The Kennedy Center

Overture to Candide

About the Work

Image for Leonard Bernstein Composer: Leonard Bernstein


As Fidelio was for Beethoven, Candide proved to be Leonard Bernstein’s problem child. He tinkered with this comic operetta until the end of his life, long after the first production opened in 1956. It all began when the playwright Lillian Hellman suggested a theatrical adaptation of the novella written in 1759 by François-Marie Arouet (aka the great Enlightenment thinker and writer Voltaire). Hellman initially wanted to rework this satire of authority and gullible optimism into a stage play featuring incidental music by Bernstein. But when the composer signed on, the project quickly ballooned into something rather more ambitious. The result was an eclectic concoction with one foot in the opera house and the other on Broadway.

The first production earned critical raves, but Candide challenged too many Broadway conventions to be a box office success. Bernstein and an ever-changing team of collaborators continued to reshuffle and rethink the score. It pirouettes adroitly from one style to another, riffing on classical and operatic clichés—and mirroring the dizzily picaresque pace of Voltaire’s narrative.

The scintillating Overture has gone on to have a life of its own and serves as a superb concert-opener. It opens with a bold fanfare and samples three prominent tunes from the show; there’s also a theme used nowhere else but in the Overture. Bernstein’s obvious delight in skillfully interweaving all of these ideas is a key to Candide’s overall spirit.