Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Wednesday, April 18

Bernstein's Fancy Free

Synopsis

It was on today’s date in 1944 that the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein ballet “Fancy Free” was first danced by the Ballet Theater at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. It was a big hit. Bernstein himself conducted, and alongside Robbins and set designer Oliver Smith, took some 20 curtain calls.

“The ballet is strictly wartime America, 1944,” wrote Bernstein, “The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side-street bar, and New York skyscrapers making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode onto the stage. They are on 24-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.”

In a curious parallel to the stage action described by Bernstein, the ballet had been first pitched to composer Morton Gould, who said he was too busy, then to Vincent Persichetti, who in turn suggested Bernstein as a third, and perhaps better choice to produce a more hip, jazzy, and danceable score.

Putting music, choreography and set designs together proved a logistical challenge, as Bernstein was working on the East Coast, Robbins was on tour elsewhere in the country, and Smith was in Mexico. Bernstein made piano four-hand recordings as he completed each section of the music, and mailed these off to his partners. His piano-bench partner for those work-in-progress recordings, by the way, was none other than Aaron Copland.

Music Played in Today's Program

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Fancy Free Ballet New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, cond. Sony 63085

Additional Information

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