From his 1977 song cycle Songfest, “A Julia de Burgos” uses the text of poet Julia de Burgos.
Jack Gottlieb describes the cycle terrifically:
Originally commissioned to be a work in celebration of the American Bicentennial Year (1976), Songfest could not be completed in time. Although the commission was vacated, the idea persisted: to draw a comprehensive picture of America’s artistic past, as seen in 1976 through the eyes of a contemporary artist. The composer has envisioned this picture through the words of 13 poets embracing 300 years of the country’s history. The subject matter of their poetry is the American artist’s experience as it relates to his or her creativity, loves, marriages, or minority problems (blacks, women, homosexuals, expatriates) within a fundamentally Puritan society.
This particular song portrays the voice of a woman who has broken free of societal roles and expectations. She sings that through her art, she is authentically herself and is not at the ownership or disposal of anyone or anything. Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican civil rights activist who lived from 1914-1953. Traveling between Puerto Rico, New York, and Cuba, she was fully involved in the nationalist philosophies that defined her life. It is important to remember that women’s suffrage in the United States was at a boiling point during her life, with the 19th Amendment arriving in 1920. Julia’s perspective as a minority activist woman during the first half of the century is indeed a defining artistic perspective to encapsulate America’s past.
This terrific remastered original cast recording from the 1953 rendition of Wonderful Town portrays Wreck, a guy who describes his fame and glory days as a student because of his ability to pass the ol’ pigskin. In this hilarious song, Wreck can’t spell, read, or write… but he introduced Albert Einstein, passed the bar exam, had every girl he could ever want, and got every scholarship… because he could pass that football!!
Bernstein had an amazing knack for capturing the humor of everyday life. The relatability of his characters make his theater works timelessly relevant.
Perhaps Bernstein’s most well-known work, “Somewhere“ has an inherent timeless relevance. It expresses the hope of a world in which conflict is absent and people are able to live without prejudice and hatred. Bernstein spent his entire life being involved in social justice both in the U.S. and abroad. He was famously quoted, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It is chilling how necessary and relevant these words are to our world today.
This recording of the incomparable Jessye Norman dates from 1993.
“Little Smary” is an example of Bernstein’s art song repertoire outside of the theater. The words are by Jennie Bernstein (Bernstein’s mother). The story depicts a young girl playing with her “wuddit” (rabbit). The story was a common bedtime story told to Bernstein by his mother.
The piece comes from a song cycle entitled Arias and Barcarolles, completed in 1988 and dedicated to S.A.B. (Shirley Anne Bernstein, his sister). The cycle exists in a piano four-hand version and an orchestrated version by Bright Sheng. It is said that the ironic title of the cycle originated from a statement Dwight Eisenhower made at a 1960 performance of Bernstein. He stated, “I liked that last piece you played, it had a tune. I like music with a tune, not all of them arias and barcarolles and things.”
Unlike Bernstein’s theater works, this song is very fragmented. The singer is more narrative than tuneful. This wonderful recording comes from the NYFOS family in 1994 with Steve Blier and Michael Barrett at the piano. The fabulous Judy Kaye masterfully paints a clear story and also characterizes a distraught little Smary.
From the great theater works of Leonard Bernstein, “A Little Bit in Love” is sung by Eileen, a want-to-be New York actress from Ohio. This delightful song comes from the show Wonderful Town, originally on Broadway in 1953. Eileen and her sister Ruth attempt to hit it big in the Big Apple, only to find themselves entangled in a bunch of mishaps. Eileen, unlike her sister Ruth, is a natural romantic who finds herself “a little bit in love” with many men. She sings this tune in Act 1 as she expresses her infatuation with Bob Baker, a potential boss for her sister.
This recording is part of the #BernsteinAt100 birthday year, recorded at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Tony-winning Cynthia Erivo exemplifies the beautiful simplicity of this song. This is an example of Bernstein’s amazing lyricism and ability to create tunes that one can happily sing on repeat for hours on end. The song also shows how sensitive singers of Bernstein’s theater works need to be to the dramatic plot. The simplicity and repetitiveness of a tune relies on the singer’s ability to develop the emotional context and meaning with each repetition. To Bernstein, the music is inseparable from the story.
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