Acknowledged early in his career as one of the shining lights of twentieth-century music, Leonard Bernstein soon contracted the disapproval of the classical music establishment for dissipating his enormous talent, sticking his fingers into too many musical pies: conducting, symphonic composition, jazz/classical hybridization, musical theater and teaching. Although his miscegenation of genres and styles angered purists, Bernstein’s compositions are among the most accessible and beloved by audiences. Bernstein was one of history’s most frenetic musicians. By the early 1950s, having succeeded as composer in the concert hall – his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” won the New York Music Critics’ Award – and on Broadway with On the Town and Wonderful Town, he cast around for an appropriate film project. He rejected many offers from Hollywood, but viewing the rough cuts of Marlon Brando’s acting in On the Waterfront, one of the greatest movies of the 1950s, finally inspired him to compose his only film score.
The socio-political action drama is based on a 1949 series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the New York Sun, exposing labor racketeering in the New York dockyards. Ex-boxer and dockyard worker Terry Malloy (Brando), a runner for boss “Johnny Friendly,” unwittingly enables the murder of a gentle but rebellious co-worker. Pressured to both speak and remain silent in the face of a crime investigation of the longshoremen’s cartel, Terry finds redemption through the example of the tough-talking priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), his love for the murdered man's sister Edie (Eva Marie-Saint) and finally, Friendly’s murder of Terry’s own brother. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and garnered eight Oscars. Bernstein’s score was nominated but was beaten out by Gene de Paul’s score for the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Shortly after the premiere in 1954, Bernstein assembled the Symphonic Suite to “salvage some of the music that would otherwise have been left on the floor of the dubbing-room.” It has the form of a symphonic poem, loosely following the movie action. The Suite contains four principle themes, opening with a quiet, atmospheric theme sounding like the “Aaron Copland American sound” plus blue notes thrown in. There follows an extensive timpani, percussion and saxophone solo initiating the “dockyard violence” theme that accompanies the fight scenes and foreshadows the gang-fight dance numbers from West Side Story. The Suite continues with a slower chromatic section that accompanies Terry’s moments of loneliness and self-doubt, gradually blending into the love motive between Terry and Edie, a gentle flute solo, and another forebear of Tony and Maria. The last several minutes of the Suite, however, touch only incidentally on the climactic fight between Terry and Friendly, whom Terry has denounced in court. Instead Bernstein returns to the opening music, which now takes on an increasingly majestic mood, and eventually accompanies the badly beaten and barely conscious Terry’s stagger through the lines of Friendly’s grudgingly admiring teamsters.
Born and raised in Chicago, Joseph Schwantner studied at the Chicago Conservatory and Northwestern University to become a “classical” composer, completing a doctorate in 1968. While a student, he made his living as a jazz musician and arranger. In 1970 he was the first recipient of the Charles Ives scholarship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was elected to the Academy in 2002. In 1979 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity. Since 1970 he has taught composition at Eastman, Juilliard and Yale.
Schwantner composed New Morning for the World in 1982 as a narrative piece for baseball great Willie Stargell – former first baseman of the Pittsburgh Pirates – to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As text he used excerpts taken from some of the most stirring published writings of Dr. King, which he chose himself, calling it a memorial to “a man of great dignity whom I had long admired.” The form of the work and the use of narrator were clearly influenced by Copland's A Lincoln Portrait.
The violent percussive opening contains the rhythm of New Morning’s recurring theme. It contrasts repeatedly with the gentleness of the answering strings, woodwinds and celesta, reflecting the contrast between the external violence surrounding King that ultimately led to his death, and the gentle determination of his words and demeanor. This contrast is reiterated again and again throughout the work, the recurring motive introducing the narrator’s first statement. The tempo picks up in the middle, signaling the accelerating pace of change and expectation – and violence. The clash ends suddenly with a sustained timpani roll, leading into a recitation of parts of “I have a dream. ” The work ends, dreamily, with members of the orchestra softly humming over a tinkling celesta in what Schwantner calls a “celestial choir.”
Among the great Big-band leaders, Duke Ellington was the only one who could be everything: composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader. Born in Washington, DC, where his father was a butler, he began playing the piano at age seven, making his professional debut as a ragtime pianist at 17. Ellington moved to New York in 1923 to join Elmer Snowden’s Washington Band. In 1930 his composition Mood Indigo catapulted him to world fame. Elegant and well spoken, he was one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a symbol of the Big Band jazz era. He composed over 2000 works, many of them three-minute pieces, constrained by the limitations of the old 78 rpm records. Every member of his band was a virtuoso, and Ellington incorporated their original riffs as part of his compositional process. He composed in many genres, including film music (Anatomy of a Murder) and, towards the end of his life, liturgical music.
In 1969 Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Honor and in 1970 was elected to the exclusive National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also the first jazz musician to be named a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.
In 1970, the American Ballet Theatre commissioned Ellington to compose a ballet for choreographer Alvin Ailey. The River, according to Ailey in a 1983 interview, “(The River) was to be all water music, and it was to follow the course of this stream through various stages: through a meander, a falls, a whirlpool, and then gurgling rapids. I fell in love with the idea.” Ellington combined the European classical tradition with jazz, the blues and swing harmonies and rhythms, creating an American jazz incarnation of Smetana’s Vlatava (The Moldau). Ellington was deep into liturgical music, and he saw the river as an allegory to birth and rebirth. The ballet comprised 12 movements arranged for piano and big band; Trombonist, composer and arranger Ron Collier (1930-2003), who worked with Ellington, orchestrated seven of them for symphony orchestra.
The history of this work – as with most of Ellington’s music – raises as many unanswered questions as the thorniest problems of authentic attribution and performance practice in early music scholarship. First of all, there is no definitive score; once liberated from the constraints of choreography, every performance was different as the composer modified the music with new riffs for particular players, or simply re-composed the music according to the improvisatory nature of jazz. The leads into the main tunes are especially open to a flexible approach in all interpretations of Ellington’s compositions. He did, however, work with arrangers such as Collier, to commit a version to paper. Exactly what the original ballet score sounded like we will probably never know.
In Giggling Rapids, Ellington adapts typical musical water imagery into jazz riffs.
West Side Story was Leonard Bernstein’s attempt to demonstrate that it was possible to write a Broadway musical with the characteristics of high art. He succeeded beyond all expectations. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and with Jerome Robbins as director and choreographer, the show opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 and ran for over 1,000 performances. The movie was just as spectacular a success, as was the recording.
But its birth was not easy. The show was originally conceived eight years earlier as a conflict between Jews and Catholics during the Easter-Passover celebrations and at one point was to be called East Side Story. The protagonists were finally switched to ethnic gangs on the Upper West Side, but no backers could be found. West Side Story became notorious for having been turned down by nearly every producer because no one thought that such a tragic story was suitable material for Broadway. Finally, Harold Prince and Robert Griffith, two successful Broadway producers, emerged as the show’s financial the “angels.”
Casting was another problem. The perfectionist Robbins wanted a cast of 38 who could both dance and sing – a nearly impossible demand in those days, but now the rule rather than the exception. A choreographer first and foremost, Robbins finally settled on dancers who could sing – as opposed to singers who could dance. When Bernstein, unencumbered by staging constraints, re-recorded West Side Story in 1988, he used opera singers for the main roles: Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos and Marilyn Horne. It became another bestseller.
While describing the tragic life of ordinary people in a New York Puerto Rican ghetto, West Side Story tackles an archetypal theme: love clashing with prejudice and clan hatred, an inner city Romeo and Juliet.
The Symphonic Dances, which Bernstein extracted from the musical, are not in the order of the original show. Consisting of nine segments played without pause, the suite was first performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1961:
1. Prologue: A fantasy on the Jets’ number, the Prologue portrays the rising violence between the two street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets in harsh, jazzy dissonances and rhythms.
2. Somewhere: Tony and Maria’s idyllic dream sequence in which the gangs are joined in a peaceful friendship and the lovers united, originally from Act 2 after Tony has stabbed Maria’s brother.
3. Scherzo: The dream continues as the two gangs leave the city for the idyllic countryside.
4. Mambo: The rival gangs compete at a school dance, originally from Act 1 when the two lovers first meet.
5. Cha-Cha, a continuation of the preceding scene in which the lovers, Tony and Maria, from opposing gangs, meet for the first time and dance together. The theme is a variation on “Maria.”
6. Meeting Scene: The lovers hesitantly exchanging their first words. Also based on “Maria,” this is a short transitional passage into the following number.
7. “Cool”Fugue: The hostility of the Jets gradually builds in anticipation of street warfare. A recap of the Jets’ theme precedes the fugue – actually a double fugue – one subject in long notes, the other in a faster jazzy rhythm.
8. Rumble. A violent, dissonant climax, in which both rival gang leaders are killed. The realization of the enormity of the event imposes shocked near silence, a pianissimo flute solo of the fugue theme.
9. Finale: Tony dies in Maria’s arms, a victim of gang violence. Two themes, the first comprises the funeral procession: Maria’s passionate outpouring to Anita and the dream melody of “Somewhere.”
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017
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