Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an erudite, passionate musician whose exceptional talents and expressive gifts earned him a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. His rose to instant national fame in 1943, at age 25, when he filled in for the suddenly ill Bruno Walter as conductor of a nationally televised New York Philharmonic performance. He went on to become the Philharmonic’s music director until 1969, and remained a frequent guest conductor there until his death. With the Philharmonic, he presented a series of 53 educational Young People’s Concerts which were broadcast on CBS, making him a familiar face around the nation. He also composed music, crossing from academic classical music into Broadway musicals, including West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
The Broadway musical West Side Story first came into being in 1957 as a collaboration between Bernstein (as composer), choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthuer Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Its story is based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Set in the 1950s on Manhattan’s West Side, it tells the tragic tale of Tony and Maria, whose rival gangs doom their young love. The musical became a film in 1961, winning 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bernstein’s music was often a character itself, giving the film psychological direction in many long dance sequences. Originaly written in English, West Side Story is currently being revived on Broadway in a bilingual version, with the Puerto Rican Sharks speaking and singing mostly in Spanish while the white Jets retain their English.
Four Dances from West Side Story features some of the highlights of these dance sequences transcribed for band. The “Scherzo” is a light-hearted, care-free movement that aptly opens the suite. The “Mambo” comes from the gym scene where the Jets and the Sharks meet and dance while trying to suppress their hostility towards each other. The “Mambo” fades into the “Cha-Cha” as Tony and Maria notice each other for the first time and dance together, transfixed. The anxiety-ridden “Fugue” is based on material from the song “Cool”, in which the Jets are convincing each other to bottle up their overwhelming emotions. The fugue’s subject is a 12-tone row, lending a worrisome and tense feeling to the movement. Each new statement of the theme adds more layers until the texture explodes into a percussion-heavy statement of the main theme from “Cool”.
There is much material about both Bernstein and West Side Story on the web. The survey below only scratches the surface.
Leonardbernstein.com – a true treasure trove of everything Bernstein, including many personal reflections by friends, relatives, and colleagues.
Leonard Bernstein on Wikipedia.
The Leonard Bernstein Collection at the US Library of Congress.
A lengthy and heartfelt essay on Bernstein and his influence at classicalnotes.net.
West Side Story main website. Includes information on performances all over the world, lyrics to the songs, and other information.
West Side Story the musical on Wikipedia.
West Side Story new Broadway production website.
Preview of West Side Story book (for the musical) on Google Books.
Website of Ian Polster, arranger.
And now, some YouTube action:
Aside from the fact that they don’t shout “MAMBO!” and some mistaken rhythms at the beginning of “Cool”, this is a really nice performance of the Four Dances:
The movie version of “Cool”, featuring the bits we play from about 1:30-4:00.
Gym scene, featuring bits of our “Mambo” and “Cha-Cha” (starting around 2:54):
This piece was a Senior Choice for clarinetist Angelica Ortega ’05.