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West Side Story

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Tzimon Barto, piano, plays Gershwin Jan. 22 - 24, 2011
© Thomas May

Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton aptly observes that "even in its show form, West Side Story is symphonically conceived." Meanwhile, the vital pulse of the dance had been integral to its conception from the start. The work not only represented a watershed in American musical theater but became a legendary success on Broadway at its opening in September 1957.

Bernstein supervised the arrangement of a concert suite in the winter of 1960-61. His colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal—both of whom had recently scored the film version of West Side Story—assisted in the orchestration of Symphonic Dances, which features an extensive percussion section for the "action" sequences. The concert version of this much-loved music was premiered just a few weeks after Kennedy's Inauguration, in February 1961, as part of a "Valentine" by the New York Philharmonic for Bernstein. (The film itself was released later that October.)

Symphonic Dances seamlessly ties together nine separate episodes from West Side Story—though not in their original dramatic sequence. Bernstein had toyed with the notion of a formal overture but wisely decided to open the musical in the middle of things instead. The music for the danced confrontation between Jets and Sharks simmers with tension. The composer once compared the fanfare-like motif of the opening to the call of the shofar (the ram's horn traditionally used in Jewish services). This motif pivots on a tritone, the uneasy-sounding interval that is seeded throughout the entire score and serves as its fundamental motivic idea. The tritone's inherent ambiguity is apparent from the motif's appearance in the gang music as well as in the opening notes of "Maria," with their suggestion of longing.

Menace yields to the fragile hope expressed in "Somewhere," a dream vision of love which occurs near the beginning of the second act. But cloudier harmonies darken the picture to underline its utopian unreality. A brief Scherzo hints at the Americana landscapes of Bernstein's friend Aaron Copland. This acts as a transition to the Latin-tinged music for the Dance at the Gym, where Tony and Maria meet and instantly fall in love. The stylized energy of the dances sublimates the gangs' violent impulses, while the gentle rhythms of "Cha-Cha" focus the camera on the young lovers.

The brief "Meeting Scene," however, is set against the ugly, ever-present threat of violence, this time channeled into a thrilling jazz-fugue sequence. Bernstein unleashes the pent-up ferocity of ethnic hatred between the Sharks and Jets in the climactic "Rumble." But the possibility of a way out of this dead end returns in the lyrical intensity of Maria's "I Have a Love," introduced by a meandering flute solo. The harmonies darken once more, and a brief reprise of the "Somewhere" chorus concludes the suite. Still lingering at the end, deep in the bass, is the ambiguous tritone.

—Thomas May is a frequent contributor to the National Symphony program books. His books include The John Adams Reader and Decoding Wagner (both from Amadeus Press).