06.14.2011

The End of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:53 pm

The other night my lovely wife and I watched the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, the musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the most Oscars ever awarded to a musical. My wife had seen it before but it was my first time. I enjoyed it for the most part, although both of us felt that the last third of the movie was a little weak, both dramatically and musically. But I was struck by the way that Leonard Bernstein handled the music at the end of the film.

In the closing scene, [SPOILER ALERT] after Tony dies, Maria tells off the rival gangs and they begin to disperse, there is a pause in the underscoring before Bernstein begins his final chordal progression. It consists of high woodwinds and strings playing a D-flat major chord, punctuated with a G-natural (the tritone to D-flat) in the low bass. (Incidentally, this is the same progression that Stephen Schwartz uses in the closing bars of the first song and the finale of Wicked.) It contributes to the uneasy feeling of the scene: peace has been achieved, at least for the moment, but it isn’t pretty and it wasn’t won without a terrible cost. In the end, the high D-flat chord is played and rings out before dying away, but the bass is not resolved to a D-flat as you expect, leaving the music hanging on a consonant major chord but without a feeling of satisfying resolution.


(Start the video around the 5:20 mark)

However, at the end of the final credits, Bernstein repeats the same progression–but this time, at the end, he resolves the bass to D-flat as well, so that the movie does close with a satisfying and grounded resolution.


(Start the video around 4:15 to see the slightly amusing way Bernstein highlights his own name in the credits; the final progression begins shortly thereafter)

It’s a great way to illustrate musically the emotion at the end of the movie, while still providing a satisfying conclusion at the very end.

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