With numerous works for the stage, Leonard Bernstein surprisingly composed just one original film score. Three years before West Side Story, in 1954 he wrote the music for Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront. Like most of his music for stage, in 1957 he created a concert-hall version of the score, a symphonic suite. Starring Marlon Brando, the black-and-white film was Elia Kazan’s most successful work, scooping no fewer than eight Oscars, four Golden Globe Awards and numerous other prizes (Leonard Bernstein was nominated for best film music, but did not win it in the end). On the Waterfront is a special mix of a moral drama and a gangster movie about corruption and gangsterism in dockworkers’ trade unions.
While the title of the symphonic version might suggest a multi-movement form, the ‘suite’ is in fact a continuous piece comprising various parts of the film score. Brilliantly orchestrated, the music is spectacular enough without seeing the film and is much appreciated by the concert audiences. For example, with its thrilling percussion ostinato rhythms, the fierce section following the short introduction is the music of brute force (‘presto barbaro’ as the tempo indication suggests), and neither does the lyrical middle section, with the harp-accompanied flute melody, leave any doubt as to its meaning. The introductory horn melody returns at every important formal boundary of the work and also culminates in the apotheosis-like finale.