Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Sondheim's Music "Classical?"

Is Stephen Sondheim's music "classical?"  If I answer, "no," that's not to say that Sondheim's music is any less interesting, well-made, beautiful, or worthy.  It's just that Sondheim's priorities are not the same as those of a classical composer or of a discerning classical listener.  The answer does matter if we're going to hear Sondheim's music in concert halls for years to come.

I offer an insight delivered inadvertently by composer John Harbison whom I heard speak in a small Q & A session  a few years ago at Georgia Tech.  He told us how he visited the men’s room during intermission of the premiere performance of his opera Great Gatsby at the Met in 2000, and heard one  man say to another, “This opera would be better if the composer made a few cuts.”  Harbison laughed at this punchline, and explained what makes his critic’s idea so absurd: cutting music to suit the tastes of the audience would do irreparable harm to the “architecture” of the opera’s overall form.

Sondheim and Bernstein, mid-1970s 

For him, the abstract design of the music was more important than the storytelling.  There’s the strong separation line between a classical composer and Sondheim.  In the memoirs Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim frequently tells how he had to sacrifice his songs because they interrupted the story.    Sondheim’s music is not “classical” because his interests lie in the storytelling and the integrity of a theatrical production, not in the unity and overall design of his scores.  

That said, Sondheim does enjoy pointing out conscious choices he made to “unify” the music for a show.  He used the interval of major seconds for Anyone Can Whistle, and he laced Bernard Herrmann’s go-to chord and the Dies Irae throughout Sweeney Todd.  He worked tone clusters into Sunday in the Park with George to make a musical analog for Seurat’s clusters of color, and all songs from Into the Woods derive in melody or accompaniment from five notes in the same way that its entire story derives from five magic beans.  Unlike Harbison,  Sondheim does this more to stimulate his own puzzle-solving imagination than for any abstract purpose, as when the challenge of composing only in multiples of waltz time kept him interested in A Little Night Music before he learned to appreciate Hugh Wheeler’s script.

So why should West Side Story be considered differently from Night Music or Sweeney Todd?   Bernstein certainly wanted to think of his score as a unified whole, but Sondheim  pooh-poohs Bernstein’s claim that all of West Side Story is based on the interval of the augmented 4th.   True, it’s the interval of the Jets’ whistle, the first phrase of “Maria,” the vamp and first interval of “Something’s Coming,” the source of dissonance in the vamp for “Officer Krupke,” and the first interval in the accompaniment for “Cool," emphasized more in a twelve-tone fugue for the dance break.  But Sondheim reminds us that Bernstein took some of the score from his trunk of songs cut from other shows. 

In a blogpost on this question, composer-playwright Brian M. Rosen offers the idea that Bernstein wrote for more generalized characters and universal emotions, while Sondheim’s songs, to their credit, are inextricably linked to complex mixed emotions and thoughts of specific dramatic moments.  (See

Even more to the point, I think, is the fact that Sondheim’s music is strophic, verses repeating in some extension of the AABA form.    The songs develop on stage as the character's words lead from one idea to the next; the songs all build in intensity, but that's different from developing musically.  A classical audience would expect development through fragmentation and extension of the melody.  Could a classical audience appreciate the songs as they were written, with vocals and lyrics?  Out of context, the wonderfully specific words might just be puzzling.
For example, a concert dance suite from Pacific Overtures, recorded in the early 1980s, never warranted more than one listening:  just hearing the tune for “Welcome to Kanagawa” repeated was not interesting, any more than a straightforward orchestral rendition of all the verses to "Maria" would be.  Add the lyrics about Japanese prostitutes’ efforts to cater to American clients, and the reaction in a concert hall might be bewilderment.   

I’d suggest that Bernstein is on the list because he conducted orchestras in his own arrangement of a WSS dance suite.  He did develop his suite with a musical “architecture” in mind, and discerning how Bernstein picks up on something in one number to lead to the next, often using the augmented fourth as a pivot, is what keeps that suite fresh for me after decades of repeated hearings.   Some pop-orchestral arrangements of Sondheim by Don Sebesky, while pleasant,  don’t aim for that level of integration.  But symphony orchestras could play the overtures that Jonathan Tunick created for “A Sondheim Celebration” back in 1973, and overtures for Merrily We Roll Along and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Perhaps pianist Anthony De Mare’s commissioned pieces for  “Liaisons Project” -- Sondheim songs reimagined for solo piano by a couple dozen contemporary composers - will change Sondheim’s profile on classical programs. 

Of course, there’s this other elephant in the room, George Gershwin.  Sondheim loves Porgy and Bess enough to smudge the original score with his tears when he read over it at the Smithsonian.  The difference between a musical and an opera, according to him, has more to do with the expectations of the audience.   In an opera house, the audience cares more for the sound of the vocals; in a theatre, the audience wants to understand every word of the story. 

I recommend the websites that I found when looking into this question.

Brian M. Rosen, Music v Theatre  ( and a link he provided to composer Jeffrey Parola’s website ( )

Since drafting this article, I've written about the book How Sondheim Found His Sound by musicologist Steven Swayne. 

I've written about Sondheim frequently, reviewing productions of Assassins, Follies, Night Music, and others.  My best statement about him and his musicals may be found in a review of The Fantasticks

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