1. Bernstein’s first major attempt to meld these serious and popular elements in a theatrical context came in Candide. It was also Bernstein’s 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 Bernstein’s 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:

    I was not born in sunny Hispania.
    My father came from Rovno Gubernya
    But now I’m here, I’m dancing a tango:
    Di dee di!
    Dee di dee di!
    I am easily assimilated.
    I am so easily assimilated.

    I never learned a human language.
    My father spoke a High Middle Polish.
    In one half-hour I’m talking in Spanish:
    Por favor! Toreador!
    I am easily assimilated.
    I am so easily assimilated.

    It’s easy, it’s ever so easy!
    I’m Spanish, I’m suddenly Spanish!

    And you must be Spanish, too.
    Do like the natives do.
    These days you have to be
    In the majority.

    Tus labios rubí,
    Dos rosas que se abren a mí
    Conquistan mi corazón,
    Yo sólo con
    Una canción

    Mis labios rubí,
    Drei viertel Takt,
    Mon très cher ami,
    Oui oui, sí sí,
    Ja ja ja, yes yes, da da,
    Je ne sais quoi!

    Me 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

  2. The lyric alone is typical of Bernstein in general and Candide in particular in its wit, humor, and breadth of allusion. The eclecticism of the language—switching between German, French, Spanish, Russian—defines 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 an excerpt) 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.

  3. However, 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 orchestration—the English horn and piccolo sounded together—is not unlike the instrumentation of a Klezmer band. This similarity could not have been far from Bernstein’s mind; although in the published score the number is simply entitled "I Am Easily Assimilated" with the tempo marking "Moderato", the composer’s facsimile reads "Old Lady’s Jewish Tango" with the marking "Moderato Hassidicamente." Even the composer’s sketched-in orchestration dictates those aspects of the piece which make it sound both Hispanic and, to use Bernstein’s term, "Hassidic."

  4. The number sends up not just the Old Lady, but aspects of Bernstein’s own image. The reference to "Rovno Gubernya" is no doubt an approximate allusion to the composer’s father’s roots, the "High Middle Polish" (a takeoff on the standard linguistic term "High Middle German") is likewise a reference to Bernstein’s 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 Bernstein’s verbal and musical acuity and reflects his predicament of being constantly pulled from one kind of musical expression to another.

  5. Of course, 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.


  6. In retrospect, 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 temple’s 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, Bernstein’s compositional output is weighted heavily toward the Jewish. From a setting of Psalm 148 in 1932 (one of his first compositions) to "Oif Mayn Khas’neh" 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 didn’t provide a good primary model for a work steeped in the violence and grittiness of working-class youth on New York City’s East Side.

  7. 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 Bernstein’s following a Jewish/Catholic theme. "The East Side wasn’t what it used to be, therefore the idea was old-fashioned—it would have been Abie’s 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 composer’s 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 composer’s 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 didn’t 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 Candide’s "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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    49. Bernstein wrote on the creation of the great American opera in 1948, reproduced in Findings, p. 129.

    50. Chase, Spain, 224.

    51. Chase, Spain, 36.

    52. Roberts, Tinge, 88.

    53. Roberts, Tinge, 91-92.

    54. Humphrey Burton Leonard Bernstein, (New York: Doubleday, 1994, p. 9, quoted from a BBC-TV/Unitel film "Childhood." Also on Bernstein’s 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. 255-64.

    56. Quoted Zadan, 14.

    57. Indeed, Bernstein’s 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 Gottlieb’s Leonard Bernstein: A Complete Catalogue of His Works (New York: Jalni, 1988).

    58. Zadan, 15.

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