A Big Band Christmas Jam
12/11/21 at 08:00pm
2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings
notes by Katherine Baber
First Performance: April 18, 1944. Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Collaboration in the arts always leads to at least a few sparks, but when two rising stars like Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein collide it throws off quite a bit of heat. The ballet Fancy Free (1944) was the first in a series of collaborations between the choreographer-director and composer that would culminate in the immense critical and popular success of West Side Story (1957). Their fame was nearly instantaneous, though. Fancy Free and their next project, the musical comedy On the Town (1944), had an irresistible appeal for New York audiences during World War II. Partly by design and partly by instinct, Robbins and Bernstein managed to capture the sound and feel of a particular American moment in a way that still resonates today.
Starting from the ballet’s premise—three sailors on shore leave—Bernstein and Robbins evoked and then embellished the sights and sounds of New York during the swing era. Beginning with Fancy Free, both Robbins and Bernstein would continue to cross boundaries of “high” and “low,” ranging from the street corner to Broadway to opera for their inspiration. In Robbins’s choreography, there are echoes of the every day steps and postures of dance floors all over New York: trucking, strutting, knee drops, the glide of the soft-shoe, and the acrobatics of the lindy. Bernstein’s music also draws on popular styles—cartoon music, boogie woogie and stride, the blues, swing jazz—and reveals the influence of Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, and Sergei Prokofiev. Reviewing the premiere, Louis Banciolli praised Bernstein’s music as it “snuggles slyly around dance patterns, snarls a bit in mock-epic style, and points up the given mood of swaggering insouciance.” Indeed, the feel of the dancers’ movements and their changes in attitude are embodied in Bernstein’s music as much as they are in Robbins’s choreography.
The original ballet score sets the scene with a blues number, “Big Stuff,” coming from a radio—a song Bernstein had written himself and which he hoped to have his favorite blues singer, Billie Holiday, perform. (The 1944 premiere featured his sister Shirley singing, but Holiday did record the number for Decca in 1946.) Bernstein then heralds the entrance of the “Three Sailors” by counting off with four sharp knocks from the percussion: “a one, two, three, four…” These are the first sounds heard in the score for the suite. The series of musical ideas that follow alternately strut in syncopated fashion and leap over a wide range, mimicking the swagger of the sailors and the arms and legs flung wide in Robbins’s choreography. A brief passage for stride piano (a style Bernstein was adept at performing) recurs now and then, its choppy, repetitive syncopation and slight dissonance eventually taken up by different sections in the call and response typical of swing band arrangements. The bold music of this introduction fades as the sailors decide to enter a bar and have a drink together (“Scene at a Bar”). An introspective theme introduced in the woodwinds conjures the empty, lonesome atmosphere of an Edward Hopper painting. The twitchy stride piano still occasionally intrudes, but distantly, as if nobody is really listening to it anymore. The rangy melody, the whispy timbre of the woodwinds, and a brief trumpet solo recall Copland’s incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play Quiet City (1940) and reflect the sense of isolation that is one of the realities of urban life.
The mood takes a turn for the brighter as the boys leave the bar and encounter their first real New York woman (“Enter Two Girls”). A bluesy vamp builds from the clarinets through the rest of the woodwinds and the brass section, culminating in a razzing flutter-tongue from the flutes and slippery trombone glissandi that give the passage “a rather nice and believable vulgarity,” to borrow the words of the New York Times critic. The music teases and taunts as the woman resists their pursuit (or harassment) and eventually leads two of them off on a chase. Left alone, the third sailor meets a new woman, who allows him to partner her in the “Pas de deux.” Another vamp lends a laidback and hazy atmosphere to the blues-tinged trumpet solo, later taken up by the woodwinds. At first lazy in its sensuality, the movement crescendos into a throbbing blues melody, voiced with the full force of the orchestra—a modern, libertine take on the romance of the traditional pas de deux.
The centerpiece of the score (and of the choreography) is the sequence of three solos—the Galop, Waltz, and Danzón—in which the sailors compete for the attention of the girls. The “Galop,” with music that alternately reminds one of Aram Katchaturian or Looney Toons, was an acrobatic tour-de-force for Harold Lang. The “Waltz” Bernstein composed for John Kriza’s solo takes a sweeter approach, seeking to beguile rather than overwhelm. There are still jazzy outbursts, though, as if the desire motivating this performance can’t quite be contained. The Cuban “Danzón,” which was Jerome Robbins’s own solo turn, uses the Latin tinge for its sensuality, balancing breezy statements of the melody in the flutes with the heat of the trumpet solos. This final pitch from the third sailor is perhaps the most strategic, alternating between the suave glide of some passages and the bolder strut of others. The appeal of Bernstein’s score is difficult to resist, but the young men’s one-upmanship ultimately yields no clear winner and they return to their close-knit camaraderie. In the raucous “Finale” the music swings out before the trio is left alone again (and presumably exhausted). A return to the wistful tone of the beginning of the scene, complete with a meandering piano solo, lets them feel sorry for themselves until—as a new woman swishes across the stage— the music sends the sailors tumbling on their way again.
Almost every reviewer remarked on the jazz-influenced score and choreography and on the youth of the co-creators: when the ballet premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in April of 1944, with Bernstein conducting, both choreographer and composer were still just twenty-five. Even now, we can feel the youthful excesses of the work—its humor, restlessness, sensuality, and enthusiasm. Paradoxically, in seeking to be “up to date” in the 1940s, Bernstein and Robbins managed to create something timeless.