How Sondheim Found His Sound

How Sondheim Found His Sound

by Steve Swayne

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"The research is voluminous, as is the artistry and perceptiveness. Swayne has lived richly within the world of Sondheim's music."
---Richard Crawford, author of America's Musical Life: A History

"Sondheim's career and music have never been so skillfully dissected, examined, and put in context. With its focus on his work as composer, this book is

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"The research is voluminous, as is the artistry and perceptiveness. Swayne has lived richly within the world of Sondheim's music."
---Richard Crawford, author of America's Musical Life: A History

"Sondheim's career and music have never been so skillfully dissected, examined, and put in context. With its focus on his work as composer, this book is surprising and welcome."
---Theodore S. Chapin, President and Executive Director, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization

"What a fascinating book, full of insights large and small. An impressive analysis and summary of Sondheim's many sources of inspiration. All fans of the composer and lovers of Broadway in general will treasure and frequently refer to Swayne's work."
---Tom Riis, Joseph Negler Professor of Musicology and Director of the American Music Research Center, University of Colorado

Stephen Sondheim has made it clear that he considers himself a "playwright in song." How he arrived at this unique appellation is the subject of How Sondheim Found His Sound---an absorbing study of the multitudinous influences on Sondheim's work.

Taking Sondheim's own comments and music as a starting point, author Steve Swayne offers a biography of the artist's style, pulling aside the curtain on Sondheim's creative universe to reveal the many influences---from classical music to theater to film---that have established Sondheim as one of the greatest dramatic composers of the twentieth century.

Sondheim has spoken often and freely about the music, theater, and films he likes, and on occasion has made explicit references to how past works crop up in his own work. He has also freely acknowledged his eclecticism, seeing in it neither a curse nor a blessing but a fact of his creative life.

Among the many forces influencing his work, Sondheim has readily pointed to a wide field: classical music from 1850 to 1950; the songs of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood; the theatrical innovations of Oscar Hammerstein II and his collaborators; the cinematic elements found in certain film schools; and the melodramatic style of particular plays and films. Ultimately, Sondheim found his sound by amalgamating these seemingly disparate components into his unique patois.

How Sondheim Found His Sound is the first book to provide an overview of his style and one of only a few to account for these various components, how they appear in Sondheim's work, and how they affect his musical and dramatic choices.

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University of Michigan Press
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How Sondheim Found His Sound

By Steve Swayne

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11497-9

Chapter One

Sondheim the Classicist

The American musical theater is filled with composers who wrote, performed, knew, and loved classical music. Herbert, Romberg, Friml, Weill, Blitzstein, Loewe, Bernstein, Coleman, Kander: Sondheim is hardly unique. Each of these composers would favor different composers, sounds, and techniques from the classical realm and would combine them in unique ways. Add to this Sondheim's early inclination toward drama-perhaps abetted by a childhood filled with drama-and we begin to understand how his sound differs from those of his predecessors and peers, as he crafted a distinctive musical amalgam wed to character and situation in a way that few other composers would rival.

Sondheim's emergence as an aficionado of classical music was in no way assured. His love of music certainly goes back to his early years-at least to the age of five-and was driven from the start by his love of innovation and technology. The adult collector of games is foreshadowed in the child's fascination with his parents' Capehart phonograph player, with its arm that could turn discs over automatically. He soon became fascinated by the music the phonograph played, mostly "pop records and whatever show tunes there were," inkeeping with the music that was made in the Sondheim household. His dressmaker father Herbert was a self-taught pianist who regaled guests and clients alike with his renditions of Broadway favorites. Herbert's oldest son began classical piano lessons at age seven, though he stopped two years later. After 1940, Sondheim no longer had his father around to play piano; his parents divorced in that year. And Herbert's technique was not developed enough to play classical music anyway. Even so, at the New York Military Academy, the eleven-year-old Sondheim entertained himself by playing MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose" and other classical chestnuts on the chapel's pipe organ.

His musical development after military school is less clear, but some of his tastes were soon established. According to his own recollection, he served as Hammerstein's musical mentor from his teenage years forward, well before Hammerstein would take him on as a dramatic apprentice.

Early on in our acquaintance ... [Hammerstein] confessed to being baffled by "modern" music that wasn't tuneful in the traditional sense. Because he was curious, I gave him for his birthday a recording of the Ravel trio (I wanted to start him off as tunefully as possible), and I followed it each year with slightly more contemporary-sounding pieces. I never got him quite as far as Wozzeck, but by the time he died seventeen years later, I'd led him through the marshes of Prokofiev and into the thickets of Stravinsky.

One does the math and comes up with July 1943 as the month and year of that gift of the Ravel. Given that Sondheim would date his penchant for collecting records to his later teen years, perhaps 1943 is a bit early. Whatever the precise date was, how did he move from Broadway show tunes to American parlor music to European art music in such a short period of time, let alone to something as arcane as the Ravel trio? By the same means through which the five-year-old was exposed to music: the phonograph.

Sondheim the classical collector

Sondheim was an inveterate record collector, with a zest for expanding his collection. In 1987, he said: "I have a very large record collection, 25-30,000 records, which consist mostly of instrumental music of the nineteenth and twentieth century. I have been collecting since I was seventeen years old." The Library of Congress received most of this collection, which was estimated to be between eleven thousand and thirteen thousand records. Whichever number is correct, it was a considerable private collection.

The Library of Congress also received the record catalog, a typed inventory of four-by-six index cards that show signs of having survived the February 1995 fire that damaged Sondheim's office. Nearly all of the cards are singed at the top and slightly damaged by water; the information on a few has been partially destroyed. And the catalog is not complete. Some cards are missing, and Sondheim remarked that some recordings were not cataloged.

But a picture emerges of his collection. Every composer represented is given a separate card, on which several works are listed. The cards are arranged in alphabetical order by last name. In many cases, a composer's works take up more than one card. (See figures 1a and b.) Rarely is there any mention of performers, and explicit references to labels or other identifying features of individual records are nonexistent. Instead, the cards list the works that appear on the recordings. Multiple copies of a work (which occur usually among the multiple-card composers) are sometimes indicated with a number in parentheses; more often the repeated work is listed later in the inventory. And as Sondheim remarked in 1987, the recordings are mostly of instrumental-that is, classical-music, and mostly from 1850 to 1950 or so. For example, there are more cards for Kodály (twelve) than there are for Beethoven (ten) or Mozart (eleven). Thus the record collection does offer a way of confirming Sondheim's musical tastes and classical influences. In an interview with David Savran, Sondheim provided a window into how records added to his musical education. He pulled no punches about his general dislike of opera, a dislike highlighted by most commentators. But these remarks also reveal how Sondheim became acquainted with opera and, presumably, with a wider classical repertory.

I've never liked opera and I've never understood it. Most opera doesn't make theatrical sense to me. Things go on forever. I'm not a huge fan of the human voice. I like song, dramatic song. I like music and lyrics together, telling a story.... When I studied with Milton Babbitt he said I had to get into opera. Knowing that I was a Strauss fan, he first sent me to Rosenkavalier and I left after one act. I thought it was endlessly boring. I'd heard a lot of opera on record and I liked some of Puccini's music, so I then went to the Met to see Bohème.

Sondheim's comment about "hear[ing] a lot of opera on record" finds support in a photograph taken in 1986 with the composer seated in what appears to be his study. On the wall behind him stands a sizable record collection, consisting mostly of boxed sets, some commercially packaged, others repackaged in special boxes that Sondheim acquired in order to preserve space. (He put the record jackets into storage, which provides a window into his habits, that is, he generally listened without liner notes "contaminating" his experience.) While most of the labels are unreadable, several Puccini operas are identifiable, including Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, Manon Lescaut, Turandot, La Fanciulla del West, and La Rondine. Sondheim's record catalog also shows that he owned a recording of every Puccini opera and of five Richard Strauss operas; of Wagner-opera where conceivably "things go on forever"-the catalog mentions only Tristan and Meistersinger.

As for Strauss, Sondheim began studying with Babbitt in 1950, by which time he had supposedly become "a Strauss fan," but one obviously unfamiliar with Rosenkavalier. One can only guess what Strauss he knew: the swaggering Don Juan of the composer's youth, perhaps, or the other hypertheatrical tone poems, or the valedictory oboe concerto of 1945, which was released on recording in 1947, the time that Sondheim studied at Williams College and the year he began collecting records. But the chief route by which he came to know Strauss shows the interpenetration of music, theater, and film in Sondheim's development.

I was such a movie fan that I think I got into Romantic and tonal music first as opposed to classical-you know, pre-Beethoven-and as opposed to contemporary because of movies. All the movie scores were Strauss-influenced and influenced by late nineteenth-century Romanticism. I got into that kind of symphonic music, I think, unconsciously through listening to [Erich von] Korngold and [Max] Steiner and [Franz] Waxman.

One could linger long over Sondheim's record collection, noting the names of composers and pieces that are virtually unknown to the most assiduous music historian. But what quickly becomes apparent in looking at this catalog is its classical bent. And Sondheim came to appreciate classical music pretty much on his own. His parents did not whet his appetite for such music, nor could their record collection rival that of their son, given that Sondheim was a member of the first generation that grew up with the phonograph. But most members of that generation did not buy thousands of records. Sondheim was a collector from the start, with his well-known and extensive game collection being simply one expression of his acquisitiveness. And when it came to recordings, Sondheim collected mostly classical recordings and, if his remarks to Savran are to be believed, listened to them as well.


It seems appropriate to refer to Ravel as Sondheim's childhood musical sweetheart, considering how well Sondheim's love of Ravel is documented and how far back that love goes. And like one who sings the praises of a first crush, Sondheim has made claims for Ravel that are enormous if not downright oversized. "The particular influences [on me] are Ravel, who, I think, apart from influencing me, is essentially responsible for most popular music that has been written in the twentieth century. That is to say, his harmonic influence, all the secondary sevenths, is what pop music has existed on even into the age of rock. But certainly he is a huge influence on me."

Most scholars would disagree with Sondheim about Ravel's influence on pop music. Much of American popular music derives both its harmonic and its rhythmic contours from African and African-American roots. The seventh chords that make up the basic 12-bar blues form, coupled with the harmonic substitutions-the secondary sevenths-that every competent jazz player knows, have far greater resonance in pop harmony than does the sonic world created by Ravel.

But Ravel was in fact influenced by African-American music. The slow movement of his Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) is marked "Blues" and represents an attempt by a white Frenchman to inject some black soul into his music. And it wasn't the first such attempt in France, as is shown by Debussy's numerous black-inspired piano pieces ("Le petit negre," "Golliwogg's Cakewalk," "Minstrels," "General Lavine-eccentric") and the rags that Stravinsky wrote while he lived in Paris early in the century.

The confluence of Ravel's indebtedness to black music and Sondheim's indebtedness to Ravel finds a natural focal point in one of Sondheim's favorite pieces by Ravel, the Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra of 1930. In two appearances on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Desert Island Discs radio program, separated by some twenty years, Sondheim selected the Ravel as one of his must-have discs. His decision was based in part on his familiarity with a particular recording: "My idea of the ideal way to play the Ravel Left Hand Concerto is the way Cortot played it, because it was the first I heard. As far as I was concerned, everybody else is wrong. If I had heard somebody else play it-Feltsman play it-then that would be my ideal." Another factor was his academic connections with the piece: "One of the reasons I would take it to the island is not only that I love it, but it's also the subject of my senior thesis in college. So it's something I spent a lot of time on and got to love as much as maybe Ravel loved it himself."

But a large part of the work's appeal must be its dark beauties, some of which are clearly influenced by the blues. All serious students of Sondheim must familiarize themselves with this work, written by Ravel for Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. (Wittgenstein commissioned works from several composers, including Prokofiev, who also wrote a left-hand concerto for him.) Wittgenstein's tragic loss already resonates with many of Sondheim's dramatic characters-the one-armed pianist as outsider-and Ravel wrote music of stunning drama and depth for Wittgenstein. The opening (example 1) is shrouded in murkiness and uncertainty; its echoes can be heard in some of the brooding music from Sweeney Todd (the opening of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and Sweeney's "There was a barber and his wife" readily come to mind). When a melody emerges (m. 3), it is tentative and somewhat reluctant to open itself up, not unlike "Send In the Clowns." The motivic, almost fragmentary nature of the melody also finds an echo in Sondheim's music (for example, "What Can You Lose?" from Dick Tracy; see chap. 3). The prolonged climax on the dominant chord, ending on the suspended dominant chord as a launching pad for the piano's entrance (example 2), resembles similar prolongations in Sondheim, such as on the word "love" in "Company." (Indeed, "Company" resembles a dramatic reconception of the concerto.) And the jaunty 6/8 march of the second main section of the concerto (rehearsal no. 17) is in the same league as the 6/8 "A Weekend in the Country" (A Little Night Music), "The Ballad of Sweeny Todd," and "How I Saved Roosevelt" (Assassins).

While much of the concerto may be tinted by black music, it is in the second theme of the Allegro section that the blues coloration comes through loudest and clearest. This theme was actually sounded near the opening of the concerto, as it appears in tandem with the initial tentative melody (horns at rehearsal no. 1). Its full flowering, however, does not occur until the Allegro. Against the unyielding rhythm of a marchlike vamp, the bassoon intones a syncopated version of the melody, bending it rhythmically and pitch-wise in a way that is reminiscent of a blues singer (at rehearsal no. 28; example 3). And Ravel plied this melody again and again in different orchestral combinations, including a lush string section that sounds as much like Duke Ellington's orchestra as a classical musician's score (beginning at rehearsal no. 35).

Sondheim himself was not as susceptible to the charms of black music as was Ravel. Yet when he acclaimed another composer he admired greatly, Harold Arlen, Sondheim focused on the "kind of Southern blues" that Arlen's music managed to express (or, perhaps more accurately, on how Arlen's music fit Sondheim's image of southern blues). "His harmonic structures and his harmonies are, to me, endlessly rich, inventive and fascinating, and I never tire of his music." Chapter 2 will explore Sondheim's sonic relationship with Arlen. But here it is worth noting the connections between Ravel and Arlen, namely, their "endless rich, inventive and fascinating" harmonies and their affinity with the blues.

Sondheim volunteered to Stephen Banfield that "the preponderance of the two specific colors ('dark' versus 'romantic') of the waltzes ... [from A Little Night Music] is the pervasive influence in my writing of Ravel, particularly La Valse (dark) and the Valses nobles et sentimentales (romantic)." And while this identification comes when Sondheim was in his sixties, one can see evidence of this Ravelian pervasiveness throughout his creative life. Two unpublished waltzes for piano from around 1950 show a clear debt to Ravel. And the waltzes "Next to You" and "Alaska" from Bounce (the latter was cut after the Goodman Theatre production and folded into "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened") similarly contain a dramatic sweep and utilize a harmonic palette that together confirm Sondheim's primary focus on Ravel, and not the Viennese masters, when he created his waltzes.


Excerpted from How Sondheim Found His Sound by Steve Swayne Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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