West Side Story
West Side Story
From a strictly musical point of view, West Side Story displays greater integration of material than had previously characterized works destined for Broadway. It might be an exaggeration to claim that the whole score is predicated on the interval of the tritone—the augmented fourth (it can also be “spelled” as a diminished fifth)—but as overstatements go, it would not be severe. The two notes of this interval may overlap but they nonetheless define distinct harmonic realms—a musical reflection, one might say, of Tony and Maria. Its harmonic instability notwithstanding, the frequent recurrence of this interval helps unify this wide-ranging score. The first two notes of “Maria” have served decades of ear-training students as a mnemonic device for the tritone, but by the time that song is first heard, in Scene Four, the interval has already been established as the work’s foundational sound. We hear it practically at the outset, in the louche phrase that accompanies the entrance of the finger-snapping Jets, then again in the solo-trombone gesture at the moment when Bernardo (of the rival Sharks) crosses their path, in the first two notes of “Cool,” in the melodic contours of “Something’s Coming”… ears attuned to the tritone will hear it over and over in West Side Story.
Rhythmic syncopation and metric dissonance are also elemental to the score. “When You’re a Jet,” for example, is composed almost throughout in 6/8 meter, and the bass line dutifully emphasizes the first and fourth beats of each measure. Bernstein, however, writes a melody (sung by Riff) that stresses the first, third, and fifth beat of the measure, yielding a constant syncopation in which two-pulses-per-measure exists in nervous conflict with three-pulses-per-measure. “America,” sung by Anita and her friends, is also famous for its mixed meters, here worked out sequentially rather than simultaneously. It, too, maintains a meter marking of 6/8, but Bernstein alternates measures of two pulses with measures of three pulses, achieving a buoyant sense of energy and propulsion.
—excerpt from liner notes by James M. Keller