Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).
Leonard Bernstein is one of the most celebrated American composers of all time. His quirk-like tendencies, both on the score and on the podium as conductor, cemented him in history as a totally unique and visionary artist. Bernstein graciously juggled the roles of composer, conductor, artistic philosopher, media personality, and all-American celebrity, enjoying massive fame and success in a wide range of art mediums before his death in 1990.
West Side Story is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic love story. The musical is based in New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1900s, a geographic space heavily segregated by race. The two groups depicted are full of young, hot-headed New Yorkers: The Jets, portrayed as white, possible descendants of immigrants from Western Europe, and the Sharks, proudly Puerto Rican, vie for control of pockets of the neighborhood, coming together only when they are trying to confuse and mock the police force that threatens them both. What typically ensues upon these two groups meeting is stylized violence—dance and music “battles” which are artistically at total aesthetic odds.
The “dueling houses” of Romeo & Juliet in this re-telling are more dueling turf holders, sworn enemies who cannot meet eye-to-eye while they respectively navigate the struggles of poverty and the iconically brutish New York lifestyle. While they staunchly defend their territories, members of both dichotomous groups share a true north: that the American dream offers an opportunity for anyone to rise above the struggles of poverty. Within this context, two young lovers from these competing sides fall in love, questioning the strength of lines drawn in the sand between these two racial groups, and offering the same catharsis of Shakespeare’s original work, that love conquers all.
Symphonic Dances is an arrangement of the full musical Bernstein created specifically for a concert stage setting. Broadway audiences were downright obsessed with Bernstein’s idiosyncratic pen in West Side Story, leading it to stage successfully more than 770 professional performances in just two years. It’s difficult to tell whether the story or the downright artistic genius of Bernstein’s pen drew in audiences most. In classic Bernstein fashion, melodies and textures from the orchestra move seamlessly between the grandeur of a romantic symphony, right into modernized, industrial sounds like car horns and other odd percussive instruments. Bernstein revisited the score in 1961 for a fundraising gala, hoping to contextualize the work outside the medium of musical theatre. The work became a huge success, to this day being one of his most performed.
Of the form, Jack Gottlieb, Bernstein’s artistic assistant described:
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.”
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer who profoundly influenced the artistic landscape of the 20th century. His works turn the orchestra into a vehicle of expression, blending modernist practices of disjointed and mechanical melody, rhythm, and harmony with the Russian symphonic tradition.
Romeo & Juliet was written during a period of profound struggle in Prokofiev’s life. The music was penned while Prokofiev was exiled from Russia during political unrest, and Prokofiev was splitting time between the United States and France. As a composer, he was receiving wide-spread recognition; the quirky, modernist style which Prokofiev would expand upon and ultimately be defined by, were massive hits with Parisian audiences who were accustomed to bold artistic aesthetics. Russia, however, was not drawn to Prokofiev’s boundary-breaking practices, and preferred music which was more conservative and lyrical in nature.
Russian ballet in the early 20th century was hugely influential on an international scale, and the country was nearly competing with France over which state truly dominated the athletic art form. Thus, it’s pretty fair that Prokofiev was drawn to ballet, as it was likely to earn him the most recognition with Russian audiences who had become proud of their country’s burgeoning tradition of dance.
It is unfortunate, then, that the start of Romeo & Juliet was an exceptionally rocky path. Botched premieres and violated contract agreements turned the premiere in the work into more an administrative scandal than a celebration of Prokofiev’s setting of Shakespeare. Nonetheless, the music was so bold, expressive, and melodically tame enough that Russian audiences were celebratory of Prokofiev’s work.
Today, the work is typically performed on the concert hall stage in the form of orchestral suites, though productions of the ballet with Prokofiev’s music are still commonly produced. Dance of the Knights – Montagues & Capulets is an explosive work with an absolutely neck-chilling introduction. Long, held notes in the brass build relentlessly into a full orchestra sound, which then fall out and expose textured strings. This introduction is a clear foreshadowing of the chaos and drama in the rest of the story. When the proud, declamatory statement in the upper strings enter, they carry a pomp and arrogance about them indicative of the story’s two haughty families. These statements from the family are split but pensive solos from the flute, contrasting the individual against the community in fashion thematic of Shakespeare’s tale.