More Than a Tritone: A Set Theoretic Analysis of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘The Rumble’ from West Side Story (1957)
Awarded Best Student Paper
Rocky Mountain Society of Music Theory 2015
In Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 “Introduction to Modern Music” telecast,
Bernstein claimed that a “great modern composer” could use “the same
old-fashioned notes that music has always used, and use them in a fresh
way." In this paper, I examine how Bernstein followed his own advice
composing West Side Story the same year. In particular, I offer a
perspective on Bernstein’s “fresh” and “modern” pitch structures in an
analysis of “The Rumble” using set-theoretic tools. Bernstein considered
tonality “built into the human organism,” and praised composers who
attempted to “modernize” it. Although many analyses of West Side
Story focus on the tritone as the essential unifying musical motive, I
instead interpret the tritone in the context of a three note set class
3-5 (016) and show how Bernstein realizes this set class to create
ordered motives and harmonies. After establishing set class 3-5, I use
set-theoretic tools to show how Bernstein himself “modernizes” aspects
of tonality with particular supersets and certain transposition schema
to create centric referential pitch collections.
It may seem contradictory to appropriate set-theoretic tools, tools
originally developed for post tonal works, to music that Bernstein
directly criticizes in his public lectures. However, by appropriating
set theoretic tools to analyze the West Side Story, I highlight
commonalities between West Side Story, music of the Second Viennese
school, Jazz and American Popular music, and music by Neoclassicist
composers, Stravinsky in particular.
Although many analyses of West Side Story focus on the tritone, it is
useful and closer to Bernstein’s own conception to interpret the tritone
in the context of a three-note collection. In an Aerogram to a Dutch
student requesting clues to analyze West Side Story for a school
project, Bernstein suggests that the student “look for the relation
among songs and dance pieces in terms of these three notes (sort of a
Leitmotif)." The three-note collection in its various manifestations
can be abstractly defined by the unordered set-class 3-5 (016).
After demonstrating how Bernstein realizes set class 3-5, I interpret
how the set functions within important supersets and referential
collections using atemporal pitch networks. These pitch networks help
show how set-class 3-5 and important supersets can both interact within,
and move between different centric referential pitch collections while
maintaining tight motivic unity.
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