Slava! A Political Overture

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            Bernstein was capable of composing some of the most scintillating, brilliant, joyous, and happy music of our time.  This overture is all of that and more.  It was composed in 1977 upon the occasion of the great Russian violoncello virtuoso, Mstislav Rostropovich, becoming the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, DC.  Rostropovich’s nickname was “Slava,” and so hence the title.  But, there is much more to that title.  Whence “A Political Overture?”  And how does that relate to the light, happy nature of the work?

            The answer goes back the previous year, to Bernstein’s last Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  It was, candidly, a colossal, legendary flop, running only to seven performances before it closed.  The book and lyrics were by the esteemed Alan Jay Lerner, but that didn’t help; the show suffered from a multitude of problems, none of which had anything to do with Bernstein’s music.  That was the only element of the show that the critics praised.  In short, the musical was about the various Presidents, first ladies, staff, and other hangers on who inhabited the White House during the nineteenth century.  And it was a merry, but wicked, wicked put down of the craven politicians who have hornswoggled the American public since the birth of our republic.

            Bernstein, as with almost all artists, was loath to see some of his best work simply disappear into obscurity for extraneous reasons.  So, in the best traditions of great composers, he simply recycled some of the material into a new work.  His new overture for Rostropovich is based upon two of the memorable numbers from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:  “Rehearse!” and “The Grand Old Party.”  And most entertaining is Bernstein’s incorporation of a recorded tape into the middle of the piece, with the composer and others bellowing out some of the familiar, lame platitudes so well known from our political circus.

            The overture opens with “The Grand Old Party,” which romps along cheerfully in 7/8 time.  Growling solos from the trombone, trumpets, and others, exactly conjure nineteenth-century vaudeville, rousing torchlight parades with the village band, and the general hucksterism and ballyhoo of the time and its politics.  It’s a rapier-like satire on the whole milieu.  All of this ruckus yields to the “Rehearse!” material, also in 7/8 time.  The light-hearted dancing atmosphere is enhanced by the colors of the soprano saxophone and electric guitar. 

            Licks from a steel pipe and a whip bring on the voices of demagoguery while the orchestra vamps.  One familiar bluster after another is heard:  “ . . .and if I am elected to this most high office, I shall do everything in my power to bring about the changes this country so desperately needs and wants . . . ;”  “The people of this country are sick and tired of the abuses of power that have been so evident in this past administration . . . ;”   “Never again shall we submit to the dictatorial evils of alien military power!;”  “Permit me to quote the words of that mighty statesman and champion of the downtrodden . . . ;” and finally:  “I give you the NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!”

            After this little diversion into the swamp of DC politics, the themes of the first section return, in reverse order, replete with vaudeville piano and “wah-wah” mutes in the brass.  A rousing shout of “Slava!” brings this salute to the leader of the “national” symphony in Washington to an end.   It’s all about a Russian conductor and American politics (but in 1977, of course).  As for music and politics, remember, this is Bernstein, not Shostakovich.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan