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Suite from On the Waterfront

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; KEIGWIN + COMPANY / From Schuman to Bernstein May 7 - 8, 2014
© Thomas May

Ranked number 8 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American movies of all time, On the Waterfront also has a spot on the AFI's list of the top film scores in American cinema (number 22). Yet the music that Bernstein wrote during a three-month sojourn in Hollywood in 1954 represents his sole effort as a film composer. (Other film scores featuring his music are adapted from preexisting compositions.) It may seem curious that despite his grasp of the mass media as a platform to reach new audiences, Bernstein kept his distance from this genre.

The problem in general, he wrote, is that "it is a musically unsatisfactory for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness." Ruing the experience of the cutting room in "Upper Dubbing" (Columbia Pictures' sound-editing studio), he described how the film composer "sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting, be it with heavy heart, the inevitable loss of a good part of his score. Everyone tries to comfort him. ‘You can always use it in a suite.'"

Which is exactly what Bernstein did the following summer, crafting an independent concert work that develops the principal ideas from his film score into a neatly integrated musical experience. The score comprises five sections, though, as biographer Humphrey Burton points out, the result is less a "suite" of varied episodes than a tone poem drawing on the technique of thematic transformation pioneered by Liszt in his tone poems.

It's especially easy to follow the progress of these transformations, given the distinctive profile and expressive coloring of Bernstein's thematic material, beginning with the solo horn's theme (originally played out during the opening credit sequence). Mournful blues touches allude to the lonely city-Elia Kazan's film is set amid the rundown dockyards of Hoboken-while its violence is evoked by some of Bernstein's most aggressive writing. Here, he uses his "jazz mode" to convey nightmarish brutality rather than big-city exuberance.

At the suite's emotional center, Bernstein elaborates music from the unforgettable rooftop scene between the young lovers, Terry and Edie. Its main theme, associated with Terry (Marlon Brando's character) and a variant of the horn solo, is a characteristically yearning, widely spaced melody-a type that recurs in Bernstein's most sweepingly lyrical vein. (This melody is a cousin to "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide, for example.) After the violent music resurfaces, Bernstein supplants it with his most glorious transformation yet of Terry's theme and an ode to his defiant endurance.