Length: c. 108 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpanists, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drums, tam-tams, triangle, tuned drums, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 20, 1955, with John Green conducting.
When he was asked to compose the score for On the Waterfront in 1954, Leonard Bernstein was 35 and already a major celebrity, but otherwise an unlikely candidate for the job. He had never written a movie score, and was not enthusiastic about doing it. In his 1959 book The Joy of Music (in a chapter whimsically titled “Interlude: Upper Dubbing, California”) Bernstein wrote:
“When I was first shown a rough cut of the picture I thought it a masterpiece of direction; and Marlon Brando seemed to me to be giving the greatest performance I had ever seen him give, which is saying a good deal. I was swept by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score, although I had [until then] resisted all such offers on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness.”
There was another reason Bernstein had been wary of On the Waterfront, though he would not have written about it in 1959. At a time when McCarthyism was rampant and the House Un-American Activities Committee was destroying show business careers every day, the film’s director, Elia Kazan, had been one of the most prominent movie people to testify before the HUAC about Communists and former Communists he knew. The controversy over his naming names continues to this day. On the Waterfront, a story about a young man’s courageous decision to testify against mobsters controlling the longshoreman’s union in New York, was widely seen as Kazan’s justification of his own testimony against friends and colleagues.
Bernstein, who freely lent his name to leftist causes, had had his own brushes with redbaiting. In 1953 the State Department had even refused to renew his passport, and he attributed his eventually getting a new passport (and avoiding the HUAC) to his getting a prominent lawyer with impeccable anti-communist credentials.
Bernstein was involved enough in On the Waterfront to be present during the final sound mix, about which he wrote:
“I was fortunate to be admitted at all to these dubbing sessions; I am told that usually the composer’s work is finished on the recording stage. (There is another Hollywood joke to the effect that the composer had better listen hard to the playbacks of his score on the recording stage, for he may never hear it again.) . . . By this time, I had become so involved in each detail of the score that it seemed to me perhaps the most important part of the picture. I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the least important part, that a spoken line covered by music is a line lost, and by that much a loss to the picture, while a bar of music completely obliterated by speech is only a bar of music lost and not necessarily a loss to the picture.”
Bernstein contributed compelling, distinctive music that gave the film much of its intensity, and received one of On the Waterfront’s12 Academy Award nominations (he didn’t win). Still, being a novice, he was shocked at the way his music was chopped up to serve the film: entire scenes were cut, music was turned abruptly on and off, and a piece “planned as a composition, with a beginning, middle and end, would be silenced seven bars before the end.” Kazan used music sparingly (typically when there wasn’t much dialogue), and only 35 minutes of Bernstein’s music made it into the 107-minute film. Wrote Bernstein:
“And so the composer sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting, be it with heavy heart, the inevitable loss of a good part of his score. Everyone tries to comfort him. ‘You can always use it in a suite.’ Cold comfort. It is for the good of the picture, he repeats numbly to himself.”
The Symphonic Suite in which he used it is in five connected sections. The slow first section is the prelude to the movie, accompanying the very stark-looking credits that begin the film. The succeeding Presto barbaro, ushered in by percussion (as it is at the start of the film’s action) contains music that accompanies the frequent violence in the film. A central Andante largamente is based on the love-interest music. The fourth and fifth sections are from the final scenes, in which the hero fights with the mobsters and then staggers, bloody and bruised, to lead the dock workers (physically) into the warehouse and (symbolically) out of the domination of the gangsters.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.