Composed: 1954; 1955
Length: c. 23 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
Scoring films is not for the faint of heart. Leonard Bernstein discovered as much when he tackled his one (and only) movie assignment in 1954. After initially declining the invitation to score On the Waterfront, a private screening with director Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, lucrative financial and rights offers, and the promise of prominent billing eventually turned Bernstein around.
Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy (played by Brando), a dockworker who risks everything to testify against the union bosses and their corrupt stranglehold on his fellow longshoremen. It served as a fairly overt parable for the McCarthy era, which had sucked many of the film’s participants into its vortex. In February 1954, Bernstein took a hiatus from his post at Brandeis University and moved to Los Angeles, where he watched and rewatched a rough cut of the film – learning how to score a picture on the fly. He recorded the music in late April, then turned it over for mixing... and fell permanently out of love with film scoring.
“I had become so involved in each detail of the score that it seemed to me perhaps the most important part of the picture,” he wrote in a New York Times piece on May 30. “I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the least important part: that a spoken line covered by music is a lost line; 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... I repeated this little maxim to myself like a good Coué disciple, as I found myself pleading for a beloved G-flat.”
Bernstein may have felt like he was watching his masterpiece indiscriminately molested, but the score earned one of Waterfront’s 12 Oscar nominations. (It did not win). Like Prokofiev with his Fiery Angel, Bernstein decided to salvage his hard-won music to form a concert suite, which he premiered at Tanglewood on August 11, 1955 (just nine days before the performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which was part of Bernstein’s Festival of the Americas). Like Terry Malloy, Bernstein surely could have been a contender as a film composer – but his one contribution to the field has survived handsomely on celluloid and in this cinematic concert piece.
The Suite, like the film, opens starkly with a solo French horn playing Terry’s theme – a lonely melody, masculine and tragic. Rumbling percussion announces the jazzy waterfront theme on saxophone, and violins foretell doom. Bursts of brass give way to a quick, sharp-edged melody of conflict and fear. The love theme for Terry and Edie emerges on flute, sweet and uncertain, floating around an oboe counterpoint. Piano notes ricochet above an elegiac string passage, and stray woodwinds bounce around the love theme, which blossoms with unrestrained passion (Terry’s French horn nobly soaring overhead).
Danger sets in, spiking the love theme with the threat of tragedy. From the fog Terry’s theme resumes, friendless but gaining in resolve and support from brass and then full orchestra. A frenzied ostinato is eventually overtaken by a mournful woodwind duet of the waterfront theme. The watery sounds of a vibraphone give Terry’s theme an exotic edge, and over stumbling timpani the melody rises in defiance. The love theme comes to its aid and the two intertwine, as a crashing timpani coda resolves the suite on a note of grand tension.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.