Playing It Cool: Seriallism and Fugue on Broadway

In addition to fugues being rare in Broadway musicals, Bernstein’s “Cool Fugue” from West Side Story (1957) is anything but typical. It might seem surprising to recognize that, in a work intended to sell tickets in the popular sphere, Bernstein included not only a fugue, but a serial fugue.

Certainly, “serialism” doesn’t come to mind when we think of West Side Story with its memorable show tunes such as “Maria” and “Tonight” and numbers such as “Mambo” and “America.” After all, the Broadway musical is usually recognized for its star performers, memorable tunes, and dancing—less so for notions of “compositional sophistication.” And, perhaps in part due to varying and often pejorative myths of serialism and Bernstein’s public appeal to revitalize the “old tonal boy” (Bernstein, 1959), American serialism and West Side Story could not seem more distant. However, as is the case with many composers, we should heed their words cautiously. And, as Straus, Priore, and Hermann have argued, American serialism has taken surprisingly varied forms.

In this paper, I use set-theoretic and transformational tools to show how Bernstein’s “Cool Fugue” not only opens with a twelve-tone row (Smith, 2011), but is also structured with twelve-tone serial principles throughout. To begin, I analyze aspects of the work’s twelve-tone row, and interpret the subsidiary components of the subject and answer as related by two half-step dyads separated by inversion. I relate these components through inversional wedging and formalize these relationships with positively isographic Klumpenhouwer Networks. I show that the networks describing the relationship between subjects and answers also share positive network isography with set class (016), a set class that many of the important motives and even Leitmotivs of West Side Story share. In the process of analysis, I comment on even and odd indexes of inversion as they relate to the Transposition Hyperoperator <T~n~>.

To show the cyclical serial organization of the fugue, I use Hook’s Uniform Triadic Transformations (UTTs) to model the alternating serial components of the subjects and answers with the permutation group U=<-, 5, 10>, a cyclic Z~8~ group. After correlating a network interpretation with Hook’s UTTs, I suggest that the “Cool Fugue” is a serial fugue, a fugue in which the serial process interacts with—and helps define—the unfolding fugal process.

Throughout this study, I re-contextualize Bernstein’s numerous comments on tonality and serialism. Although some scholars—e.g. Giger (2009) and Baber (2011)—suggest that Bernstein reinforced pejorative myths of twelve-tone music and other avant-garde musics as a fad of the postwar period, he too “fooled with serialism” (Bernstein, 1970), and his own serial pieces sometimes made it into places we might least expect. It is surprising that Bernstein included a fugue in the popular Broadway musical—a composition many consider the most intellectual of styles. That it is also a serial fugue is even more remarkable.