Listen out for this...
West Side Story is a melting pot of different styles of music: jazz, classical, mambo, Latin American rhythms, musical theatre and opera. Bernstein’s command of these styles is what makes the score so memorable — and why orchestras love to play it.
Bernstein uses plenty of clever musical devices to tell the story in music.
One of the most important is the tri-tone, or ‘devil’s interval’, which he uses throughout the score to highlight tension and drive the story forward. The tri-tone is an interval (distance between two notes) that sounds unstable - your ear reaches for a note that would resolve it, or make it sound finished.
Can you sing this line from ‘Maria’? ‘Ma-ri-a, I’ve just met a girl called Maria’. The first two notes ‘Ma-ri-’ is a tri-tone. That’s why it sounds so gorgeous when Tony sings the ‘a’ — the uncomfortable interval is resolved.
The prologue opens with a tri-tone and a motif that symbolises discord. It reappears whenever you meet the Jets. Unlike Tony’s tri-tones, they are often left unresolved. There is violence brewing, and the music makes you feel it. Listen out when the Jets try to keep their ‘Cool’ — the song is full of tri-tones and the result is you can feel the tension in your guts.
Bernstein sets us up to feel the longing and love of ‘Somewhere’ long before that song appears in the score. If you listen carefully, you can hear parts of the song in other places: the rhythm of the line ‘Some day! Somewhere!’ in the last notes of ‘Maria’, and the melody of ‘There’s a place for us’ under the closing notes of ‘Tonight’.
By the time the pair of lovers sing ‘Somewhere’, we already know how we’re supposed to feel.
Bernstein combines these two ideas with powerful effect in the finale, where the melody of ‘Somewhere’ competes with two unresolved tri-tones. This story isn’t over. What will the gangs do next?