[The musical examples referred to in this article are taken from the original soundtrack album reissued in 2015 on Madison Gate Records. Also worth a listen is Bernstein’s own Symphonic Suite arrangement of music from the film, of which his 1961 recording conducting the New York Philharmonic is my preferred version.]
Much as director Elia Kazan reportedly solicited Marlon Brando’s involvement in his seminal 1954 drama On the Waterfront in the hopes of securing a larger budget (there was already an implicit agreement in place with Frank Sinatra to play Brando’s Oscar-winning role of Terry Malloy), producer Sam Spiegel saw the need to broaden the film’s commercial appeal by attaching a similarly big name to provide the music – hence his decision to seek the services of Leonard Bernstein. While initially reluctant to participate in a project that would require him necessarily to rein in his own musical ideas, one might not have guessed this from some of the reactions to his score in later years from Kazan and from scriptwriter Bud Schulberg, both of whom considered portions of it obtrusive and distracting. Certainly, Bernstein’s sensibilities as a well established classical composer and conductor mean that the music in On the Waterfront is often not content merely to occupy a background role, but, as film music historian Jon Burlingame asserts, it does not so much jostle for attention as engage as ‘a full partner in the filmmaking process, matching the script, direction and acting in conveying the essence of the drama’, something that was unusual for the period and would go on to revolutionise the practice of film scoring.
In an essay published in a 2003 Cambridge University Press essay collection on the film (chapter 6), Burlingame identifies three main recurring themes within the score. As well as the film’s famous ‘love theme’ that follows Terry and Edie’s growing affections (see below), the first of these is a main theme that comes to be associated with Terry and, in Bernstein’s words, his ‘tragic nobility’ (p. 135) (“Main Title”). Introduced on solo French horn and subsequently picked up in canon form by two flutes and trombone, it is the first sound the viewer hears at the opening of the film, and Burlingame identifies in Bernstein’s sparse instrumentation an almost complete antithesis of the declamatory orchestral style that was common for cinematic opening titles at the time. Indeed, its combination of harmony, dynamics and instrumental timbres are at times more redolent of the quieter sections of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring than of a big-budget Hollywood drama.