Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story


Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25th, 1918. The son of Ukrainian Jewish parents, Bernstein’s interest in music education was initially opposed by his father, who was a businessman in the area. His father’s attitude began to change when Bernstein was in his teenage years, where he started taking him to orchestral concerts, and from there Bernstein’s musical education was supported by both of his parents. Saying this, however, it was from a young age that Bernstein began engaging with classical music, more specifically – piano music.

Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music. He had an active musical life around the Harvard campus, where he was involved in musical productions, piano accompaniment, and conducting. Bernstein began taking conducting more seriously after meeting Dimitri Mitropoulos, who’s power as a musician had such an influence over him. During his first year at Harvard, Bernstein also met composer, Aaron Copland. Although he was never officially a student of Copland’s, Bernstein often stated that he was his only ‘real composition teacher.’

After graduating with a BA in music in 1939, Bernstein moved onto study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting, piano performance, orchestration, counterpoint, and score reading. After his time at Curtis, Bernstein moved to New York, where he began taking on music jobs, be that conducting, publishing, producing, or even transcribing music. 1940 saw Bernstein attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute, where he went to conducting classes, led by Serge Koussevitzky. By 1951, Bernstein became Koussevitsky’s conducting assistant, and then the head of the orchestra after Koussevitsky’s death.

Bernstein’s conducting career began to flourish, and he took positions at the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Symphony, where he became very popular both nationally and internationally. The same can also be said about his career in composition, with his score for the ballet Fancy Free (which later became the basis of the musical On the Town), and his Jeremiah Symphony becoming some of his first very successful works.

During the mid-1950s, Bernstein composed the music for two broadway shows. The first, was for the operetta, Candide, which premiered in 1956. The second was a collaboration between Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Bernstein – West Side Story. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1957, this score has remained one of Bernstein’s most challenging. As much as I would love to go even further into all the work that Bernstein did over the course of his career, I feel like this is a more appropriate place to move onto engaging with West Side Story, and the orchestral piece that came from the score.


The Music

Due to the immediate success that West Side Story received from critics and audiences, Bernstein soon adapted it into the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961. The show became an artistic landmark, due to its fusion of opera, ballet, jazz, classical, as well as seriously complex vocal and instrumental demands on the cast and orchestra. This powerful show outlines the classic love vs hate storyline, where two street gangs clash horns on the streets of New York.

Bernstein created the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961, which sees nine connected movements of music, which has been taking from the original show. Although all of the movements create one piece of music, the order in which the music appears is different from the show itself. The nine movements are as follows:

Prologue (Allegro Moderato)

‘Somewhere’ (Adagio)

Scherzo (Vivace e Leggiero)

Mambo (Meno Presto)

Cha-Cha (Andantino Con Grazia)

Meeting Scene (Meno Mosso)

‘Cool’, Fugue (Allegretto)

8.Rumble (Molto Allegro)

Finale (Adagio)


Perhaps one of the reasons why this particular ‘Symphonic Dance’ suite has become so popular, is because it is a stand-alone concert piece in its own right. One does not need to have any prior knowledge of West Side Story to be able to understand and enjoy this work. However, for those interested, for each section I shall offer a short outline of what unfolds in the scene from the show, which may add some context to the music.


1. Prologue – ‘The growing rivalry between two teenage gangs – the Jets and the Sharks’

Throughout the ‘Prologue’, Bernstein keeps the listener on their toes, whether that is through extremities in ranges or dynamics, or through the surprising accents heard. Some main themes are established in this movement. This whole section is rather unsettled, which represents the tension between the two gangs. The quiet sections build up tension, with short bursts of extremely loud brass-led sections show the anger and frustration of the music. A short burst of a jazz theme is heard, before returning to one of the main themes. The music is structured chaos, and the drive of the music is exciting, until it begins to calm down with its segue into the next, much slower section.


2. ‘Somewhere’ – ‘In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship’

The relief from the start of this section, after the tension-loaded ‘Prologue’ is very welcome. This beautiful adagio section is led by the strings, and hears the famous melody from ‘Somewhere’ being played out, and then developed by the orchestra. This melody rises to the 7th of the chord, but then falls to the 6th, which shows the reach for hope for a ‘Somewhere’, but instead the fall shows the in-completion of this dream. Towards the end of this movement we hear the winds and brass enter to exclaim ‘Somewhere!’, but this soon dies away, and the transition into the next section is set up.


3. Scherzo – ‘In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun’

Back into a major tonality in the ‘Scherzo’, this movement is upbeat, positive and driven to achieve this atmosphere of ‘space, sun, and air’. With a sweet melody in the high winds and tuned percussion leading this section, the brass and strings interject throughout, but never fully penetrate the music properly. This playful movement differs from both the first and second movements. The seamless transition in and out of this movement is surely some of Bernstein’s finer orchestrating.


4. Mambo – ‘Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs’

The sweet and playful nature of the previous movement is soon dissolved with the boisterous nature of ‘Mambo’. The use of accidentals here give a certain uneasiness to the music, paired with the extensive use of percussion and brass to create the Bernstein flair we have all grown to love. The accented dance rhythms create the excitement of a dance battle, with references to Latin rhythms and jazz, this section is perhaps one of the most exhilarating.


5. Cha-Cha – ‘The star-crossed lovers (Tony and Maria) see each other for the first time, and dance together’

After the incredibly powerful dance battle, this section is much more settled in it’s melody unity. The instrumentation is perhaps the most interesting part of this sequence, with the lower winds being used to create an air of curiosity, whereas the upper winds are used for the sweet melodies. The tambourine and shaker remind us that this is still a dance scene, with their rhythmic patterns. The sweetness of this section represents the two lovers meeting for the first time.


6. Meeting Scene – ‘Music accompanies their first spoken words’

After the easiness of the previous section, the tonality of the next is surprising. Bernstein’s use of a tritone is grating, and the way it is repeated could represent the yearning between the two characters. This is only a very short section, but it offers a melodic transition into the seventh section.


7. ‘Cool’, Fugue – An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility’

The main melodic kernel from the song ‘Cool’ is established early on in this sequence. Again, Bernstein’s intelligent orchestrations highlight interesting pairing’s of instruments to play the call and response sections of the song. The underlying swung snare beat creates quite a foreboding atmosphere. This movement builds up into another big outburst from the whole orchestra. We see the return of surprising accents, led by the brass, which could also represent the physical struggle from the scene.


8. Rumble – ‘Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed’

It is very interesting that ‘Rumble’ is placed after ‘Cool’, considering their opposing points of view. The constant off-kilter rhythms create the conflict and builds the tension up. The ‘Maria’ theme is used in this movement, but instead of symbolising love, it symbolises a war cry, which can be heard in the trombones and horns. The flute cadenza at the end of this movement reflects Maria’s innocence towards the conflict, and the blood that has been shed at the ‘Rumble’.


9. Finale – ‘Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of ‘Somewhere’

This movement utilises the theme from ‘Somewhere’. The strings and winds are used to represent the mourning and tears shed at the death of the protagonist, Tony. The slow and rich build up to when the muted trumpets enter, represent the funeral procession. The repetition of the ‘Somewhere’ theme at the end hones in on the idea of reaching that somewhere, but under tragic circumstances. The idea of this scene is that both gangs reach out for some level of peace, it has been due to the tragic loss of Tony. The final Cb/F chord creates some kind of uncertainty, which perhaps shows that although the gangs may be reaching out now, the tension will never be fully resolved due to the loss of life in ‘Rumble’.


Final Thoughts

A multi-dimensional work can easily stand alone as its own concert piece, due to its seamless musicality, orchestration and imagery used throughout. This work is demanding for even the top orchestras, with its infamously difficult brass parts. An absolutely fantastic work, which is a must listen, especially if you’re a fan of West Side Story!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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