GCSE Music Area of Study 2 - Bernstein: Something's Coming

Edexcel GCSE Music Area of Study 2: Music in the 20th Century

  • Created by: Mel
  • Created on: 16-04-12 11:13

The Origins of the Musical - Vaudeville and Burles

Over the last three hundred or so years, the musical has gradually evolved from many different styles of entertainment, both musical and non-musical. Two of the oldest forms are the vaudeville and burlesque. 

The vaudeville was a form of entertainment popular in the 1700s. This work comprised popular songs 'borrowed' from other works but with new, often comical and vulgar words set to the music. The idea was to shock and entertain the audience. 

The most famous example of this form is The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685-1732). It was a story of thieves and prostitutes.

The burlesque was similar in form to the vaudeville but tended to be a little more restrained and classical in style. The subject matter was often a parody of other serious plays.

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The Origins of the Musical - Opéra-bouffe and Oper

Opéra-bouffe (or comic opera) was popular from about 1870 up until the end of the First World War. Many are still performed today. The music for these works was specially composed as opposed to borrowed from existing works. The musical style was light opera and included some spoken dialogue. The most famous example of the genre is Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). This is a comic version of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. 

Operetta was literally a 'light' opera. The music was full of 19th-century romanticism and nostalgia, often referring to a made-up central European country called Ruritania and involving the misadventures of dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies. There is a significant cross-over here with opéra-bouffe, with operetta seen as a development of opéra-bouffe.

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Musical Theater in America


  • Included all forms of entertaining from singing to dancing, through to magicians 
  • Popular in the USA from the 1860s - 1900 


  • Popular in the late 1800s 
  • White people were made to 'black up' to imitate black people in a parody and exaggeration of any character traits 
  • With the rise of civil rights movements and the concept of political correctness, the type of entertainment died away 


  • Stage plays that included some musical cues for different scenes 
  • Dialogue replaced songs but music was used to accompany scenes and add dramatic effects to situations
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Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

  • talented pianist, composer, broadcaster and conductor 
  • born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 
  • studied composition and conducting at Harvard University 
  • became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and then principal conductor from 1958-1969 
  • excelled in two principal forms - the ballet and the musical 
  • in 1944 he wrote a ballet Fancy Fee and his first musical On The Town. This was a great success and ran for 463 performances on Broadway 
  • His other works: Wonderful Town (1852), film score On the Waterfront(1954), Candide (1956), West Side Story (1958), Chichester Psalms (1965),1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976) and three symphonies
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Background to West Side Story

Bernstein's music reflects the styles of his age - bebop jazz and the blues. From bebop, we can see Bernstein's use of dissonances and fast driving rhythms, and from the blues, the use of syncopation and blue notes. West Side Story fuses together these elements as well as several Latin American dance rhythms. 

The idea for West Side Story came from the American choreographer, Jerome Robbins. His idea was to create a musical based on Shakespeare's tragic drama Romeo and Juliet. The book of West Side Story was written by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. The romantic world of Renaissance Italy was to be transformed into the run-down, violent world of the West Side of New York. This appealed to Bernstein, who wanted to write hard-hitting, jazz-inspired music about real human conflicts and tensions in a harsh inner-city environment.

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The Plot of West Side Story

West Side Story is set in New York in the 1950s. It is about two rival gangs the 'Jets' (Americans) and the 'Sharks' (Puerto Rican Immigrants). It follows the tragic love story of Tony, the best friend of the Jets' leader and Maria, the sister of the Sharks' leader. The story is based on 'Romeo and Juliet', though there are some differences, the main one being that Maria doesn't die at the end.

It has two acts, with spoken dialogue between the songs. It was quite different to other musicals at the time - it had a sad ending, lots of dance scenes and looked at social problems in America.

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West Side Story - Music

The music of West Side Story was cutting edge when compared to musical theater pieces up to this time. The new elements in this work were: 

  • dark theme rooted in violence and tragedy 
  • use of long, extended dance scenes to convey the drama 
  • sophisticated synthesis of jazz and classical musical idioms 
  • focus on social problems and tensions of contemporary America

The music used ideas from opera, music hall and Latin American dances. There is a whole sequence of dances used in the gymnasium scene, including the mambo and cha-cha.

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West Side Story - Orchestration

  • five woodwind players (all doubling up, i.e. clarinet, and saxophone) 
  • two horns 
  • three trumpets 
  • two trombones 
  • seven violins 
  • four cellos 
  • two double basses 
  • drum-kit 
  • two other percussionists 
  • piano 
  • guitar (acoustic and electric)
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West Side Story - 'Something's Coming'

'Something's Coming' is the third number in the show following the opening prologue and the patriotic war cry of the 'Jet Song'. The scene changes to Tony happily engaged in work at Doc's drug store. He is optimistic about a new and better 'gang-free' future and excited about the dance to be help that night at the gym. 

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The Music of 'Something's Coming'

Key musical elements: 

  • Jazz-based harmony in which conventional chords have added 'blue' notes and other dissonances
  • Syncopated rhythms permeating the music, including the 'push' rhythm anticipating the beat
  • The motif of the interval of the tritone that is used throughout every movement (the notes here are G to D). The interval is known as the 'diabolus in musica' (devil in music) and represents evil and sinister moods. In 1949, Bernstein composed the song 'Maria' that appears later in the musical. However, its first three notes use this interval and it became a motif in each piece in West Side Story
  • Extensive use of short riffs
  • Cross-rhythms
  • Layered textures or independent parts
  • Combination of snappy short phrases and long sustained notes
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'Something's Coming' from West Side Story - Struct

Song doesn't follow conventional verse-chorus structure, but has several musical ideas and sections that recur.

  • Introduction (Bars 1-3) - Introduces push rhythm (gives agitated and breathless feel) and ostinato staccato bass line which set the mood. Three-note ostinato bass up to bar 20.
  • Section A (Bars 4-39) - Quiet piano section. Sets scene with unanswered questions and sudden changes of time signature and dynamics.
  • Section B (Bars 40-105) - Repeats opening riff in a transposed version and contrasts this to lyrical section with longer phrases. Chromatic chord (neopolitan - chord of the flattened supertonic (second degree) in first inversion used at bar 95.  
  • Section B1 (Bars 106-140) - Same as B but without repeated section.
  • Section A1 (Bars 141-157) - Provides sense of return and balance. Long-held final vocal 'blue' note of C (flattened seventh) ends the piece in the air, suspended and unresolved, just like Tony's future
  • Outro (Bar 158) - One bar repeated pattern with ad lib.
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'Something's Coming' from West Side Story - Tempo

  • Fast tempo for the duration of the piece
  • Shorter notes, e.g. quavers and changes in key signature, make the music feel faster
  • Contrast of short snappy phrases and long phrases affect the movement of the piece
  • Change of time signature from 3/4 to 2/4 at bar 21, which indicates a change in section
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'Something's Coming' from West Side Story - Rhythm

  • Lots of syncopated rhythms used, particularly push rhythms which anticipate the beat, reflecting the mood of the piece, as Tony anticipates that 'Something's coming'
  • Ostinato crotchet baseline helps to maintain steady beat
  • Heavy use of accents in this piece, particularly on the wrong beats of the bar, which adds to sense of anticipation
  • Accompaniment uses oompah rhythms in section B to emphasise the change of section, which helps to emphasise the excitement of the piece
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'Something's Coming' from West Side Story - Key

  • Song opens with the use of a tri tone (often referred to as the 'devil in music')
  • Tri tone - an interval of three tones which has a dissonant unsettled feel as though it needs to resolve, it is repeated throughout the piece which foreshadows the tragic ending of the plot
  • Bernstein uses added blue notes in the melody to clash with chords in the accompaniment, creating a jazzy feel
  • Piece modulates four times, indicating a change in section
  • Piece begins in D major, modulates to C major, but continues using F sharps which create a bitonal effect, modulates back to D major and then to D major again, and finally modulates back to D major at bar 125
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'Something's Coming' from West Side Story - Textur

  • Texture mainly polyphonic, due to the large instrumentation and interwoven rhythms and melodies
  • Combination of accompaniment and melody also helps to create word painting
  • Word painting is when the music mimics the lyrics being sung, e.g. Bars 128-135, tremolo violins help to emphasise the fact that the air is humming
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Samuel Richardson


This a great set of revision cards full of excellent contextual information on 'West Side Story' and a good analysis of the song 'Something's Coming'. There are not many other resources that explain the context for this musical so well, and it is vital knowledge in order to understand why 'West Side Story' was so groundbreaking. 

I would combine this resource with a mind map about the specifics of the music of 'Something's Coming' to help me remember the main points, and use these cards to flesh out the details. 

Well done!

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