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About this Piece


  • When he was asked to compose the score for On the Waterfront in 1954, Leonard Bernstein was 35 and already a major celebrity, but otherwise an unlikely candidate for the job. He had never written a movie score, and was not enthusiastic about doing it.
  • Another reason Bernstein, who freely lent his name to leftist causes, had been wary of On the Waterfront was the controversial testimony of the film’s director, Elia Kazan, before the HUAC about Communists and former Communists he knew.
  • Being a novice, Bernstein was shocked at the way his music was chopped up to serve the film: Kazan used music sparingly, and only 35 minutes of Bernstein’s music made it into the 107-minute film.
  • Wrote Bernstein: “And so the composer sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting, be it with heavy heart, the inevitable loss of a good part of his score. Everyone tries to comfort him. ‘You can always use it in a suite.’ Cold comfort.”

By any measure, On the Waterfront is among the all-time great motion pictures. It won eight 1954 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It is No. 8 on the American Film Institute’s top-100 list. And it contains the only original film score composed by Leonard Bernstein, who ranks among the best-known figures in the history of American classical music.

Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg had been researching and writing about corruption in the New York longshoremen’s unions in the early 1950s. Director Elia Kazan, who had enjoyed success both in the theater (Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire) and in socially conscious films (Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky), found in Schulberg’s script a story he wanted to tell: “Shame and guilt are replaced by self-reliance and dignity,” as he wrote in his notes during the production.

In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) – a former boxer and now part-time enforcer for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the powerful mob boss who controls the longshoremen’s union local – meets Father Barry, a waterfront priest (Karl Malden), and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the grieving sister of a dock worker who has been murdered for daring to testify against the corrupt union officials. Terry eventually decides to testify, too, pitting him against not only Friendly but his own brother Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), Friendly’s lieutenant.

On the Waterfront producer Sam Spiegel wanted a marketable name on the movie poster to help him promote this independently produced film about a potentially incendiary topic. So he approached Leonard Bernstein, who was already famous as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of Broadway’s On the Town (and who would soon add Candide and TV’s Omnibus to his credits as innovative composer and charismatic lecturer on music, respectively).

But Bernstein had never before scored a film. He later said that he felt “a surge of excitement” after seeing an early cut and that he was “swept by my enthusiasm into accepting.” He began composing in New York in February 1954 and flew to Los Angeles for the April 1954 recording sessions at Columbia Pictures, where studio music director Morris Stoloff conducted the approximately 50-minute score.

Bernstein opens the film with a solo French horn. This was rare in the Hollywood of the 1950s; nearly every movie started with a full orchestra playing a kind of overture. Here, the composer employed one lonely horn, eventually joined by a flute, then a trumpet, then a few more instruments. Bernstein called it “a quiet representation of the element of tragic nobility that underlies the surface of the main character.”

The main title segues into a second major theme and a powerful way to begin the story. It’s Bernstein’s motif for the violence on and around the New Jersey docks, in two parts: the wild percussion that greets us when we first meet Johnny Friendly and Terry Malloy, and an alto saxophone that, in Bernstein’s words, “bleats out a tugging, almost spastic, motive of pain,” and which was to be played “with a dirty sound,” according to the written directions on the composer’s original score.

We are introduced to Bernstein’s “fight music” during the mad scramble on the docks among the longshoremen, fighting over the tabs that will enable them to work that day. It’s a staccato brass and percussion variation on the alto sax tune heard earlier as part of the violence theme. This will recur in subsequent fight scenes, such as when Johnny Friendly’s men interrupt the secret meeting in church a few hours later.

Bernstein introduces his third major motif, the love theme, when Terry walks Edie home after the incident in church. Bernstein called this the “glove scene,” a reference to Brando’s playing around with the glove that she's dropped. First voiced by a flute, it eventually broadens to include strings. Quiet, sweet, and touching, this theme plays a major role in the film from that point on.

Other key musical moments include the dirge-like music after Father Barry’s sermon in the cargo hold; a reprise of that music during the famous “I coulda been a contender” dialogue between Terry and Charley; and the composer’s brilliant intertwining of the main and love themes in his finale, among the most powerful of any score of the 1950s.

Life referred to the film’s “somber mood, created at the outset by a chilling musical score by Leonard Bernstein.” And Time summed it up this way: “In his score for On the Waterfront, some critics heard a new note in Bernstein’s music, a curiously piercing purity that seemed to burst from a hot core of originality.”

Bernstein’s score was nominated for an Academy Award® but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for The High and the Mighty, which had generated a popular song that year. Moreover, Bernstein was not a Hollywood insider, so the West Coast composers might have been less prone to vote for an East Coast interloper. More than six decades later, however, none of the other four nominees is nearly as well-remembered as On the Waterfront.

A year later, the composer debuted a 20-minute, single-movement symphonic suite of the score in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Although it is now commonplace for film composers to design concert suites to enable their music to live on in a pure-music context, it was unusual at the time. (Notably, Bernstein’s mentor Aaron Copland had done it a few years earlier with his music for The Red Pony.)

Bernstein would never again compose an original film score. His 1954 essay for The New York Times on the experience suggests that he enjoyed the process, but he was irritated that two of his cues were dropped and others were “dialed out” during the process of mixing music, sound effects, and dialogue. So he turned down all future offers to compose for the big screen. He even kept his distance from the ultimately Oscar®-winning screen adaptation of his Broadway smash West Side Story.

Producer Spiegel may have hired him for the marquee value of his name. But Leonard Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront was integral to the film’s creative and commercial success, capturing the energy of the locale, the passion of young lovers, the danger of the moment, and the ultimate victory of one man over a corrupt system. It was more than many film scores ever accomplish, written by one of the 20th century’s most original musical voices.

Jon Burlingame is a Los Angeles-based film music historian. He wrote the essay on Bernstein’s score in On the Waterfront (Cambridge University Press) and created the video essay about it in the Criterion Collection’s DVD/Blu-Ray of the film.