Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Musicologist Analyzes How Sondheim Found his Sound

[Photo: Mandy and Madonna sing "What Can You Lose?"]

Diehard Sondheim Fan Club member since 1974, I still have to admit that I cannot hum some of Stephen Sondheim's songs.  Musicologist Steve Swayne explains why.  He also explains why that's a good thing.

Swayne borrows a phrase from a Sondheim lyric to explain that "Sondheim's melodies often start out like songs," but then show a "remarkable degree of motivic compression" (Swayne 103).  Swayne demonstrates what he means in fifteen pages analyzing one short ballad, "What Can You Lose?" from the Disney film Dick Tracy (1990).  He traces every phrase of the tune to the first "motif," four notes sung by the character "88 Keys" (Mandy Patinkin).  This one motif appears "no fewer than twenty-eight times" in just 30-odd measures of singing. Sometimes the four note phrase repeats a note, or jumps up instead down. so that "the song becomes difficult to remember precisely; one must make a concentrated effort to commit its melodic nuances to memory."  Having tried and failed many times to sing this song in the car, I can second that.

For comparison, Swayne tells how "hummable" songwriters introduce two or three different motifs early.  Even in the motif-driven song "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," composer Richard Rodgers combines the motif of an upward scale with the three-note motif repeated on the syllables "wild again," "(be)guiled again," "simpering," etc. Rodgers goes on to invert the pattern at the bridge.  Sondheim can write that way too; Swayne gives "Anyone Can Whistle" as an example of a tune built from a variety of ideas.

But Sondheim most often works with just one motif.  Why?  From early in his musical education, Sondheim aimed for "the quality indigenous to the best art: maximum development of the minimum of material" (Sondheim, lauding songs of Jerome Kern, 53).

Besides, as Swayne demonstrates with "What Can You Lose?" Sondheim can vary a single motif to express characters' thoughts and feelings.  In a way, he's using the music to act the part.

Swayne starts his book with Sondheim's explanation, "I've discovered that... essentially I'm a playwright who writes with song, and that playwrights are actors" (1).  So, for "What Can You Lose?" the character 88 Keys is seated at a piano late at night beside the woman he secretly adores, and the piano accompaniment therefore sounds improvised, ruminative.  The first four notes pick up on the rhythm and inflection of a phrase in the dialogue just completed: "What can you lose?"  Swayne demonstrates numerous ways that the four-note motive varies to show rising hope as "88" imagines telling her his feelings, while, throughout, the piano accompaniment says something different:

But its rhythmic emphases off the beat... its doubling in the soprano and tenor voices, and its descent of a third all convey leadenness of heart and futility of hope.  The answer to his titular question is something 88 Keys already knows.  When he asks it, the [accompaniment] answers him: you will lose (116). 

Midway, the song seems to start over, as "88" begins to imagine another possibility, that she already knows the truth and chooses to ignore it; the motive bends with the character's feelings.  

Swayne tells us that Sondheim's songs are "kinetic" (120).  There's no repeated "hook" as in rock and pop songs, because those are "inherently undramatic," treading the same emotional territory over and over.  Sondheim doesn't often resort to driving rhythmic patterns to move a song forward independent of character, preferring that the forward motion come from developments internal to the character's song.

With this analysis at the core of his book, Swayne packs the rest with what Sondheim learned from his teachers and from classical composers (especially Ravel), from the Broadway masters of his teens (especially Harold Arlen), and from film.

Much of this I've heard before in books about Sondheim from Craig Zadan's Sondheim and Company (1974) onward, and articles in Sondheim Review.  Here are some fun bits that are new to me, or, at least, newly remembered:

  • Sondheim borrows a technique that he described in a student paper on Ravel, that of re-harmonizing the accompaniment under a motif that repeats, unvaried, as under the phrase "Finishing the hat..." (19)
  • The first notes sung in "Send in the Clowns" are an inversion of a motif in the "theme" from A Little Night Music, the one sung to the words, "Five o'clock...Six o'clock..." etc.
  • The "follies" dream numbers for the four main characters in Follies are derived from "book" songs they sang in character earlier in the show; and the accompaniment of "Sally's" song "Losing My Mind" is inverted to make the accompaniment for the song of her counterpart "Phyllis" in "Lucy and Jessie."
  • The five-note "bean theme" in Into the Woods strikes again, in the song "No One Is Alone": inverted, they are the notes of the song's bridge section, beginning, "People make mistakes."
  • Hard to believe:  Sondheim remembers that Bernstein faulted him for sticking "wrong notes" such as the augmented fourth (or "tritone") in his music -- presumably to show off his sophistication.  Sondheim pointed out that "I Feel Pretty" is the one song in West Side Story that does not contain the tritone.  Now, I knew that; but I'm shocked to read that Bernstein was shocked (91).
  • Sondheim taught Bernstein how to add a "thumb line" in the 2/4 measures of the introductory verse to "Something's Coming" in West Side Story.  I knew that, but I didn't notice that Bernstein went on to base the rest of the song on that same "thumb line." (92) (Now, this is embarrassing, because I've known that song well since 1964.)
  • Sondheim was excited by the possibility that three characters' three songs at the start of A Little Night Music could all go together, but he didn't want the audience to see it coming.  To make it work, he says, he filled the chords of the third song "Soon"  with sixths and fourths, so the accompaniment would be "like spaghetti sauce -- it'll cover almost anything" (251).
  • About how he based the entire score of Anyone Can Whistle on two intervals (played by the first four notes of the Overture), Sondheim admits that the audience probably wouldn't hear "the seeds" of the songs, except maybe subliminally. But the technique "helped me to write the score"(245)
  • Swayne uses the song "Putting it Together" to demonstrate how Sondheim has found musical ways to achieve cinematic effects -- cross-fades and tracking shots, as when we follow the character "George"  through the sung dialogue of ten other characters.
Because Sondheim, "playwright in song," thinks visually as well as dramatically and musically, Swayne concludes that we must use our eyes as well as our ears to "grasp how Sondheim found his sound".

[See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to Sondheim, his shows, and musical theatre more generally.]

Swayne, Steve.  How Sondheim Found His Sound.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

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