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On the Waterfront (1954): Symphonic Suite (opening) by Leonard Bernstein Analysis

Below is a complete analysis of the A2 Music work On the Waterfront (1954): Symphonic Suite (opening) looking at all the elements of music with some taster questions at the end. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.

Be sure to check out the other A2 musical pieces and AS musical pieces I have analysed on Ask Will Online.


  • On the Waterfront is piece music which has been taken from a film and adapted to orchestral music to be played to an audience (film music to orchestral music).
  • On the Waterfront was is a dark film because it is about the story of a lonely individual. We can expect the music to be along the same theme.


  • The texture at the start (bars 1-5) is monophonic.
  • There is a two part canon from bars 7-12.
  • The texture moves to homophonic at bars 13-17. It then moves back to monophonic after that playing in octaves.
  • The dynamics and texture drops at bar 62.
  • There is a homorhythmic tutti (all in) at bar 78 with a forceful bitonality of G, C sharp and now D. It is homorhythmic for 10 bars.
  • The texture turns homophonic at bar 85.


  • The harmony is dissonant which is clear from the blues scale used creating a non-functional harmony.
  • There is dissonance at bar 16 in Trumpet 1 and Harp of a semitone (F flat and F).
  • Tritones are present during bars 24 -31 of the G in the Piano and C sharp in the Timpani 2.
  • The Percussion, when entering at bar 32, is dissonant because the score does not state any pitches.
  • There is an augmented 5th interval in the Horn 1-4 part at bar 106.
  • There is a chordal tritone in the strings at bar 108. Violin II is playing a sustained chord of B major while Violin I is playing F major. F-B is an augmented 4th.  The sustaining chords creates dissonance throughout the Coda.
  • The Horns at bar 108 features a tritone of G and C sharp.


  • The tonality at the start follows the blues scale starting on F. This scale is F, A flat, B flat, C flat, C, E flat and F. It is the G flat in bar 5 in the Horns in F which makes a blue scale.
  • There is a very blues moment on the first beat of bar 11 where there is a C flat being played by the Flutes and a B flat being played by the Muted Trombones. This is a semitone difference providing a large clash and dissonance.
  • The tonality at 24 is hitting towards G major due to the reoccurring B natural.
  • At bars 42-53, the blue scale has changed from being on F to now on G.
  • There is an atonal tonality from bar 72.
  • Bars 110-111 is extremely dissonance. The build up of texture from the canon of parts creates unnerving tension and anticipation for a climax (which is the short demi-semi and semi chords).
  • The Coda feels like it is coming to an end. However, this is no finishing cadence.
  • The piece finishes on short staccato chords by every part but the strings which are playing sustained tritones extremely quiet. This creates a contrast in dynamics due to the chords being played ‘fff’ and string’s chords being played ‘ppp’.


  • There is an emphasis on wind instruments used giving the piece similarities to jazz music.
  • There is a Clarinet and Alto Saxophone in E flat. This means the instrument is transposed a major 6th lower.
  • The instruments in B flat such as the Clarinet 1 and 2 and the Bass Clarinet (which is an octave lower than the normal Clarinet) will sound a major second lower than printed in the score.
  • The Horns in F sound a perfect 5th lower than printed in the score.
  • A ‘con sord.’ is present at bar 7. This is to tell the Trombonists to play with the mute.
  • At bar 20, it is just the Piano and Timpani playing.
  • The wind instrument’s tessitura is high at bar 54. This is where the climax of the piece is. The climax is based on the crotchet/minim idea which has been shortened. Therefore, the climax can be seen to be a diminution of bars 42-53 playing a 3rd higher.


  • There is a fugue-like canon in bar 1. This will be used throughout the piece.
  • The Horns in F at bar 1 features a minor third leap from C to E flat. The minor third interval as an important motif of this piece as it is the interval used in the fugal idea.
  • The melody is finished major at bar 6 from the E natural in the Horns and B natural in the Trumpets (signifying the melody finishes in C major).
  • The opening theme is played in canon between the Flutes and Muted Trombones at bars 7-12. This is a two part canon.
  • The minor third leap reappears at bar 13 in the Oboes and Trumpets.
  • There is a pedal note in the Clarinet and Harp at bars 13-16 providing minor syncopation.
  • The beginning of bar 20 is a contrast to that of previous bars. This is because it is representing the New York docks now.
  • At bar 17 in the Clarinet and Bass Clarinet parts, they are playing fragments of the theme in subtone (very quietly).
  • There is a perfect 4th interval at bar 26 in the Timpani 2. The F sharp of Timpani 2 and the B flat in the Piano also is an augmented 5th. Again, creating dissonance and a bitonality: the G and C sharp are at the tonal centres.
  • The Alto Sax solo starting at bar 42 is very ‘jazz-like’. This is because during the solo, the three percussions come together to form a riff (repeating phrase) and that is uses a blue scale on G. At bar 44, the melody has a falling 4th which is a motif of this piece.
  • The cadential Alto Sax motif first appears at bar 52.
  • The cadential Alto Sax returns at bar 64 and is developed by the Oboes, Clarinets and Violin I and II.
  • There is a falling 4th in the Bassoon part at bar 66. This is a variation from of the Alto Sax from bar 44.
  • Violin I and II are playing in unison at bar 88 a semitone apart (creating dissonance). The first Violin has the melody copying is from the Alto Sax at bar 42.
  • Bar 91 has most instruments playing a semitone up or down and then to unison.
  • At bar 98, Violin I and II start in unison and then clash. This is a reverse of bar 88 which builds tension from the progressing discordant feel.
  • At bar 105, the Clarinets are trilling, Trumpets are flutter tonguing, drum is rolling and Violins tremoloing – there are lots of different tremolos from different instruments. This helps to add tension.
  • The Coda (bar 106) starts with a repeating motif from bar 52 in Alto Sax which is playing over sustained pianissimo (very quiet) chords in the strings.
  • There are repeating chords during the Coda at bars 108 to 113 (the end).

Rhythm and Metre

  • The crotchet/minim rhythm at the very start of the piece will become to become a feature of this piece with it’s low level of syncopation.
  • The time signature changes at bar 3 to 3/4 (three crotchet beats to a bar) and then back to c (four crotchet beats a bar). This change can be described as going from quadruple to triple and then back to quadruple time.
  • Presto barbaro’ means to have a tempo of being ‘fast and barbaric’ at bar 20.
  • The time signature moves to (c/) 3/4 at bar 20. This is a two time signature which means the time signatures will rotate every bar (e.g. 2/2 then 3/4 then 2/2 and so on). This creates anticipation because it is a dramatic change to the time signature.
  • The crotchet/minim rhythm has returned at bar 42 in the Alto Sax but this time varied to a quaver and sustained note of the value of 5 beats.
  • The crotchet/minim idea is varied again at bar 52 in the Alto Sax. The first note has become shorter and into a pair of notes.
  • The meter at the start of the Coda at bar 106 is c (4/4).

Structure (snippets)

  • The piece starts with the main motif of the piece.
  • The Fugal starts at bar 20 – the counterpoint is extending to a fugal style.
  • The varied percussion section reflects the jazz style of the music.
  • The Alto Sax solo of bars 42-54 has the melodic structure of 12 bars blue. The only difference is that there are no blue chords.
  • The Coda starts at bar 106 and features an ‘Adagio’ (decreased tempo).


The structure of On the Waterfront has three main sections:

Andante (slow)
  • (a) Bars 1-6. This has the introduction of the minor 3rd and triplet rhythms with a solo Horn.
  • (b) Bars 7-12. Repeats the first theme from (a) with a two part canon.
  • (c) Bars 13-19. Two part Trumpets over F pedal.

Presto Barbaro (Bars 20-105)
  • (a) Bars 20-39. Percussion fugal section. Melodic idea of fugal theme comes from the minor 3rd interval in opening two notes of piece.
  • (b) Bars 40-53. Two bar riff in percussion. The woodwind plays loud version of Alto Sax solo here.
  • (c) Bars 67-77. New and quieter section. Based on the descending three note motif which builds to a climax.
  • (d) Bars 78-87. Fortissimo tutti based on fugal theme which is all in homorhythm.
  • (e) Bars 88-105. Suddenly quiet again. Riff continues on snare drum leading to the return of fugal theme.

Coda (Adagio). Bars 106-113 (end).

1. In which bars does Bernstein use each of the following textures?

  • (i) homophonic – Bars 13 – 17 and bar 85 onwards.
  • (ii) monophonic – Bars 1 -5.
  • (iii) two-part counterpoint – Bats 7 – 12.
2. What are the sounding pitches of the first two horn notes in bar 1?

The Horns are in F. This means they sound a perfect 5th lower than scored (if an F is being played, it is actually a C). The first scored note is a C which will sound like a G. The second scored note is a E flat which will sound like a B flat.

3. Explain the meaning of ‘con sord.’ in the trombone part of bar 7.

‘con sord.’ means to play the Trombone with the mute on.

4. What two features do bars 20 and 78 have in common?

Bars 20 and 78 are in the same time signature of two time signatures altering from bar to bar. Both bars are in ‘c/’ being two minim beats to the bar but then change at bars 21 and 79 to ‘3/4’ which is three crotchet beats to the bar. Bars 20 and 78 also both have the same rhythm of two quavers, followed by a quaver rest and then four quavers finally followed by a quaver rest.

5. Explain how the trumpet and alto saxophone parts are related in bars 52-53.

They are both playing the crotchet/minim idea but varied. The crotchet in the alto saxophone and trumpet have both been varied to a pair of semi-quaver notes. This is then followed on by a long held note which happens straight away in the alto saxophone and starts at beat 2 in the trumpet. Both instrument’s dynamics are in unison with there being a crescendo to a sforzato.

6. Describe the two different types of tremolo on page 385 of NAM.

There are lots of tremolos in the instruments on page 385 of NAM. The Clarinet is trilling by moving back and forth between two notes. The Trumpets and Flutes are flutter-tonguing to tremolo. The drums feature a drum roll with the Violins playing the same note extremely quickly back and forth the bow.

7. The film On The Waterfront sometimes depicts an atmosphere of bleak despair, but at other times a mood of anger. Show how Bernstein’s music reflects both of these moods.

Bernstein creates an atmosphere of bleak despair through a number of ways. The atonality and incoherence of a key makes the piece feel lost struggling to find a clear tonality. This is strengthened then by the strong dissonances such as at bars 110 -11 which is clearly a moment of anger. The anger is built up through the canonizing of parts at the end which lead onto a short loud staccato from all the parts in homo-rhythmic  Ultimately, Bernstein uses the dissonances to create an atmosphere of despair. When the texture thickens to homo-rhythmic and dynamics increase ever louder, he then creates a mood of anger: especially from the sharp repeated chords at the very end which leads to a lack of a cadence but finished abruptly.


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