About this Piece
Duration: 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, triangle, wood block), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 10, 1944, Leonard Bernstein conducting (West Coast premiere; Ballet Theatre at Hollywood Bowl)
A particular historical moment sometimes calls for a particular form of artistic expression. Leonard Bernstein's ballet score Fancy Free, composed for Jerome Robbins and premiered in April 1944 at the Metropolitan Opera, is a nearly exact contemporary of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, composed for Martha Graham and premiered in October 1944 at the Library of Congress. Both draw from American vernacular sources for subject and style, and both feature widely-spaced melodies and transparent scoring - indeed, there are moments where a casual listener might well confuse the two. These similarities, however, mask a profound aesthetic difference. It is Copland's genius that his Americanisms so gracefully open up broader horizons; Bernstein's, that his so precisely capture a time and place. As he wrote in notes for the January 1945 premiere of the concert version:
"From the moment the action begins, with the sound of a juke box wailing behind the curtain, the ballet is strictly wartime America, 1944. The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side-street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode onto the stage. They are on twenty-four-hour shore leave in the city and on the prowl for girls. The tale of how they meet first one, then a second girl, and how they fight over them, lose them, and in the end take off after still a third, is the story of the ballet."
"Explode onto the stage" is an apt description for the jazzy syncopations of the opening dance. The Pas de deux begins with muted wind phrases that build to a sweeping climax. As the sailors' impulse leads to action, the Competition Scene finds them outdoing each other in short irregular outbursts that gradually settle into a steady pulse; an extended piano solo suggests the ragtime entertainer in a bar. Three dance variations follow: the Galop, its single-minded rhythm punctuated by snare drum; the Waltz, whose gentler cadences owe less to Vienna than to New York; and the South American-inspired Danzon, which moves through the widest tonal and expressive range. The Finale again features extended passages for piano in the middle section before gathering momentum to the sparkling end.
-- Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music and is a co-curator of the Los Angeles Philhar-monic's Inside/Outside seminar series.