first major attempt to meld these serious and popular elements
in a theatrical context came in Candide. It was also
first large-scale attempt at the "Great American Opera"
of which he dreamed and which West Side Story would,
in its own way, become.49
Although commercially and artistically less successful than
anticipated, Candide continued the vein of eclecticism
most evident in Trouble in Tahiti. Among the parodies
of different operatic and musical theater styles is Bernsteins
caricature of the Hispanic, "I Am Easily Assimilated."
Clearly this is a song Bernstein called his own; in a work notorious
for the number of collaborative forces involved (five librettists
in the original version, not counting the much later additions
by Wheeler and Sondheim), the composer wrote both text and music:
was not born in sunny Hispania.
My father came from Rovno Gubernya
But now Im here, Im dancing a tango:
Di dee di!
Dee di dee di!
I am easily assimilated.
I am so easily assimilated.
never learned a human language.
My father spoke a High Middle Polish.
In one half-hour Im talking in Spanish:
Por favor! Toreador!
I am easily assimilated.
I am so easily assimilated.
easy, its ever so easy!
Im Spanish, Im suddenly Spanish!
you must be Spanish, too.
Do like the natives do.
These days you have to be
In the majority.
Dos rosas que se abren a mí
Conquistan mi corazón,
Yo sólo con
Drei viertel Takt,
Mon très cher ami,
Oui oui, sí sí,
Ja ja ja, yes yes, da da,
Je ne sais quoi!
muero, me saleuna hernia!
A long way from Rovno Gubernya!
Mis labios rubí,
Dos rosas qui se abren a tí,
Conquistan tu corazón,
Y sólo con
Una divina canción
De mis labios rubí
alone is typical of Bernstein in general and Candide
in particular in its wit, humor, and breadth of allusion. The
eclecticism of the languageswitching between German, French,
Spanish, Russiandefines not only the assimilation of the
Old Lady, but also the phoniness that characterizes her. Faking
her way through a number of situations and cultures, she has
survived by her ability to assimilate into any milieu. In the
spirit of the political climate into which Candide fell,
her admonition that "These days you have to be in the majority"
fits in perfectly with the comic-cynical mood of the work as
a whole. In all, what would be a Carmen Miranda-style production
number in which virile males deify a seductive female lead is
made into an absurd parody of a peripatetic Jewish mother figure
who constantly reminds us that she is endowed with only "one
buttock." In musical terms, too, the number functions as
a stereotypical example of the Hispanic à la Bernstein.
The orchestration is full of Spanish style features: the tambourine,
the duet of English horn and piccolo, the heaviness and loudness
of the brass and winds, the trombone glissandi, and the pesante
string writing all point to the Hispanic. (Hear
Also the mode, with raised 4th scale degree and flatted
7th, and the abundance of parallel chromatic major-third
intervals are all stereotypical Spanish elements, as is the
syncopated rhythm underlying the entire song (3 + 3 + 2 eighth
notes in a 4/4 meter). It is, even in its comic context, a flashy
dance number providing local color; and it obeys the form of
the Broadway song, a reminder that we are still in America,
not sunny Hispania.
on a musical and thematic level, the song can also be read as
Jewish. The mode is not unlike the hebraic formulas Bernstein
employed in his Jewish works, notably the Kaddish and Jeremiah
symphonies. The repeated note, often approached from above or
below by an appoggiatura, is one of the features of Spanish
music which, prominent scholars argued at the time, was inherited
from Jewish chant,50
and the orchestrationthe English horn and piccolo sounded
togetheris not unlike the instrumentation of a Klezmer
band. This similarity could not have been far from Bernsteins
mind; although in the published score the number is simply entitled
"I Am Easily Assimilated" with the tempo marking "Moderato",
the composers facsimile reads "Old Ladys Jewish
Tango" with the marking "Moderato Hassidicamente."
Even the composers sketched-in orchestration dictates
those aspects of the piece which make it sound both Hispanic
and, to use Bernsteins term, "Hassidic."
sends up not just the Old Lady, but aspects of Bernsteins
own image. The reference to "Rovno Gubernya" is no
doubt an approximate allusion to the composers fathers
roots, the "High Middle Polish" (a takeoff on the
standard linguistic term "High Middle German") is
likewise a reference to Bernsteins Jewish/Eastern European
roots. The same may be said of the admonition, not just political
but cultural, to fit in with a "majority." The constant
shifting of languages, the ability to learn Spanish in "one-half
hour" both celebrates Bernsteins verbal and musical
acuity and reflects his predicament of being constantly pulled
from one kind of musical expression to another.
the combination of the Jewish and Spanish was not an unusual
one. Although Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they took
many Spanish songs with them, combining Jewish chant with originally
Spanish material. Recordings from the early twentieth century
document the fact that Sephardic Jews in New York were still
performing Spanish songs.51
But even in the New World, the Latin and Hassidic were closely
related. The Jewish theaters of East Harlem were turning Latin,
and a large number of the audiences for Latin bands were Jewish.52
As white bands had started taking over Latin music, many of
the bandleaders and musicians were Jews, notably Alfredo Mendez,
whose real name was Mendelsohn; and each of the succeeding generations
produced its own important Jewish Latin bandleaders.53
Of course, "I Am Easily Assimilated" was not the only
send-up Jewish number in this highly irreverent score.
it seems odd that the Jewish tradition did not provide sufficient
artistic inspiration for Bernstein to make some headway on a
Jewish vs. Catholic score. Having grown up with a father devoted
to his Hasidic ancestry and actively involved in the Conservative
Jewish congregation of Mishkan Tefila in suburban Roxbury, Massachusetts,
Bernstein was surrounded by a rich and regular diet of Jewish
liturgical music, from recordings of cantors on 78-rpm records
to weekly meetings at the synagogue. The composer has credited
his exposure to this tradition as one of the most important
musical influences of his childhood. One arrangement by the
temples organist and choirmaster, Solomon G. Braslavsky,
Bernstein describes as the first time he "discovered that
there was such a thing as counterpoint: great obbligatos floating
on high. Arrangement is too small a word. It was
a great composition. I knew every note of it because I heard
it every year: it was like an opera."54
Indeed, whether inspired by his own faith or as a gesture toward
this heritage, Bernsteins compositional output is weighted
heavily toward the Jewish. From a setting of Psalm 148 in 1932
(one of his first compositions) to "Oif Mayn Khasneh"
in his last work, Arias and Barcarolles, Bernstein had
explored Jewish themes and musical styles in at least ten compositions,
including two of his most substantial orchestral works, the
first and third symphonies. By the mid-1950s, the works he had
already written in this vein must have calmed any serious doubts
that he may have held that he could employ Jewish material to
communicate in a musically meaningful way. Nor was he unaware
of the tremendous power born from the integration of current
practices with a Jewish sensibility, so apparent (as he himself
noted) in the creative works of his own hero, Mahler.55
Still, although Mahler would influence West Side Story
in other ways, he didnt provide a good primary model for
a work steeped in the violence and grittiness of working-class
youth on New York Citys East Side.
It was probably
more the timeliness of the theme and the influence of Jerome
Robbins and Arthur Laurents than the result of an inner struggle
that mitigated against Bernsteins following a Jewish/Catholic
theme. "The East Side wasnt what it used to be, therefore
the idea was old-fashionedit would have been Abies
Irish Rose all over again and not very topical."56
Although Robbins was the only choreographer ever to commission
a work from Bernstein, it was not until Dybbuk (1974)
that he set any of the composers Jewish-inspired music
to dance. Robbins commissioned Fancy Free (first performed
in 1944) and Facsimile (1946) for his Ballet Theatre
but had also found the composers symphonic repertoire
conducive to a dance treatment, setting the Age of Anxiety
Symphony for the New York City Ballet in 1950. These early works
were set in the jazzy, urban style which Bernstein cultivated
after his move to New York City in the 1940s and that was aptly
suited to the subject material.57
The story lines of the Robbins/Bernstein ballets were driven
by the adventures and mores of modern-day urbanites, not conflict
on a grand scale. It was clearly this urbane, sophisticated
style that answered Robbins desire for a youthful and,
moreover, violent gang world, but the basic dichotomy necessary
to tell the story was not an obvious outgrowth of jazz, itself
a synthesis of a number of different elements. "I had a
strong feeling of staleness of the East Side situation and I
didnt like the too-angry, too-bitchy, too-vulgar tone
of it," Bernstein recalled.58
But, without religion, there was no essential difference left
between these New York Montagues and Capulets, and without a
musical representation of difference, there would be no musical
way to represent the conflict. The Hispanic element provided
that difference; but how would Bernstein adapt the rather hackneyed
and stereotypical aspects of the Hispanic, which are precisely
what make Candides "I Am Easily Assimilated"
work as a comic number, to suit the far more serious demands
of a musical tragedy? The way in which Bernstein was able to
integrate this element into the fabric of the score is indeed
one of the great achievements of West Side Story.
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Bernstein wrote on the creation of the great American opera
in 1948, reproduced in Findings, p. 129.
50. Chase, Spain,
Chase, Spain, 36.
52. Roberts, Tinge,
53. Roberts, Tinge,
54. Humphrey Burton Leonard
Bernstein, (New York: Doubleday, 1994, p. 9, quoted from
a BBC-TV/Unitel film "Childhood." Also on Bernsteins
early experiences with Jewish music, see Joan Peyser, Bernstein:
A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1987) and Meryle
Secrest, Leonard Bernstein (New York: Knopf, 1994).
55. Bernstein discusses
this in an essay on Mahler, reproduced in Findings, p.
56. Quoted Zadan, 14.
57. Indeed, Bernsteins
most jazz-inspired compositions have received the most frequent
dance settings over his career, at least six choreographed versions
of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs alone. For a more complete
list of Bernstein works adapted for the dance, see Gottliebs
Leonard Bernstein: A Complete Catalogue of His Works (New
York: Jalni, 1988).
58. Zadan, 15.
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