The Kennedy Center

Slava! A Political Overture

About the Work

Image for Leonard Bernstein Composer: Leonard Bernstein
© Richard Freed

Bernstein composed this work for Mstislav Rostropovich's first season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Mr. Rostropovich conducted the premiere in this hall in the orchestra's concerts of October 11, 12 and 14, 1977. The NSO's most recent performance of the piece was conducted by Leonard Slatkin on May 14, 1998. A performance conducted by the composer, taken from a 1987 concert celebrating Mr. Rostropovich's 60th birthday, is preserved in the set of compact discs issued by the orchestra last fall in celebration of its 75th season.

The score, dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, soprano saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, chimes, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, slide whistle, steel pipe, tambourine, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, whip, wood block, electric guitar, piano, pre-recorded tape, and strings. Duration, 4 minutes.

For the second week of his first season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in October 1977, Mstislav Rostropovich invited Leonard Bernstein for a program of his own works, in which the two musicians shared the podium and Mr. Rostropovich performed also as soloist in a work composed for him. In addition to the well known suite from the music for the movie On the Waterfront, conducted by Mr. Rostropovich, there were three premieres: Bernstein conducted his new Songfest (settings of thirteen American poems, for six solo singers and orchestra, which he recorded here following the concerts), and, with Mr. Rostropovich as soloist, Three Meditations from "Mass," for cello and orchestra. The third premiere, actually the work that opened the program, was the piece Bernstein composed especially for that occasion, and in fact so close to the concert date that it had to be listed in a separate insert in the program booklet: the "political overture" Slava!

That title, as listeners familiar with Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov know, is the Russian word for "glory"; for that opera's coronation scene, Mussorgsky set that word to the old traditional tune known as "the Slava," a tune quoted earlier by Beethoven in the scherzo of his String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (the second of his three "Razumovsky" Quartets), and subsequently by Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers. "Slava" is also a nickname given to men with such names as Miroslav, Vladyslav and Vyacheslav, and by far the best-known bearer of that sobriquet is Mr. Rostropovich himself, who is "Slava" to friends, family, colleagues--and indeed everyone who knows him or speaks of him. That is the context in which Bernstein's overture is titled, but there is a reference to the traditional musical "Slava" as well, very brief and in an altered rhythm, at the end of the piece.

When Bernstein received our Slava's request for a "rousing new overture," he took his basic materials from his musical play 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had been introduced in Philadelphia the previous year; although that show was unsuccessful, its setting seemed to point to it as an apt source for welcoming Slava to Washington, and the exuberance of the themes definitely met his expressed specification. The score is marked "Fast and flamboyant."

Jack Gottlieb, in his notes for the premiere, wrote that the first theme is "a vaudevillian razz-ma-tazz tune filled with side-slipping modulations and sliding trombones. Theme II comes from the opening of the show, a canonic tune in 7/8 time. Instead of a conventional development section, there follows another kind of development, heard on tape, which will literally speak for itself [a parody of political oratory]. The two themes reoccur in reverse order.

Near the end of the piece the two themes are presented together with the fleeting citation of the Russian Slava theme as noted above. The other "new material" at the end is the chanting of the name "Slava" itself by members of the orchestra. (In the original version, it was the name of Slava's dog Pooks, since departed, that was chanted.)

The first performance of this piece, in October 1977, was actually the first world premiere Slava conducted as music director of the NSO. The Bernstein performance included in the orchestra's 75th-anniversary set of commemorative recordings is the only item in that collection performed under a conductor who was not the orchestra's music director.