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Ernström 1

Emil Ernström

Musi 246 / Thst 236

Music as Narrative in West Side Story

West Side Story has been thoroughly praised for its treatment of dance, theater, and music

in service of its dramatic narrative. To this end, Bernstein’s musical score functions not only as

energetic, show-stopping music, but more importantly, aids the narrative in revealing insights

into the conflict, story, and characters of the musical. In the first three songs of the show,

Bernstein brings these narrative elements into the music: Prologue establishes the overarching

conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, Jet Song characterizes the Jets gang, while Something’s

Coming introduces Tony, the protagonist of the story. These scenes work as a ‘narrative

telescope’; gradually coming into focus on Tony only after describing the society of gang

violence that surrounds him. Through sophisticated use of recurring musical motives, rhythmic

hemiolas, and orchestration, Bernstein’s music supports the narrative’s telescopic structure,

ultimately portraying Tony as an outsider to the world of violence and delinquency that

surrounds him.

In the Prologue, Bernstein uses three musical motives to portray the discord and conflict

between the Jets and the Sharks. Rather than opening the show with bombast in classic

Broadway style, Bernstein constructs the Prologue meticulously, mirroring the rising tension in

the choreography on stage. The piece begins with a presentation of the first motive (example 1),

a series of triads with major and minor thirds played in a swing-feel. The chords reinforces a jazz

idiom, since the major and minor thirds, suggest a dominant seven sharp nine chord (with a

missing minor seventh), which is very common in Blues and other jazz styles. The jazz idiom is

further suggested by the orchestration, as the opening chord is played not only by strings but also

the interval between the A and D# is a tritone. the motive consists of a leap of . Example 1 – Bernstein.” mm. Played by the alto saxophone and vibraphone. as if the Jets are strutting around their territory. 22). Of interest is how the phrase begins on an E but ends on a D#. Overall. Bernstein introduces the second motive of the Prologue (Example 2). Played by the trombone. Bernstein transitions into a melody based on the first motive played by the violins and woodwinds (mm.” mm. “Prologue. 12–13 Prologue. This combination of instrumentation and dissonance lends the opening a brash tone. an interval that appears repeatedly in Bernstein’s score. “Prologue. Ernström 2 straight-muted trumpets and electric guitar. when it is suddenly interrupted by the third motive. and the rhythm suggests a slow walk. Furthermore. and encapsulates the sudden tension between the two gangs. 1–4 Only a few measures later. the tone of the second motive is similar to the first with its sense of swagger and confidence. the sound and swung rhythm once again contributes to the jazz sound Bernstein is creating. suggesting the same dissonance that was used in the opening chord of the Example 2 – Bernstein. The third motive (Example 3) coincides with Bernardo’s entrance.

and cello. Finally in measure 140. The music grows to a climax as the gangs break out into a brawl. as the Jets taunt Bernardo. Ernström 3 a fourth. but the third interjects itself into the music. . first Example 4 – Bernstein. interrupting the other motives. The melodies made up motives one and two continues to dominate. this time on pitched drums. and a leap of another tritone. “Prologue. 43). Example 4 shows one of many such instances. there is an immediate response of the first motive (mm.” mm. before being passed around the orchestra over a percussive groove. the third motive takes over. 41–43 Having introduced the three motives. electric guitar. Bernstein uses the rest of the Prologue to pit the motives against each other as the two gangs fight on stage. and as the motive ends. 77–82 played in unison by the flute. The pianissimo volume and long sustain of the F contributes to this sudden sense of tension. “Prologue. where the bass line of the first motive becomes the beginning of the third.” mm. finally concluding with the first motive that opened the Prologue. Example 3 – Bernstein.

who strut around their territory. the Prologue scene is meant to give the audience an understanding of the underlying conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. strengthening the musical associations between the first and second motive and the Jets. Jet Song uses many of the musical motives Bernstein employed in the Prologue. Riff begins to sing. the third motive is played at pianissimo. the accompaniment resembles the first motive. as Bernstein continues to use these associations as the show progresses.” mm. Example 5 – Bernstein and Sondheim. Riff’s melody is in three. the continuously dissonant notes in the clarinets and violins tells the listener to distrust Riff’s claims. The first and second motives represent the Jets. After an introduction composed purely of the first and second motive from the Prologue. but gradually increases in strength as more Sharks arrive to fight. The dissonance of the harmony provided by motive accompaniment and the hemiola both contribute to a feeling that something is ‘off’ in the music. 28–31 Another prominent feature of this example is the rhythmic hemiola: While the accompaniment is playing very clearly in two. While the melody is new material. These musical representations are not reserved to the Prologue. “Jet Song. While the melody seems to follow a standard blues pattern. Bernstein continues to . Bernstein supports this objective through his use of opposing musical motives that mirrors the action on stage. Ernström 4 In the narrative structure of the musical. When Bernardo arrives.

The clumsy dissonances and raucous orchestration portray the Jets as inexperienced kids who are unaware of the dangerous choices their making. which is exactly what Bernstein intended. clarinets. Bernstein is able deepen our associations between the musical material and the Jets. whether in the dissonant clusters in Example 6. accompanied by dissonant clusters in the electric guitar. By reusing motives from the Prologue. Their youthful energy and destructive power manifests in the music.” mm. Ernström 5 use dissonance to connote insincerity as the song progresses. 43-47). Jet Song uses the brass regularly. Riff imitates the second motive from the Prologue. lending the song a sense of exhilaration and dread. In the next part of the song. This idea of being an outsider in society is also invoked in the rhythmic hemiola. Despite singing that as Jet “you’re never alone. Bernstein’s music makes Sondheim’s lyrics mean the opposite of Example 6 – Bernstein and Sondheim. “Jet Song. as he develops and orchestrates the material differently. suggesting how the gang is disconnected from society. or in the forte climaxes in the middle and end of the song. you’re never disconnected” (mm. and trumpets. In addition. 44–47 what they say. too obsessed with their territory and turf wars to be concerned with anything else. the reuse of these themes . where Riff cannot match his singing with the rhythm of the orchestra. The brass and dissonances creates an overall sound that borders on strident.

cello. Given the motives already introduced in the previous numbers. However. and bass playing an ostinato of descending fourths while the accompaniment in the clarinets and violins play in a two. Something’s Coming is not related directly to either the ‘Jet’ motives or the ‘Shark’ motive. Tony is finally introduced. Having heard the ‘Jet’ motives interact against the ‘Shark’ motive in the Prologue. 11–15 the bass clarinet. Bernstein uses a combination of new and familiar elements in the song. reversing the hemiola in Jet Song. While the rhythmic hemiola suggests a relation to the . Bernstein could have easily used this material for Something’s Coming. the melody is now in two while the bass is in three. in Jet Song Bernstein focuses the composition more closely on the ‘Jet’ motives. In the last song of the opening. The song begins in three-four time. In effect. In regards to motives that appeared earlier in the score. with Example 7 – Bernstein and Sondheim. As in Jet Song. but each song still feels different due to this rhythmic interchange.” mm. Ernström 6 supports the ‘narrative telescope’. in contrast to Jet Song. “Something’s Coming. both songs have a sense of rhythmic instability that suggests youth or inexperience. doubling Tony’s melody. to characterize Tony differently than the Jets. as the scene shifts from one depicting the Jets fighting the Sharks to one of the Jets planning their next attack. However. Bernstein uses a rhythmic hemiola that destabilizes the rhythm of the music.

“Something’s Coming. This contrast between the music of Jet Song and Something’s Coming highlights Tony’s role as an outsider to the world of street gangs. but soon changes to two-four. and orchestration to further characterize Tony. melody. Ernström 7 Jets. Bernstein uses rhythm. This mixture of musical elements immediately distinguishes Tony as a character. The opening of the song is in three-four. 20–26 Besides the use of motivic contrast between Something’s Coming and the earlier songs of the show.” mm. which is associated with the Sharks. Tony’s melodic tritone and the bass accompaniment of descending fourths highlights the two main intervals in the third motive. and makes it difficult to categorize him according to the motivic structure that Bernstein has established. the orchestra and melodic accents falls on every third eighth note . Despite this change in meter. as shown in Example 8. Example 8 – Bernstein and Sondheim.

still waiting for what lies ahead. The orchestration is kept light through the continuous pizzicato of the cellos and basses and accompaniment dominated by clarinets and violins. 102). pushing the music forward with propulsive energy that matches Tony’s optimism. All of these elements combine in the music to support the characterization of Tony as an innocent dreamer rather than yet another member of the Jets. creating a sense of rhythmic instability that only resolves with the return to three- four time in measure twenty-six. Ernström 8 (mm.” mm. the melody stays very similar in the A section (Example 9). and takes a lyrical turn in the B section (mm. which is surprisingly similar to the normal structure of many Broadway songs. “Something’s Coming. . While the time signature changes. Bernstein uses the upper range of the strings as well as celeste to suggest the dreamy youthfulness of Tony. which is more reliably in two-four time. This rhythmic instability heightens the sense of anticipation in the song. 22-25). almost Example 9 – Bernstein and Sondheim. 56–59 refusing to end. After the refrain. the song returns to the three-four time of the opening and slowly fades away as Tony suspends his final note. During the more lyrical B sections of the song. a stark contrast to brass and saxophone sounds that dominated Prologue and Jet Song. The refrain follows a structure of AABAB. This pattern of one phrase of three-four followed by an unstable phrase in two-four is repeated twice before leading into the refrain.

San Francisco Symphony. Accessed October 7. tightening the focus of the score as the narrative focuses exclusively on the Jets. Stephen. .. Through Bernstein’s use of motivic development. Ernström 9 In each of the opening songs. “Jet Song”. Inc. Bernstein’s music not only supports the mood and character of each scene. Finally. orchestration. 2015. Bernstein matches the choreographed conflict on stage by staging a musical conflict in the score between motives. Stephen.. conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Bernstein uses elements from both the ‘Jet’ and ‘Shark’ motives to create a song that subverts the musical structure of Prologue and Jet Song. “Jet Song”. “Prologue”. and “Something’s Coming” in West Side Story (Full Score). New York: G. 1959. Leonard. Inc. Leonard. Bernstein. Bernstein. Schirmer. 1959. failing to categorize Tony as a Jet or a Shark. West Side Story. “Prologue”. New York: Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC. and Sondheim.. Jet Song features the return of the two ‘Jet’ motives from the Prologue. Something’s Coming characterizes Tony as a hopeful dreamer and an outsider to the world of gang violence. and rhythm. Bibliography Bernstein. Spotify. and Chappell & Co. Leonard. and “Something’s Coming” in West Side Story (Vocal Score). but also follows the ‘telescopic’ sequence of the narrative. Stephen. In Prologue. and Sondheim. in Something’s Coming. After presenting these motives. and Sondheim.