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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

An Unanswered Question - Leonard Bernstein's music for

On the Waterfront (1954)

Watching The Wire (second series) on BBC TV took me back to On the Waterfront (1954). Obvious enough, as they’re both about dockside corruption and union involvement in it. But less obviously, listening (you know, properly listening) to Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’ did as well. Composed in 1906, and later revised, and although only six minutes long, ‘The Unanswered Question’ throws its sound forward into the future like a duelling glove thrown on the floor. Once heard, the Question is arresting, insistent, and always unanswered. The piece opens with the hushed strings playing descending chords which merge into a melody, firmly in the nineteenth-century symphonic tradition of strings ‘holding their breath’. That breath is then released in a sound that is emphatically of the twentieth century: a trumpet rings out “The Perennial Question of Existence”, ‘a curving atonal query repeated seven times’, a question to which no answer is found.

My recording of the piece, which I’ve only just acquired, is conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and hearing it made me think straightaway of the mournful horn solo he wrote for the score of On the Waterfront. The Ives-Bernstein connection is strong, considering Bernstein’s preoccupation with American composers, and his having conducted the first performance of Ives’s Second Symphony in 1951, forty-nine years after it was written. At the time Bernstein was asked to do the score for On the Waterfront, Ives was very much a current preoccupation.

Bernstein’s score for the film, later made into a suite, has prompted admirers of the music to find various antecedents. The ‘gun battle’ sequence of Copland’s ballet suite, ‘Billy the Kid’, is one, Copland having been a mentor of Bernstein. This sequence uses timpani and stabbing sounds, a pairing that Bernstein uses for the opening scene of the film (Terry being sent by Johnny Friendly to get Joey Doyle on to the roof from which he is pushed to his death). Humphrey Burton, in his biography of Bernstein, refers to Benjamin Britten’s music for his opera ‘Peter Grimes’ (premiered in 1946 at the Tanglewood Festival, with which Bernstein had close associations). The idea may have come from Hans Keller who wrote about Bernstein’s score in 1955, arguing that he selected and borrowed from the following styles and methods:

  • Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith (via Piston?)
  • Copland
  • Puccini consecutives (in the “last, 25th entry”)
  • folkish elements
  • penta-tonicism (tonal, penta-scale, 3rd mode)
  • jazz
  • various European sources (“probably even the ‘Dawn’ interlude from ‘Peter Grimes’ with its ‘waterfront’ atmosphere”).

Keller makes no mention of ‘The Unaswered Question’ but I still believe it is there in the background. What is Terry’s character in On the Waterfront? In some lights he is tough, in others vulnerable; he carries an exterior carapace over interior softness; and in the end he is capable of conscience and redemption. In Bernstein’s view all these ideas got in the music. In a newspaper article from 1955 he wrote that the French horn solo “is a quiet representation of the element of tragic nobility that underlies the surface crudity and violence of the main character”. Of the ending, he wrote: “As he makes his sacrificial gesture . . . the motive of his nobility climbs in intensity, mingled now with suggestions of the love music, to the inevitable fortissimo.” Not surprisingly, the words feel very inadequate against the music, but it strikes me that the French horn solo is less to do with nobility, than with the bedrock of Terry’s character as Brando plays it: this is a man wrestling with questions inside himself that he finds difficult to answer. Here Ives’s Question expressed in music is the key. The trumpet poses it, and the flutes, oboe and clarinet try and fail to give an answer. Bernstein is surely captivated by the idea of using a horn in this way, to express the thought that crystallises in Terry Molloy’s mind – what should I do to make something of my life?


  1. Leo Braudy, On the Waterfront (London: BFI Film Classics 2005), p.69. Braudy’s book makes an exemplary study of a single film – except he could have said more about the music.
  2. J Peter Burckholder’s note on ‘The Unanswered Question’ in the DG recording of it by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein (Deutsche Gramophon 1990).
  3. Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (London: Faber and Faber 1994), p. 236.
  4. Jon Burlingame, ‘Leonard Bernstein and On the Waterfront’ (Cambridge University Press 2003), pp. 124-47. This essay uses Bernstein’s notes on the suite made from the film score published in the Berkshire Evening Eagle, 10 August 1955, and among Bernstein’s papers in the Library of Congress.
  5. Hans Keller, ‘Leonard Bernstein: On the Waterfront’ in ‘The Score and IMA Magazine’, 12 June 1955, pp. 81-4, which is collected in ‘Film Music and Beyond: Writings on Music and the Screen 1946-59’ by Hans Keller, ed. Christopher Wintle (London: Plumbago Books 2006).