Suite from “On the Waterfront”
2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings
notes by Katherine Baber
I. Andante (with dignity) - Presto barbaro
II. Adagio - Allegro molto agitato - Alla breve
III. Andante largamente - More flowing - Lento
IV. Moving forward - Largamente - Andante come prima
V. Allegro non troppo, molto marcato - Poco più sostenuto
VI. A tempo
Composed 1954. First performance: August 11, 1955, Tanglewood Music Festival. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein, conductor.
In writing the score for Eliza Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”, Bernstein deliberately confronted the highly-charged political atmosphere of the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were still terrorizing artists, a trend that had started in 1947 with the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten. Among the many hearings that followed, in which several of Bernstein’s close associates were called to testify, Kazan was one of the artists who “named names.” Bernstein himself made it onto lists of “Communist sympathizers,” was investigated by the FBI, and even had his passport revoked in 1953. One could understand his skepticism, then, about working with Kazan, so it seems the film’s subject must have been compelling. In a plot that resonated with the pro-labor, pro-integration political convictions of the 1940s Popular Front, dockworker Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, helps to overthrow a corrupt union boss.
In the Andante—Presto barbaro, we hear the two themes featured during the opening credits of the film. First, a solo horn unfolds “with dignity” one of Bernstein’s most evocative melodies. Arcing over a full octave before turning downward through a poignant blue note, this melody seems to embody the troubled anti-hero Terry Malloy (he “could have been a contender”). Then the percussion battery intrudes with the thundering syncopations that often accompany scenes at the docks, evoking both the strenuous labor of the workers and the potential danger they face. A solo saxophone introduces the motive that ties the rest of the score together: a descending tritone that is inherently unstable, threatening to send the harmony into chaos. The aggressive agogic accents of this line, later taken up by the brass and the tutti orchestra, add to the unsettling quality of the second theme. These two poles—the noble cause and the violence of the city—play out in the rest of the suite. The second movement, Adagio—Allegro molto agitato, is filled with relentlessly churning figures in the strings and shot through with unpredictable accents from the brass and woodwinds in a manner Bernstein lifted straight from Stravinsky. The horn melody returns in the third movement, Andante largamente, to open up a space for reflection and perhaps even romance as the solo flute, accompanied by harp, and luminous string lines twist and turn around one another. The fourth movement begins in a similarly tender vein, but with greater momentum and a sense of purpose—after all, it is Terry’s love interest, Edie, who galvanizes him to action. There are more struggles, of course, but eventually the opening horn melody is restated and affirmed as the orchestral texture builds, culminating in a triumphant finale. This was Bernstein’s one and only film score, but his foray into the realm of film noir, particularly its frank and gritty depiction of the city, turned out to have been good preparation for West Side Story. The influence of jazz and the blues is evident in both works, and the tritone returns in the musical, in the upward yearning of “Maria,” and again serves to unify the whole score.