Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

by Max Derrickson

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

  1. Prologue
  2. Somewhere
  3. Scherzo
  4. Mambo!
  5. Cha-cha (Maria)
  6. Meeting Scene
  7. Cool – Fugue
  8. Rumble
  9. Finale

(Louis) Leonard Bernstein
(Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918; died in New York City on October 25, 1990)

Like many composers before him – Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Gounod, Berlioz and Bellini (to name some of the more famous) – Shakespeare’s tale of tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, also attracted the American composer Leonard Bernstein.  Like it was to Tchaikovsky, [. . .] the famed choreographer Jerome Robbins in 1957.  But in this case, the piece was envisioned as a Broadway musical.  In fact, the idea first began by imagining the feuding parties as Catholics and Jews in the lower East side of New York’s Manhattan during Passover and Easter; it then morphed into something called Gangway! portraying New York’s gang warfare there.  Eventually, and due much to Bernstein’s lifelong passion for humanitarianism and peace, the musical focused on Puerto Rican and Anglo street gangs in New York’s upper West Side.  This contemporary scenario couldn’t have been better suited for Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers story, and Bernstein was not only very excited about it, but hoped it would awaken a peaceful awareness in what some called the City’s “War zone.”  In Bernstein’s West Side, Tony (Romeo), [. . .]

Although Bernstein spoke these words sometime after West Side Story, they poignantly sum up what the theme of the West Side Story of Romeo and Juliet was really trying to accomplish:

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

West Side Story premiered on September 26, 1957 and took Broadway’s breath away, transforming the musical genre with something entirely new and fresh.  New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote “. . . West Side Story dispensed with the familiar charms of musical theater and relied solely on talent and artistic conviction.”  All of its elements were expert – Robbins’ modern-mixed-with ethnic choreography, the young Stephen Sondheim’s [. . .]  Bernstein supervised Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal’s orchestration of the score into a suite, the Symphonic Dances, which he intended for the concert hall, and it too has never waned in popularity.

The title “Symphonic,” however, probably meant less about the concert hall than about Bernstein’s compositional technique of the music.  In the honored tradition of classical composing from Mozart to Mahler, [. . .] But Bernstein also had an uncanny ability to absorb musical genres, which is heard in the jazz and Latin-feel that pervades the score.  This makes it both contemporary and timeless, from the swinging coolness [. . .] was that beyond all his erudition, Bernstein knew that a beautiful tune always wins the day, and he magically created [. . .]  –heard in these Symphonic Dances.