Leonard Bernstein’s Birthday Centennial: “On the Waterfront”

For you film buffs, the 1954 motion picture, “On The Waterfront” may be Leonard Bernstein’s lone connection with life on the water or working with water imagery as America’s most prolific composer living on the island of Manhattan.  Nevertheless, Bernstein’s film score for Elia Kazan’s masterpiece was nominated for an Oscar.


“On The Waterfront” is a dark tale with moments of personal perplexities.  Kazan’s star, Marlon Brando, portrays a longshoreman, named Terry Malloy, whose colorful past as a young boxer must suddenly deal with the black and white reality of the dockworker’s union.  The film bleeds for the harbor community of the 1950’s.  Terry proclaims, “I could’a been a contender!”, the most famous line of the movie.

Bernstein’s architecture makes the score a great symphony.  Credited as one of the session pianists, Bernstein recorded it at Columbia Pictures scoring stage in New York.  Four elements drive the symphonic poem.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iwvsV5cAks   FULL SCORE

Terry’s main theme is immediately introduced at the opening.  One lone French horn without accompaniment. Then, powerful full strings.   Next, the Violence Theme is full of African drumbeats of heavy tympani and  snare drums.  The staccato attack steadily supports the harshness and a dirty alto sax delivers Terry’s brother to the audience.

The Love Theme is identified by a heavenly solo trumpet, crying out alone while gentler strings reinforce Eva Marie Saint’s tenderness.  The French horn and flute flair Terry’s dilemma, proclaimed repeatedly through the score.

A fourth theme emerges.  Bernstein uses the full orchestra in the climax.  The relationship between the brothers is  reinforced by the score. Terry is faced at gunpoint as one brother turns on the other.  Terry’s melody re-emerges here during the final fight scene.

Hoboken, New Jersey is ground zero with supporting settings along the New York harbor.  The busy commercial port doesn’t silently co-star.   The underbelly of a vibrant but corrupt sea-going industry of the 1950’s is front and center.  The harsh temperament of the longshoremen remains until rope-hoists give way to systematic container loading by automated hydraulic cranes.

Bernstein, no stranger to working class heroes, subsequently started composing ‘West Side Story’ just a few years later.  If you know the story, the gang-members of the Sharks and the Jets continued the dramatic spotlight on the DNA make-up of New York City ethnicity.  ‘West Side Story’ won an Oscar in 1961.

This season, Bernstein’s centennial celebration was acknowledged by conductors around the world.  Tanglewood Performing Arts Center in the Berkshires of Massachussets has always been home to the Boston Philharmonic.  Naturally the program was all Bernstein!  It was here he was a student and it was here that he gave his last public performance in 1990.  The public first heard Bernstein’s live score at Tanglewood on August 11th, 1955.  Rarely was it heard again.

One way to enjoy the score of “On The Waterfront” is to take any of the ferries that stop along the harbor and take a half hour to play the score in your headphones.  The City of Bayonne has just awarded the ferry service to SeaStreak, LLC. and the new direct service is set to begin in the Spring of 2019.

You may want to take advantage of the many tour services that include the sites of movie locations.  Kazan and Brando, pictured here on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, first worked together on ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ on Broadway in 1948.  Bayonne is also the boyhood home of Frank Sinatra.