Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City
The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017-18 season.
COMPOSED: The musical West Side Story was composed principally from autumn 1955 through summer 1957, and Bernstein assembled portions of the score into the Symphonic Dances in early 1961, overseeing the orchestration for this version as it was carried out by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. The Symphonic Dances are dedicated “To Sid Ramin, in friendship”
WORLD PREMIERE: The musical was premiered on August 19, 1957, at the National Theatre in Washington, DC; the Symphonic Dances were first performed on February 13, 1961, with Lukas Foss conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, in a pension fund gala concert titled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein”
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—May 1971. Seiji Ozawa conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2008. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bongos, suspended cymbal, cymbals, tenor drum, snare drum, bass drum, four pitched drums, xylophone, trap set, three cowbells, timbales, conga drum, police whistle, vibraphone, chime, woodblock, triangle, glockenspiel, tom-tom, guiro, maracas, finger cymbals, tambourine, harp, piano, celesta, and strings
DURATION: About 23 mins
THE BACKSTORY Throughout his career, Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as a composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. Time for composition was potentially the most endangered in the mix that packed his date-book, and he had to take special care to see that it didn’t get entirely crowded out by his day-to-day obligations as a performer. That he left as large an oeuvre as he did is a testament to his astonishing musical fluency and to his embrace of a wide variety of American styles.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bernstein was schooled at Harvard (where he graduated in 1939) and, following advanced work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, returned to his home state. There he worked at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and was taken under the wing of Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony. In 1943, he moved to New York, the city with which he would become most famously associated. While working as assistant conductor to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein stepped in at short notice—on November 14, 1943—to substitute for an ailing conductor (Bruno Walter) at a Philharmonic concert and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1958, he began a decade-long tenure as that orchestra’s music director.
By that time, he was already making a mark as the first conductor to truly harness the power of the rapidly developing medium of television. A generation of music lovers received some of their earliest indoctrination through his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, a series of fifty-three broadcasts that began in his first season with the New York Philharmonic. (He continued to oversee the series until he handed it off in 1972 to Michael Tilson Thomas, then the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony.) But Bernstein had already established a presence on television several years before he inaugurated the Young People’s Concerts. In November 1954, he presented his first special on Omnibus, a Sunday-night show that ran from 1952 through 1961, originally on the CBS network, then on ABC and finally NBC. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation and hosted by Alistair Cooke, it exemplified the medium’s highest aspirations, purveying insightful programming on topics in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Bernstein presented seven Omnibus installments on a variety of musical topics. His first, using Beethoven’s sketches for his Fifth Symphony to explore the composer’s decision-making process, became a classic. Bernstein included its script in his 1959 essay collection The Joy of Music, along with those of his other Omnibus topics, which included American musical theater, the innovations of Stravinsky, and the brilliance of Bach.
THE MUSIC As early as 1949, Bernstein and his friends Jerome Robbins (the choreographer) and Arthur Laurents (the librettist) batted around the idea of creating a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set amid the tensions of rival social groups in modern New York City. The project took a long time to find its eventual form. An early version tentatively titled East Side Story, involving the doomed love affair between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy on New York’s Lower East Side, was altered to reflect the more up-to-date social issue of gang conflict. Much of the composition was carried out more-or-less concurrently with Bernstein’s work on his opera Candide, with music flowing in both directions between the two scores.
As the production of West Side Story moved into the home stretch it was beset with several crises. Cheryl Crawford, the producer, got cold feet about what she termed “a show full of hatefulness and ugliness,” but her partner Roger Stevens jumped in to ensure that the project would continue; and the young Stephen Sondheim, who had been brought on as lyricist, snagged the interest of his friend Harold Prince to be involved as a producer. To everyone’s amazement, Robbins announced at the eleventh hour that he would rather spend his time directing than choreographing the show, thereby jeopardizing Prince’s participation; in the end, Robbins was persuaded to stay on as choreographer and was granted an unusually long rehearsal period as an inducement.
On August 19, 1957, West Side Story opened in a try-out run in Washington, DC, with a host of government luminaries in attendance. (During the intermission, Bernstein ran into Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was in tears.) It proved a very firm hit when it reached Broadway, running for 772 performances, just short of two years. After that it embarked on a national tour and eventually made its way back to New York in 1960 for another 253 performances, after which it was released as a feature film in 1961. “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr, critic of the Herald Tribune, in the wake of the opening in New York, and one might argue that his assumption remains true six decades later. West Side Story stands as an essential, influential chapter in the history of American theater, and its engrossing tale of young love against a background of spectacularly choreographed gang warfare has found a place at the core of Americans’ common culture.
In the opening weeks of 1961, Bernstein revisited his score for West Side Story and extracted nine sections to assemble into what he called the Symphonic Dances. The impetus was a gala fundraising concert for the New York Philharmonic’s pension fund, to be held the evening before Valentine’s Day. The event was styled as an overt love-fest, celebrating not only his involvement with the orchestra up to that time but also the fact that he had agreed that month to a new contract that would ensure his presence for another seven years. In the interest of efficiency, Bernstein’s colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had just completed the orchestration of West Side Story for its film version, suggested appropriate sections of the score to Bernstein, who placed them not in the order in which they occur in the musical but instead in a new, uninterrupted sequence derived from a strictly musical rationale. Two of the most popular favorites of the musical’s songs are found in the pages of the Symphonic Dances: “Somewhere” and “Maria” (in the Cha-Cha section), though not the also-beloved “America,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” or “Tonight.”
The late Jack Gottlieb, who for many years served as Bernstein’s amanuensis, provided this summary of the sections of the Symphonic Dances and how they relate to the action in the well-known musical:
Prologue: The growing rivalry between two teenage gangs, the Jets and 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 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 processional, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”
—James M. Keller
Portions of this essay appeared earlier in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and the Edinburgh International Festival and are used with permission.
More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony on the DVD A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein: Opening Night at Carnegie Hall 2008 (SFS Media) | Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon; currently available as a re-issue from ArkivMusic) | The composer conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony) | For the complete concert version of West Side Story, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the SFS and Chorus and featuring vocal soloists Alexandra Silber and Cheyenne Jackson (SFS Media)
Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday) | Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury) | Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus) | The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale) | Leonard Bernstein: American Original, edited by Burton Bernstein and Barbara Haws (Collins) | Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, by Misha Berson (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books) | West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, edited by Elizabeth A. Wells (Scarecrow Press)
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