The great American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein produced his only original film score for one of the prestigious projects of American film, Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront (1954). The film, starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, tells the story of union corruption on the docks of New York in searing, personal terms. Bernstein produced one of the great scores in Hollywood history, but never consented to do another film project. He wrote of his experiences in a chapter of his book The Joy of Music, showing that he was unprepared to have portions of the music summarily cut, changed into a different order than he first supposed, or even simply turned down in volume just as a theme was reaching its emotional heights.
In 1955, he adapted the music he had produced for the film into his own vision, a continuous 20-minute suite of symphonic music. It begins with a haunting and eloquent horn theme which is allowed to grow in emotional depth. It makes a transition into a "barbaro" section with very prominent percussion, related to the dehumanizing conditions on the docks. The film's love theme is followed by a scherzo-like Allegro, and the suite concludes with a tragic development of the opening theme. It is not necessary to know the film to understand or appreciate this score, which can easily be taken simply as a portrait of life in New York City. As such, it is one of the most distinctive (and most unjustly overlooked) great symphonic portraits of an American scene.