The short novel Candide is probably the best-known work by Voltaire, arguably the greatest French writer of the eighteenth century and certainly the most controversial and outspoken. It was first published in 1759, when the sixty-five-year-old author was living in exile in Switzerland because his sharp tongue and radical views had made life too hot for him in France. Voltaire wrote his tale as an angry attack on Optimism, which was the prevailing philosophy of the age, thanks to the works of the German thinker Leibniz, whose ideas, as Voltaire clearly saw, had been distorted and perverted by lesser brains into a callous refusal to sympathise with human suffering and to maintain that everything that happened in the world contributed to the general good.
Voltaire’s hatred of such smug optimism reached boiling point in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, killing tens of thousands of people, in 1755. At once the Post-Leibniz school of thought started trying to explain away this catastrophic event, claiming that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds and that there must be a rational explanation for this kind of natural disaster.
Incensed, Voltaire combated this insensitivity – and that of the Inquisition, which really did resume the burning of heretics immediately after the earthquake – by creating the monstrous Dr Pangloss, whose name is cod Greek for "understand everything". He bandies Leibnizian vocabulary about ("sufficient reason", "cause and effect"), but would rather philosophise than do anything to ease the lot of his fellow-creatures. Voltaire’s hero, Candide, whose name meant whiter-than-white or downright naïve in eighteenth-century French, is a gullible receptacle for Pangloss’ garbled logic. Candide’s gormlessness is underlined by the fact that Voltaire chooses to have him come from Westphalia – Westphalian jokes being the current French equivalent of today’s jibes at the Irish.
The story is one long learning curve for the ingenuous hero, who, in the course of Voltaire’s deliberately daft plot, is whisked round the world and confronted with a string of proofs that everything is certainly not all for the best. He is plunged into the horrors of military brutality, off the battlefield as well as on it. He sees the effects of syphilis as a payback for unbridled lust. He sees women forced into prostitution in order to survive. He sees human life being casually sacrificed in the pursuit of money and power. He meets Kings who have lost their influence and priests who cling on to theirs. He meets characters who are disgusted with life and characters who love life in spite of their disgust ... and in undergoing all these experiences, he finds out more home truths than Pangloss could ever teach him, including the most homely and truthful of all, that we can attain limited but satisfying peace of mind by making our gardens grow.
Two hundred years or so after it was written, Voltaire’s story became an opera. Rumour has it that Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the texts for Mozart’s great Italian operas, rejected Candide on the grounds that it could not be dramatised. That was arguably true in his day, but by the time Leonard Bernstein came to consider it, a theatrical revolution had taken place and the liberating ideas of Bertolt Brecht had blown under the long straight skirts of traditional stagecraft. Brecht’s fluid style did away with naturalistic scenery and introduced narrators to speed up the action. His influence can be clearly sensed in the style of Candide, in which Voltaire himself features as the main narrator, usually standing outside the action but often diving into it to take on key roles, including not only the grotesque Pangloss, but his diametric opposite, the embittered Dutchman Martin, who is convinced that this is the worst of all possible worlds.
With the story being told so energetically, untrammelled by set changes, Bernstein is free to bathe it in music of staggering versatility. The impudent and brash overture, well known in the concert hall, explodes with vitality, and thereafter Bernstein succeeds in writing music which captures perfectly the idiom of every character or situation. The Old Lady’s decadent tango, Pangloss’ music-hall turns, Cunégonde’s showpiece aria, every bit as glittering as her flashy jewellery, Candide’s meditative monologues, the impressionistic harmonies of the South American jungle, the ironic hornpipe while Vanderdendur’s ship sinks, are very different from each other, yet all belong intrinsically to the opera’s zany world, and are accessible enough to be whistled by audiences long after the show is over … and Bernstein leaves the best till last, because the opera ends with a beautiful and moving ensemble which is as inspired as it is inspiring.