Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story: the 20th-century Urban Romance
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Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story: the 20th-century Urban Romance

The performance practice and history of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, 1960.

Bernstein wrote in his book The Joy of Music, "But some people have "explained" the glory of a thunderstorm - now and then, with varying degrees of success - and such people are called poets. Only artists can explain magic; only art can substitute for nature. By the same token, only art can substitute for art. And so the only way one can really say anything about music is to write music."

A prolific composer, Bernstein wrote for almost all genres. Without doubt, Leonard Bernstein was one of the greatest American composers. He was well trained, studying composition at Harvard, piano at Curtis and conducting at Tanglewood. He had his conducting debut while still in college conducting his own incidental music to The Birds. After studying with Serge Koussevitzky, he became his conducting assistant and later took over the orchestral and conducting posts at Tanglewood after Koussevitzky's death. It was the sudden illness of Bruno Walter that propelled Bernstein into the conducting limelight in 1943 when he filled in with only a few hours notice conducting a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. He was also a pianist of great ability; when Aaron Copland was going to have his piano sonata premiered, and the pianist who was to have played it got sick, Bernstein learned the score, memorized it, and played the premiere - in just twenty-four hours.

Bernstein's catalogue of works is amazing in its diversity and its voluminous contents. His own Jewish heritage inspired many of his works, including his first large scale work Symphony No. 1 "Jeremiah" (1943). His Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish", dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, was premiered by the Israel Philharmonic, the start of a life-long relationship with that orchestra. Jazz was a strong inspiration for composition. This influence can be heard in many of his works from 1944's On the Town straight through West Side Story to his last composition the 1989 brass quintet Dance Suite. Vocal music also played an important part in his compositional career. Besides solo and choral works, he composed opera and Broadway stage music.

Bernstein received many honors. He was elected in 1981 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him a gold medal. World peace was a primary concern. The National Fellowship Award in 1985 applauded his lifelong support of humanitarian causes. He received the MacDowell Colony's gold medal; medals from the Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft; the Handel Medallion, Broadway's highest honor for the arts; a Tony Award (1969) for distinguished achievement in the theater; and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities. For his work in television, he won eleven Emmy Awards and thirteen Grammy Awards for his recordings. He was presented ceremonial keys to the cities of Oslo, Vienna, Bersheeva and the village of Bernstein, Austria, among others. Additional national honors came from Italy, Israel, Mexico, Denmark, Germany (the Great Merit Cross) and France (chevalier, officer and commander of the Legion d'Honneur). He was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1980.

Discussion on the concept and detailed ideas for West Side Story began eight years prior to its premiere. On January 6, 1949, Bernstein wrote in his diary log: “Jerry R called today with a noble idea – a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Former: Capulets; latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is a neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death – it all fits…but can it succeed?”

A few years later, the concept has interestingly evolved, as Bernstein noted in his diary log on August 25, 1955: “”We’re fired again by the Romeo notion; only now we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teenage gangs, one the warring Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled “Americans.” Suddenly it all springs to life I hear rhythms and pulses, and – most of all – I can sort of feel the form.”

Bernstein conducting a gala performance, September, 1960

When West Side Story was premiered in 1957, the show was criticized as harshly realistic by several journalists who advocated an entirely escapist function for the musical, depicting things that were not properly shown on the Broadway stage. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story communicate all the tension of the musical – the chaotic pace and the nervous vigor of urban life in America. 

The premiere of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story took place on February 13, 1961 at a gala concert of the New York Philharmonic. Lucas Foss conducted from the cumbersome manuscript. While every note in the suite is taken from the original score, the composer and orchestrators found it difficult to decide upon a finale. Jack Gottlieb, the composer’s assistant, suggested the poignant flute solo of “I had a Love.”

A comment in the printed score traces the action for the listener:

Prologue: the growing rivalry between two teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.

Somewhere: In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

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

Mambo: Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs

Cha-Cha: The star-crossed lovers (Tony and Maria) see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene: Music accompanies their first spoken words.

Cool-Fugue: An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble: Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.

Finale: Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”

Jack Gottlieb noted at the time of the premiere that the Symphonic Dances consist of “relatively few thematic ideas, combined with each other and metamorphosed into completely new shapes.”  The suite concludes, like the musical, on a tense, unresolved and haunting tritone chord.

Author's addendum: Below are recommended listening links.  This is a good example by the LA Philharmonic, but please support those who work in the arts by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (6)
Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Excellent discussion. This is one of few musicals I like, probaby due to its gritty urban setting.

Thanks! Sadly, the latest production on Broadway bombed. But I can only sit through a very few musicals, myself. :-)

What a deep well of talent and knowledge Berstein possessed. The West side Story music is so dramatic and excitable...packed full of energy and emotions, too. I remember the original version and listened to the album countless times. Very interesting quote to begin the article and also a very noteworthy end sentece.

Thanks for the accolades, Richard.

What a wonderful article covering some of my most precious memories watching Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Later, going to see the West Side Story in New York's West Side itself during the World's Fair of 1964 further captivated me. Thank you for sharing your expertise and love of the arts.

Oh, you're so welcome, Beverly. I'm a bit envious, but 1964 is just a bit before my time, so I missed the height of the Bernstein era. I only saw the Young People's concerts on tape 10 years after the fact. One cool tibit is that my mother was in one of Bernstein's vocal coaching sessions when he was a third-year Juilliard student. Mom was in Juilliard Prep and about 13 years old! Thank you for you kind compliment today.