"On the Waterfront" and the Music of Leonard Bernstein (1954)

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Addam Farmer
MUS 468I
Written Project
Professor Perry La Marca
“On the Waterfront” and the Music of Leonard Bernstein (1954)
“On the Waterfront” is a masterpiece film about a union man (Terry Malloy) whom makes an attempt to stand up to the corrupt mob bosses leading the Longshoremen’s Union. Just as important as the plot of the film is the music; the original score by Leonard Bernstein greatly influenced how other composers would approach film scoring. Bernstein combined the “American” characteristics of Aaron Copland’s music (disjunct melodies, wide intervals, small but colorful ensembles) with the dark and somewhat disturbing elements of modernism. Bernstein did not shy away from dissonance, and he also incorporated jazz elements (such as brass and rhythmic syncopation) into the equation.

During the opening credits, we can hear a solo French horn followed by a small music ensemble. This is expected of the modernist technique – to start off with one instrument followed by others mirroring the opening melody and/or providing contrapuntal contrast. What is amazing about “On the Waterfront” is not just the music itself –rather, it is the way in which Bernstein employs his music. The movie score is not wall-to-wall; there are long periods of silence in the film (other than sound effects and dialog.) Strategic musical entrances and long periods of silence are carefully placed to help with the storytelling of the film.

For instance, when the “non-corrupt” members of the Longshoremen’s Union meet in the Church to discuss their problems, there is no music. Suddenly, thrilling “danger” music begins to play, followed by the mobsters’ attempt to break up the union meeting. The corrupted mobsters begin to beat up the union members, showering them with intimidation. The placement of the music plays a vital role in this scene as the absence of the music symbolizes the absence of conflict.

Another way Bernstein helped the film is through his...
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