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AoS 2 S/W Bernstein

Our second piece in AoS 2 is taken from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein:

If you can't access YouTube, then try the Grooveshark widget below:

Something's Coming from West Side Story by L Bernstein on Grooveshark

Who was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)?

He is one of the most significant C20th composers, working in a wide variety of different genres. However, he is best known for his film and musical works.

Task 1

Try and find out a bit more about him by reading this basic biography. There are also some clips of his works to listen to here as well. If you need or want more detail about him, and his career, then click here to read his official website.

Task 2

Listen to/watch the following clips of other works by him.

His Chichester Psalms is a brilliant choral work, which manages to be dissonant, yet tuneful in equal measure. The influence of jazz rhythms can be felt through much of the piece.

This extract from On the Waterfront is a bleak-sounding piece, reflecting the difficult social and political issues raised in the film, from 1959.

What are the components of a stage musical?

There are usually several integral elements:

  • A script (usually called the 'book')
  • A musical score
  • Choreography
  • A set, costumes, props
  • Named roles
  • A chorus
  • An orchestra (or group of instrumentalists)

Within the musical score, there are usually the following components:

  • Overture/prelude/Ent'racte (Orchestral piece, which outlines themes from some of the songs)
  • Solo songs
  • Duets/trios
  • Choruses
  • Dance numbers

West Side Story

Undoubtedly, this is Bernstein's greatest triumph. The stage musical, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who also wrote many famous musicals himself, including Sweeney Todd), was first performed in 1957, and then adapted into a film in 1961, which, at the time, won a then-record 10 Oscars.

Below is the extract from the film of Something's Coming. Please note, this is a slightly different version of the piece, and that in the exam, you'll be expected to know about the version at the top of the page, and not this one. However, it is good to see the film version too, as it puts it into a context for you, hopefully.

Task

Find out a bit more about the background of the musical, by answering the following questions:

  1. What play is the story based on?
  2. Where about in the show does Something Coming appear?
  3. Apart from Tony, who sings this song, who are the other three main characters, and how are they 'related' to Tony?
  4. How does the ending of this musical differ from the ending of the original play?
  5. What role did Jerome Robbins play in the development of the show?
  6. Name three other songs from the show - listen to them, and note who the singer(s) is/are.

For help, try this website. There's an interesting timeline on the left of the screen to look at too.

Musical Content of Something's Coming

There are some straightforward recognisable features of this song which are typical of Bernstein's musical style. You need to be able to hear them in the music to be able to answer a listening question successfully. This means first studying the score, then learning how to spot them by listening lots of times to the recordings.

Influence of Jazz

This can be seen in a variety of different ways:

  1. Use of jazz harmonies - chords with added 7ths and raised 4ths
  2. Syncopated rhythms, particularly use of a push rhythm
  3. Melodic motifs, particularly that of a triton (an interval of three tones)
  4. Melodic phrases which have short note values throughout, apart from a long final note
  5. Short riffs - repetitive pattern
  6. Stab chords - off-beat/syncopated single, short chords in the accompaniment
  7. Cross-rhythms - the feeling of two different time signatures being used over the top of each other

Look at the extract of music below for examples of each of these features.

If this image is a bit too big or small on your screen, why not download it by clicking here.

Task

You need to go through the score and find further examples of each of the above. Try if you can, to find the same technique used in a different context - for example, the jazz harmony, using a raised 4th in the second time bars at the end of A is new and different harmony from the opening, whereas the jazz harmony used in bar 140 at the start of A1 is just an exact copy of the example above, and therefore not as interesting.

Other Important Musical Features of Note

There are several other features that you need to remember. These are not specifically jazz influenced, but you need to be aware of them:

Instrumentation: The song is sung by Tony, who is a tenor voice. The orchestra that accompanies him includes full strings, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpets (sometimes muted), French horns, plus piano and drum kit. This is quite a large pit orchestra.

Structure: The song has an ABB1A1 structure. The changes of key and time signature, mentioned below, help to define the changes in sections.

Tonality: The song begins in D, modulates to the unrelated key of C, and then modulates back to D.

Rhythm/Tempo/Time Signature: The music begins in 3/4 and changes to 2/4, then back to 3/4, then 2/4 then 3/4. The tempo is a very rapid presto, at about 170 bpm.

Texture: Basically homophonic, with the melody in the vocal line, and the orchestra providing harmonic support.

Dynamics and Word Painting: The dynamics are used as an extension of the expressiveness of the character. This is further extended by word painting - where the specific meaning of a word is conveyed by a musical idea, usually in the melody.

Revision

As with all the pieces, there is a three-way process to learning everything you need to know about the piece:

  • Know the basics (C) - title, composer, key, time signature, instrumentation etc. This needs learning to start with.
  • Understand the detail (B/A) - the technical details of the piece, and how they relate to DR G SMITH. This needs you to have written up all the detail onto your score. Listening to the piece lots whilst following through the score is what is needed here.
  • Hear the detail (A/A*) - being able to recognise the sound of all the technical language in the pieces, with no score in front of you. Listening to the piece without the score is what you need to do here.

This checklist document should help you with the process.

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