One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" (arr. and orch. Ramin and Kostal)
1. Prologue
2. “Somewhere” – adagio
3. Scherzo – vivace leggiero
4. Mambo – presto
5. Cha-cha (“Maria”) – andantino con grazia
6. Meeting Scene – meno mosso
7. “Cool” Fugue – allegretto
8. Rumble – molto allegro
9. Finale – adagio
Love him or loathe him, “Lenny” was a real one-off. In fact, part of his uniqueness was that you could do both – adore one work and find another squirmingly embarrassing, be enchanted by one interpretation and appalled by another. Again, to some his podium manner expressed gut-level passion for the music, whilst others saw only cynical showmanship. There’s no middle ground – loving or loathing, but never bland indifference. The one thing I think everyone agrees is that without him the world’s a poorer place.
In some ways, Bernstein seemed to fill the slot vacated by Gershwin. His style was similarly based on jazz – especially “hot” jazz – idioms infused with a subtle Jewish aroma. His music also oozed the same melodic flair and rude vitality – although, admittedly, Bernstein’s vitality was by far the ruder. He was a compulsive communicator, in any and every medium he could lay his hands on.
Like Mahler before him, Bernstein the composer never let mere matters of “good taste” get in the way of his expressive intentions. If the occasion demanded sentimentality, then he’d shovel in the saccharine, if brutal anger, then on would go the knuckle-dusters. Looked at in this light, it comes as no surprise to find that – regardless of its actual purpose or context – Bernstein’s finest “all-American” music breathed the very air, not of Carnegie Hall, but of Broadway.
As if to demonstrate the point, his first major work was a symphony (No. 1, 1943, f.p. 1944), which won him little more than critical acclaim. However, his very next efforts were altogether a different matter. Due in no small part to Bernstein’s pulsating music, Fancy Free (1944) sent shock waves through America’s ballet fraternity. He soon found himself collaborating – at white heat – with Betty Comden and Adolphe Green. Within months, the balletic scenario had fathered a fully-fledged Broadway musical. On the Town was a smash-hit, and Bernstein was the talk of the town.
During the next decade or so he steadily consolidated his theatrical credentials, serving up a vastly varied menu ranging from the ballet Facsimile (1946) and the opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952), to the musical Wonderful Town (1953) and the brilliant film score for On the Waterfront (1954), with the rather “way-out” operetta Candide (1956) occupying the middle ground. It was all admirable music, yet none of it quite rivalled the incandescent invention of On the Town. Bernstein was starting to look a bit – just a bit, mind – of a “one hit wonder”.
In a nutshell, a “hit” is something that’s huge today and gone tomorrow. At best, it may retire gracefully, to be nursed by posterity’s nostalgics or, like On the Town, snuggled in a cosy corner of the repertoire. Very, very rarely does a composer produce a “hit that never dies”, one that goes on winning the hearts of generation after generation. In 1957, through his music for West Side Story, Bernstein all but bulldozed his way into this exclusive company.
However – much as our romantic bones would like us to imagine otherwise – it didn’t happen overnight, and neither did it happen in a blaze of untrammelled inspiration. Instead, it took nine years of dedicated – albeit for a long time intermittent – hard slog, and much of what Bernstein described as “re-re-re-writing”. The results, however, more than justified the effort.
Arguably the definitive musical, West Side Story broke new ground on several fronts. Broadway musicals are not known for their seriousness yet, episodes of fun and frolics notwithstanding, West Side Story relates a heartrending tragedy of truly operatic proportions. However, an opera it is not – its entire technique and approach, right down to the traditional division of the rôles of “composer” and “orchestrator”, is that of the musical comedy.
Again, although inevitably stylised, it is a far cry from traditional escapist entertainment, adopting as it does an unflinching, raw-knuckled approach to a wholly realistic, contemporary “social problem”. Moreover (dare I suggest?) it has a more credible plot than the Shakespearean original on which it is based!
Yet, perhaps its most impressive feature is the integrity of its approach. Quite unlike the general run of musical shows, the songs and dances were part and parcel of the unfolding drama, as intrinsic to the plot as the dialogue. Everything was bonded by Bernstein’s scenario-suffusing music which, in the Broadway context, was utterly exceptional for two main reasons.
Firstly we have what I’ll call the “style”. The New York dockland isn’t so far from the West Side and, in terms of its juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness, neither is On the Waterfront from West Side Story. As happy coincidences go, this takes some beating, for the fruit of the film was the show’s stylistic prototype. Secondly, Bernstein cunningly deployed specific classical techniques, which substantially strengthened the characterisation and the cumulative impact of his music.
I would guess that, after Bernstein himself, nobody knew the score so well as his co-orchestrators. Sid Ramin and Erwin Kostal’s continuous suite of Symphonic Dances – which, incidentally, incorporates several song tunes – is a wonderfully sympathetic distillation of the original score, not just preserving the essence of both style and techniques but actually amplifying our awareness of these singular features.
Thus, on the one hand, a light dusting of leitmotif and variation produced the fragile filigree of the Cha-cha that so charmingly underlines the tentative, almost fearful budding of the “forbidden” love between Tony and Maria. On the other hand, as exemplified by the Prologue and “Cool”, Bernstein’s application of fugue to big-band Swing unleashes a truly alarming degree of naked aggression that’s all the more disturbing – and necessarily so – for sounding so young at heart. It must have rocked the Broadway audiences back on their heels and, over fifty years down the line, it’s still liable to pin the unwary to the wall.
The frenzied Mambo recalls in spirit the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, tempting me to follow Weber’s example and dub it “the apotheosis of the dance-band”. However, it’s more significant that Bernstein is in effect clothing aggression in the garb of competitive macho posturing. The example of the Mambo shows that Bernstein, far from churning out generalised “blanket brutality”, is continually modulating the sense of these episodes to press a pertinent psychological point. For, more than any amount of Shakespeare’s – or Sondheim’s – prose, his music reminds us that this is essentially a tale of youngsters whose physical strength is maturing far faster than their minds, and whose “playground squabbles” are thereby destined to spiral disastrously out of control. It’s not for nothing that this work is called a “musical”!
© Paul Serotsky, 2007  

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


Conditions for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.

Return to: Music on the Web