Over his composing career Leonard Bernstein collaborated several times with the choreographer Jerome Robbins. Beginning with Fancy Free in 1944, they then worked on the less well known Facsimile in 1946. When, in 1957, Bernstein was working on the musical West Side Story, Robbins was the obvious person to choreograph the dance sequences that make up an important part of its content. Thereafter, Bernstein's often hectic conducting, composing and teaching schedule left time for only one further original collaboration - the ballet Dybbuk, which met with a decidedly equivocal success when it appeared in 1974.
Coming between the spectacle Mass (1971) and the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue(1976), Dybbuk is the second in a sequence of works with which Bernstein sought to convey his complex world view. Following on from his Third Symphony 'Kaddish' (1963) and Chichester Psalms (1965), the ballet incorporates fundamentally Jewish elements, with the then burning issue of tonal versus serial (twelve-note) music finding direct expression in the respective conflict of good and evil.
Written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, Dybbuk draws on the drama by Shlomo Ansky (1863-1920) which concerns the spirit that seeks to enter the body of a living person.
Two young men, David and Jonathan, swear an oath of friendship, stating if one should beget a son and the other a daughter, then these children will join in marriage: these children emerge as Channon and Leah. When the ballet begins, Channon's father has died and Leah's father, forgetting his pledge, has arranged for her to marry a wealthy suitor. Desperate to honour his dead father's pledge, and to fulfil the implicit love between them, Channon calls upon the power of the Kabbalah, but the satanic forces conjured up overwhelm and destroy him. At Leah's wedding, his spirit returns in the guise of a dybbuk, possessing her spirit so she speaks with Channon's voice. A rabbinic court is called in order to exorcise the dybbuk, which is duly expelled, but Leah cannot live without her predestined bridegroom, and renounces her own life so that she may follow Channon into oblivion.
The ballet opens with Invocation and Trance, where stark orchestral chords and vocal chanting, heard at various points, and drawn from the Havdalah (Jewish Sabbath Service), the Book of Samuel and the Song of Solomon, lead into an angular dance for brass, then strings and winds over a pizzicato bass. This grows in intensity and then dies away before continuing aggressively on full orchestra, before retreating into silence. There follows The Fathers (David & Jonathan) – The Pledge. This section begins with expressive string phrases which give way to a lyrical melody in the winds. It evolves into a stylized dance which continues in the winds before the strings and brass interject and take it over, building to a brief climax. The movement concludes on a softly dissonant chord. Next comes Variation O – Messengers (Angelic Messengers), a brief but ominous episode dominated by anticipatory gestures on wind and percussion, which ends quietly but expectantly.
A brief but nostalgic interlude for two solo male voices and strings, entitled Kabbalah (Movement 3a), leads into The Dream, a highly expressive threnody with woodwind and celesta enhancing the mood of troubled recollection, duly intensifying as the music tapers off into undulating ostinato patterns and regretful phrases for solo strings. Now follow the Kabbalah Variations - after an introduction for two male voices and percussion (Movement 4a), the Kabbalah unfolds over six variations: an angular toccata music fronted by brass and percussion; a brief exchange for trumpet, winds, percussion and strings; a variation for woodwind, pizzicato strings and percussion; then one for tensile woodwind and strings, underpinned by offbeat percussion; a variation for ejaculatory brass and lightly ironic woodwind; and finally, Variation Z, in which a sparse backdrop of percussion and winds presages rhythmically trenchant music for strings, brass and percussion. This gathers momentum before leading into Alchemy - Variation O, a brief but atmospheric apotheosis of the ballet thus far.
The scene is now that of the wedding. In Leah (Maiden's Dance) the heroine's dance begins hesitantly on strings and woodwind, over light percussion, building to an energetic apex, then resuming delicately as before. Possession begins with stark, sinister chords for pizzicato strings and percussion, followed by disjointed, perfunctory phrases passed between solo and full strings. These develop into angular dance rhythms as the movement progresses. Demon is a hectic number launched by heavily accented rhythms, with skittering contributions from tuned percussion and sardonic contributions from solo woodwinds and strings, leading into Pas de Deux, a spectral though expressive dance for Leah and Channon, which moves to an impulsive climax before its subdued close. The climax comes with Exorcism: stabbing brass chords preface further chanting over dissonant strings, then brass and percussion build to a climax of uninhibited violence. A final passage of chanting, The Community (Reprise & Coda), indicates the completion of the exorcism process, only for the 'trance' music heard near the beginning to return, as before, in a darkly ironic recessional for the whole ballet.
First performed by New York City Ballet on 16 May 1974, Dybbuk was hailed as Bernstein's best work in a decade, yet failed to establish itself in the repertory. Bernstein arranged the music into two separate suites, of which he gave the première with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in April 1975. This recording offers a rare opportunity to hear the ballet as originally conceived, in which the concept of dualities central to Ansky's drama, notably that of the 'true' (i.e. spiritual) world versus the human world, is most pertinently conveyed.
Different in every respect is the ballet Fancy Free, first seen in New York on 18 April 1944 and which brought Bernstein his first big public success. Yet for all its sophisticated chic, Fancy Free is almost symphonically conceived in the way that its seven sections all merge into a coherent entity, each of them informed by aspects of the ebullient theme heard at the outset of the ballet. Before curtain up, the sound of a juke box playing the blues number Big Stuff, originally sung by Billie Holiday, can be heard. Set in wartime America, the scene is a New York side-street bar, into which three sailors raucously emerge. On leave in the city for just 24 hours, they are on the lookout for girls: the story of how they meet one, then another, fight over and lose them, then pursue a third, is the scenario on which the ballet is based.
Enter Three Sailors features jaunty contributions from piano, allotted a concertante rôle throughout much of the score, and percussion, adding greatly to the breezy atmosphere. At length this dies down into Scene at the Bar, where woodwind and strings have the effect of expectantly marking time. Enter Two Girls is a raunchy number with solo piano continuing nonchalantly in the background, and which aptly evokes two males and two females intently sizing each other up. There follows a Pas de Deux, beginning hesitantly, then gaining in conviction as it combines the plaintive and the smoochy with knowing style.
This evolves into Competition Scene, the music taking on new urgency as the protagonists engage in a confrontational foursome. It moves into three set-pieces. Variation 1 (Galop) is a bracing number which features much hectic syncopation for brass and strings. Variation 2 (Waltz) is a lilting number that takes on a more forceful demeanour at its height. Variation 3 (Danzón) is a rhythmical and subtly-inflected number which evokes both the urbanity and earthiness of Cuban dance music. This leads into Finale, which brings the musical and narrative concerns of the ballet to a climax, an ominous passage for woodwind and solo strings indicating the emotional stalemate of the four characters. The bar music resumes on piano and percussion as if nothing had taken place, before a brass-dominated outburst, implying new amorous adventures, concludes the ballet in decisive fashion.