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Composed: 1960

Length: c. 24 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st=piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo, chimes, congas, cowbell, cymbals, drum set, finger cymbals, gong, guiro, maracas, bells, police whistle, tambourine, tenor drum, timbales, triangle, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, alto saxophone, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 22, 1961, John Green conducting

About this Piece

A child of the Jazz Age, Leonard Bernstein grafted George Gershwin’s Russian immigrant roots onto Cole Porter’s Ivy League education (Harvard, for Bernstein). His protean career developed very quickly: his famous debut conducting the New York Philharmonic on short notice in a nationally broadcast concert in November 1943 was followed the next year by the premieres of his First Symphony (“Jeremiah”) with the Pittsburgh Symphony; his ballet Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, at the Metropolitan Opera; and his Broadway musical On the Town.

In 1955-57, Bernstein wrote the musical West Side Story, the work that would ensure his fame as a composer. Then—after a New York run of almost two years (772 performances) and a national tour—in the opening weeks of 1960, Bernstein revisited his score for West Side Story and extracted nine sections to assemble into the Symphonic Dances. They premiered at a “Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” gala concert by the New York Philharmonic (a fundraiser for the orchestra’s pension fund) under Lukas Foss’ direction, on February 13, 1961.

The stylistic diversity within the Symphonic Dances is partially created by the juxtaposition of classical techniques (fugue, etc.) with dance rhythms and jazz syncopations. However, the essence of the entire score is that most prominent opening melodic figure of “Maria” (C-F sharp-G), with its characteristic tritone interval. The suite ends, like the musical itself, on edge, with an evocative chord containing the same interval.

The crucial role of dance in West Side Story added to the challenge of adapting the music for the concert platform. The orchestrations call for vibrant instrumental combinations and a huge percussion section (not to mention the vocal talents of the orchestra members!) to enhance the kinetic quality of the rhythms. More deeply, they tilt the narrative weight from a love story to gang conflict. We hear first the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, then the utopian opposite; their juxtaposition creates a dramatic tension that shapes the entire work. The printed score includes the following descriptions:

Prologue (Allegro moderato)—The growing rivalry between two teenage street gangs, the Jets and Sharks.
“Somewhere” (Adagio)—In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

Scherzo (Vivace e leggiero)—In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air, and sun.

Mambo (Meno presto)—Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.

Cha-cha (Andantino con grazia)—The star-crossed lovers [Tony and Maria] see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene (Meno mosso)—Music accompanies their first spoken words.

Cool Fugue (Allegretto)—An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble (Molto allegro)—Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.

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

Notes compiled from Los Angeles Philharmonic archives