No. 5, Op. 47
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich’s life as a Soviet artist was occasionally stormy. In 1936, after a performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Pravda printed an editorial headlined “Confusion Instead of Music.” The opera was described as “a wilderness of musical chaos, in places becoming cacophony…. The composer ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and wildness be abolished from every corner of Soviet life.”  

The Union of Soviet Composers endorsed Pravda’s opinion. All performances of Shostakovich’s music ceased. The Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsal, was withdrawn. Shostakovich himself withdrew from public life.

But he was hardly idle. From April to July of 1937, he wrote his Fifth Symphony. There is now some dispute over whether it was Shostakovich or a Soviet critic who subtitled the work “a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism.”

In any case, Shostakovich was at least publicly contrite. In a magazine article, he wrote: “Working ceaselessly to master my art, I am endeavoring to create my own musical style, which I seek to make simple and expressive. I cannot think of my further progress apart from our socialist structure, and the goal that I set for my work is to contribute at every point toward the growth of our remarkable country.”

Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in the first performance of the Fifth Symphony on November 21, 1937. “The atmosphere at the première was highly charged,” Shostakovich recalled. “The hall was filled. All the best people were there, and all the worst too. It was definitely a critical situation…. Which way would the wind blow?”

In short, the Fifth was a smash hit. One listener remarked: “This is not music; this is high-voltage, nervous electricity.” The composer remembered: “People who came to the première of the Fifth in the best of moods wept.” Writing in Izvestia, Alexei Tolstoy reported: “The powerful, rousing sounds of the finale stirred the audience. All rose to their feet, infused with joy, and happiness streamed from the orchestra like a spring breeze.”

“The theme of my symphony,” said the composer, “is the development of the individual. I saw man with all his sufferings as the central idea of the work, which is lyrical in mood from start to finish; the finale resolves the tragedy and tension of the earlier movements on a joyous, optimistic note.”

~ Program notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2018.