Thomas Eakins. Max Schmitt in a single scull

The sufferings of the world and the desperation of a hopeless love conspire to drag Candide from naïve optimism to resigned skepticism, yet, even in the face of Voltaire’s ridicule he clings to the belief that this is, in fact, the best of all possible worlds.

That was the fourth draft, but I still wasn’t sure. Then I saw the painting, and that convinced me, finally, to leave it be.

Those words are in the score of my new string quartet, The Best of All Possible Worlds. “New” is not quite right; it’s my only string quartet. Well, the first since a student piece called Rondo, which I sure hope I’ve burnt by now. That was actually performed in a real, non-student concert and got a nice little review. I remember it vividly, because the headline of the review called it, let me see, what was it?…oh yes, Rodeo. Not the actual title of the piece, no, that wouldn’t do, let’s call it, in very large type, hm, here we go: Kile Smith’s Rodeo. Ah, Rodeo for string quartet. Ah yes, I remember it well.

[First draft]:

The world beckons Candide from optimism to realism, deploying profound suffering and the despair of unfulfilled love. But he remains, in Voltaire’s eyes, a naïf, retaining the unreasonable belief that this is, in fact, the best of all possible worlds.

I would never name a piece Rodeo, any more than I would name a piece Water Music, La MerSloop John B, or Candide. (Okay, maybe Sloop John B). But there I was, reading Voltaire’s Candide. I was reading it for the same reason I read many things. I was shamed into it because a person I admired brought it up in conversation and I had never read it.

[Second draft]:

Tremendous suffering drags the young naïf Candide into realism. Thus Voltaire satirizes the optimism of Leibniz, often epitomized in the phrase “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Despite Candide’s popularity, optimism has much to offer. Still, suffering is real. This quartet is

So I read it, and it has stayed with me. I wasn’t sure, at first, why. It is a silly little satire, quite over the top. Voltaire ridicules the philosophical optimism of Leibniz, but he doesn’t really comes to grips with Leibniz; he keeps playing the same joke over and over on his cardboard characters. Moreover, his own worldview seems to be summed up, at best, as a shrug of the shoulders, which seems (again, at best) sad. Nevertheless, I came to a grudging acceptance of Voltaire’s talents. He does strike a chord when he says, basically: Life Happens, Stop Whining, Take Responsibility. And it has stayed with me.

But there’s more. Lady Cunegund. She’s what drives Candide around the world; she makes the story. He stays faithful to her throughout, but that’s not the problem. Voltaire doesn’t allow them to fall in love, both at the same time, that is: that’s the problem. I don’t know if it’s because Lady Cunegund stands in for Voltaire himself, who would not fall for the philosophy of Leibniz, or because she sees that Candide is a fool. I don’t know, and I’m not sure Voltaire knows, either. There’s the dilemma C.S. Lewis poses in Miracles: does Ophelia die because Shakespeare wants her to die, or because the branch breaks?

Voltaire wants to both accuse God and dismiss Him, but it seems to me that you can do one or the other but not both. If he’s mad, he at least could create some real drama (rather than this tract), maybe even try to save Ophelia. I mean, Candide. But if he dismisses God, whom does he accuse? Maybe that explains the shrug: it’s the best he can come up with. In Hamlet, we care about Ophelia; her death is a tragedy. But Candide, the Lady, Pangloss? We don’t care about them, not really. They’re just fools. Only Voltaire is wise.

[Third draft]:

Voltaire drags the young Candide from naïveté to realism by way of suffering, and thus satirizes the optimism of Leibniz, often epitomized in the phrase “this is the best of all possible worlds.” These days, the title of Candide is more popular than its text, but realism is held to be honest, optimism is ridiculed as childish. Suffering is real. And yet, Candide never did wholly

Well, I am no philosopher. As to the string quartet, I frankly take Candide’s side. The waltz—for that is what it is—remains blithely naïve, even through some hints of soul-searching. I’m indebted to the Beautiful Blue Danube of Strauss and to Ravel’s La Valse, one of the most ravishing pieces of the 20th century. One of the many things it demonstrates is that it is possible for a work to reach two contrary goals. La Valse both critiques the waltz, and is a waltz. On a less ambitious level, The Best of All Possible Worlds invites us to sit in judgment on Candide’s foolhardiness, and to join him in it.  This may turn out to be the middle movement of something larger, but for right now it’s on its own.

Violist David Yang is bringing in brilliant colleagues of his for this newly created ensemble, which will premiere this at Christ Church in Old City Philadelphia on Friday, May 1st, at 8 pm. Also on the program are the Stravinsky Canon and the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 15. I call my piece a Valse lent, and David thinks that if I’m going to call it that, then I might as well put all the score indications into French, too. He’s got a point; must think about that. The church is on 2nd Street above Market, cheek-by-jowl to galleries galore that are open on First Fridays, inspiring Christ Church’s First Friday Concert Series.


Max Schmitt's milieu, now. Is there a better world?