On the Waterfront and the Music of Leonard Bernstein

Category: Music
Last Updated: 13 Jul 2020
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Addam Farmer MUS 468I Written Project Professor Perry La Marca 3/19/2012 “On the Waterfront” and the Music of Leonard Bernstein (1954) “On the Waterfront” is a masterpiece film about a union man (Terry Malloy) whom makes an attempt to stand up to the corrupt mob bosses leading the Longshoremen’s Union. Just as important as the plot of the film is the music; the original score by Leonard Bernstein greatly influenced how other composers would approach film scoring.

Bernstein combined the “American” characteristics of Aaron Copland’s music (disjunct melodies, wide intervals, small but colorful ensembles) with the dark and somewhat disturbing elements of modernism. Bernstein did not shy away from dissonance, and he also incorporated jazz elements (such as brass and rhythmic syncopation) into the equation. During the opening credits, we can hear a solo French horn followed by a small music ensemble. This is expected of the modernist technique – to start off with one instrument followed by others mirroring the opening melody and/or providing contrapuntal contrast.

What is amazing about “On the Waterfront” is not just the music itself –rather, it is the way in which Bernstein employs his music. The movie score is not wall-to-wall; there are long periods of silence in the film (other than sound effects and dialog. ) Strategic musical entrances and long periods of silence are carefully placed to help with the storytelling of the film. For instance, when the “non-corrupt” members of the Longshoremen’s Union meet in the Church to discuss their problems, there is no music.

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Suddenly, thrilling “danger” music begins to play, followed by the mobsters’ attempt to break up the union meeting. The corrupted mobsters begin to beat up the union members, showering them with intimidation. The placement of the music plays a vital role in this scene as the absence of the music symbolizes the absence of conflict. Another way Bernstein helped the film is through his utilization of various themes. The “Waterfront” theme serves as the frame of the musical score.

Parts of the theme can be heard throughout the film, but the “Waterfront” theme is only heard in the complete form at the beginning and end of the film. There is also a love theme that acts as the catalyst for the portrayal of Edie and Terry’s chemistry. Lastly, the dominant theme in the film is the “Violence” theme, which is first heard in the second scene with the death of Joey. These themes help to distinguish the films elements: the love story between Edie and Terry, the violent nature of the corrupt union bosses, and the overall message of the film.

The greatest point in the music occurs at the climax of the film, when Terry gets severely bruised and beaten by the union boss’s men. At this point, Bernstein utilizes the “Violence” theme surrounded by dissonance and jazz-style syncopated rhythms. Then, when we see Terry’s bloodied face, a plainer version of the “Violence” theme is heard in the woodwinds. The opening “Waterfront” theme is then heard by a solo horn after Terry asks the others to “Put me on my feet. ” The horn is joined by an orchestra.

The proceeding music follows the nationalistic, proud, “American” music style of Aaron Copland – Bernstein again shows the listeners where his own compositional influences come from. The grand performance of the theme suggests the unity of the union members standing up to the mob bosses. The theme also can suggest the courage held by the longshoremen as working citizens of American society. Leonard Bernstein was a musical genius in many different aspects. It is kind of a shame that “On the Waterfront” was his only original film score – even “West Side Story” was later adapted for film.

His intelligent use of various themes coupled with his great sense for rests in the score create a mood that sucks the viewer into the world of Terry Malloy. His careful decisions concerning where to place the silences also help to surprise the viewers in a way that is conducive to the film; the viewer can’t help but wonder what will happen next. It is no wonder that Bernstein’s scoring for “On the Waterfront” was held in high esteem by the very composers that inspired him.

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On the Waterfront and the Music of Leonard Bernstein. (2017, May 02). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/on-the-waterfront-and-the-music-of-leonard-bernstein-1954/

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