Mambo! from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein

West Side Story was premiered in 1957 and is a modern day ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story. New York is the backdrop for bitter gang rivalry between the Jets (Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants)

‘Mambo!’ is performed by the Sharks during the ‘Dance at the Gym’ scene, where the community tries to bring the gang members together at a social event. All that happens is the two gangs dance in their own style and refuse to mix with the ‘other side’.

‘Mambo!’ from ‘West Side Story’ by Bernstein

Listen For

  • The score uses over 20 different percussion instruments and Mambo! is the perfect showcase for them. Can you identify which instruments are Latin American?

If you’re interested in looking closely at the percussion part for West Side Story, click the button below to download the PDF score.

  • At 00:32 notice the trumpets have their mutes in. What is the effect on the sound here?
  • At 00:44 listen out for the ‘call and response’, where the brass play their syncopated theme, and everyone responds by shouting ‘Mambo!’
  • Syncopation (meaning ‘off beat’, though more accurately means ‘off beat, with the accents occurring where you wouldn’t expect) is one of the key features of this piece. It is what makes the music catchy, striking and upbeat.
  • From 01:48 listen to the trumpet trills and their high register notes cutting above the busy orchestral texture.

As you continue listening, think about how the musical tension increases and then relaxes.

Things To Consider

How does Bernstein create such energy in this music?

  • If you are wanting your composition to feel energetic, what can you learn from Bernstein here?
  • How does Bernstein create a busy orchestral texture, where different parts can still be heard quite clearly?