Did you know Bernstein borrowed a tune from Beethoven for West Side Story?

4 April 2018, 09:23 | Updated: 4 April 2018, 14:19

Beethoven - 5th Piano Concerto 'Emperor' (Zimerman, Bernstein, Wiener Philharmoniker)


By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Here’s the proof that 'Somewhere', one of the most beautiful tunes in this Bernstein musical was very much inspired by Beethoven…

West Side Story is the 1957 Broadway musical that broke all our hearts – and at least a smattering of our Leonard Bernstein-shaped tears can be attributed to its poignant ballad, ‘Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)’.

But did you know that its main tune (‘there’s a place for us’) was taken from the second movement (Adagio un poco moto) of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto No. 5?

That's this bit, in the Beethoven: 

West Side Story theme

In Beethoven’s version, the ‘us’ sinks back down to the F sharp, returning to the note on which the phrase began. But in Bernstein’s composition, the ‘us’ is slightly higher – like this:

there's a place for us

'Somewhere' appears in West Side Story at a moment when Tony has just stabbed Maria’s brother Bernardo to death at the rumble. Maria realises she still loves him and the problem is not them, but what is around them.

Considering the subject matter, perhaps Bernstein’s choice to move the ‘us’ a little higher is a moment of hope in amongst the painful longing of the song.

There’s also the minor seventh between ‘there’s’ and ‘a’ – an interval Bernstein took directly from Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. It isn’t quite an octave, and the fact that it just falls short of that neat, satisfying interval means the melody captures a feeling of despair. The ‘place for us’ is a utopia Maria and Tony long for, but it’s just out of arm’s reach. [cries forever]

> 10 reasons why Tony from West Side Story is the most perfect man ever

It’s perhaps less noticeable, but ‘Somewhere’ also takes a longer phrase from the main theme of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Here’s the tune to Swan Lake:

swan lake

And here’s the third line of ‘Somewhere’:

somewhere west side story

Despite the difference in rhythm, the ascending line moving up to the dotted quaver (a dotted crotchet in the original) is a clear nod to the heart-breaking theme of the Russian composer’s ballet.

Bernstein knew what he was doing with his nods to this great works for Romantic music. And they are a small but important part of the emotional impact of his famous musical. 

Want to know more about the pure brilliance of West Side Story? Here’s how it bridged the gap between opera and musical theatre.