Leonard Bernstein hits high note

Maestro produced a classic in 'Waterfront'

When music lovers hear that Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings Symphony” will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (as it was Dec. 7-8) or that Yo-Yo Ma has released an album consisting entirely of arrangements from film scores by Ennio Morricone (as he recently did on Sony Classical), they may not realize the debt owed the great American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein, who died in 1990 at 72 but is suddenly in the limelight again, was not the first “serious” composer to write a film score. He wasn’t even the first native-born American composer to do so — that would be Aaron Copland, a mentor of Bernstein’s, whose masterly efforts included “Of Mice and Men” (1939), “Our Town” (1940), “The Red Pony”(1949) and “The Heiress” (1949), which won him an Oscar.

Copland even adapted some of his movie music for concert performance. But it was Bernstein and his 1954 score for “On the Waterfront” that truly merged the highbrow world of classical and Hollywood’s populist terrain. To be sure, Prokofiev and Shostakovich had already done something similar, but they lived in the Soviet Union, where class distinctions were ostensibly abolished and all state-approved art was created equal.

In America, things were different. Copland’s homespun scores and the work of a generation of European emigre composers notwithstanding, classical music figured in films as a means of lending “class” to middlebrow fare. Conversely, the enjoyment of classical music was often depicted in mocking terms, as a sign of a character’s snobbery or effeteness.

Bernstein changed all that, or at least helped alter perceptions. Much is made of the fact that “Waterfront” was Bernstein’s first and only score written directly for the screen. But it was a film that almost didn’t happen. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg originally conceived it for 20th Century Fox, which had produced nine of Kazan’s previous pictures, including Oscar’s best picture of 1947, “Gentleman’s Agreement.” But, according to Kazan in Jeff Young’s 1999 book “Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films,” after reading the script, Fox production chief Daryl F. Zanuck dropped out, saying “Who gives a damn about labor unions?”

The film’s savior was producer Sam Spiegel, who in turn brought Columbia Pictures aboard.

Bernstein, for his part, had already made a name for himself in concert halls — having composed two symphonies, two ballets and an opera, among other works. But with “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town,” he’d also achieved success on Broadway, then a form of mass entertainment, so the transition to movies wasn’t a total shock.

In fact, according to Humphrey Burton’s “Leonard Bernstein,” the composer was ambivalent about scoring pictures. He admired Copland’s efforts and the recognition they brought, but he hated not being the center of attention, a fact intrinsic to such collaborative work.

Yet the indomitable Spiegel persevered. When the producer showed the picture to Bernstein, “he kept apologizing about the film,” recalled Kazan in Young’s book. “I yelled at him, ‘It’s a great picture. Don’t talk that way about it.’ ” After seeing a rough cut, Bernstein — impressed by Schulberg’s script, Marlon Brando’s star turn and Kazan’s enthusiasm — accepted the commission.

The result is a taut, intensely characterful score whose themes are brilliantly integrated rather than episodic. And though Kazan gave the composer a wide berth musically, he limited him to 35 minutes of music in the 108-minute film.

“Music is terribly important to me,” said Kazan later. “I like native sources — the blues, jazz, folk, rock. There was less of that with Lennie. He was the most highly regarded man in the field of American music. So he went off and did a score by himself. I don’t know if I even said much of anything to him because I was so glad to have him.”

Bernstein — who took to the form much in the way Orson Welles mastered film directing on his first effort (“Citizen Kane”) — produced a score that ranges from brute force to heartbreaking beauty. The work not only stands on its own, but emphasizes, in the most lyrical fashion, the tough-but-tender, as well as tragic undercurrents of Brando’s role as dockworker and ex-pug Terry Malloy.

Though “On the Waterfront” won eight Oscars, including best picture, Bernstein lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for “The High and the Mighty.” Perhaps the defeat soured him on Hollywood, but more likely his growing conducting career as well as a desire to write theater and symphonic music simply crowded out composing for pics.

Regardless, Bernstein never again wrote movie music. Yet 50 years on, this score — whether in its original form or in the self-standing concert version Bernstein composed the following year — remains a milestone, still a concert-hall favorite and an inspiration to budding film composers the world over.

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