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Topic: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

  1. #1

    Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    It was Stephen Sondheim's 75th B-day this year.

    Honorary concerts and revivals abound.

    In Western Massachusetts. In addition to the Boston Pop's Sondheim celebration at Tanglewood, my wife and I caught the Great Barrington Player's excellent revival of FOLLIES this summer.

    Which leads me to a question (from my wife) for the studied scholars of compostion and arrangement.

    For FOLLIES, Stephen wrote three individual songs of entirely different arrangement and style.

    1. Rain Falling on the Roof Goes Pit Pitter Pat (not on cast recording not sure of proper name.)
    2. Ah. Paris!
    3. Broadway Baby.

    They are each performed as a solo number for the corresponding actor. Then, all the actors perform these solo pieces together in unison in a miniature grand finale.

    They must all have the same key, chord structure and tempo (Broadway Baby half tempo of the first two). The main melody line of each, is actually a harmony to the other two.

    In a sense, they are all the same song, yet the arrangements make it impossible to think they could ever be married, so when Stephen combines them into one, it makes an incredible, delightful surprise.

    I've heard this technique used in other musicals, but never to such a diverse degree as in this situation.

    What is this called?

  2. #2

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    I'm not sure if there's a special name for this, but Sondheim sure is pretty good at it.

    My favorite example is Sweeney Todd near the end of act one. He does the same thing as you describe, except they are two duets, so there are four people singing all together, but the scene is broken in two, so the pairs are unaware of each other. One of the duets (Anthony & Johanna) is further broken as two different super-imposed songs that had been combined earlier. It's even further complicated by the fact that each song sounds like it's in a completely different meter. There's one point where the lyrics all kind of merge in a strange way, and everyone is saying and singing each other's names.

    He does it again in the second act with Sweeney, Anthony, and Johanna, all in seperate split scenes on stage. Sweeney is singing about how he'll never see his daughter (Johanna) again, Anthony is swearing to find her again as he's in love with her, and Johanna sings crazily from the insane asylum. All together very haunting!
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  3. #3

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Quote Originally Posted by dynamix
    What is this called?
    Is "counterpoint" the word you're looking for?
    Dan Powers

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  4. #4

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Quote Originally Posted by danpowers
    Is "counterpoint" the word you're looking for?
    I don't know!

    It sounds familiar.

    Anyone else? Has Mr. Powers nailed it?

    For one million dollars, is "counterpoint" our final answer?

    Thanks Skysaw (Jamie) for that example from Sweeny Todd. Any other examples I could show my wife would be appreciated, folks.


  5. #5

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    It is quodlibet.

    The German idea of the humorous conglomeration was first applied to a musical composition by Wolfgang Schmeltzl in 1544 and the name later became the usual term in that language for facetious combinations of tunes haphazardly combined. Famous examples exist in works by Bach and Mozart in the eighteenth century. In this connection it certainly lives up to the idea behind the Latin word, since the aim is to produce a humorous amalgam of tunes to please the audience.

  6. #6

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Yep, counterpoint.

    My daughter is in the chorus of A Little Sondheim Music, which is being performed this weekend in downtown Portland. http://www.operatheateroregon.org/season/

    They didn't perform the three numbers listed above, but they did one with the four males singing a very nice, interwoven counterpoint. (Pretty lady, or something like that.)

    I'm not very familiar at all with Sondheim's music, but every number in this review is centered around relationships. My 13 year old son could hardly take it. He called the show "one big chick flick".

    My wife absolutely loved it.


  7. #7

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Simultaneous post alert!

    Quodlibet, huh?


  8. #8

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    I remembered quodlibet from my music history classes eons ago. I "Googled" it and found support for it. I have never heard the term used outside of classical music though.


  9. #9
    Senior Member newmewzikboy's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2005
    San Francisco Bay Area

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Its basic CP.

    I used to be a Sondheim fan and listened to everything. But I find his music just a bus of circus tricks in CP, Stravinsky-like cutup rhymns, repetition, and sophisticated word play.

    I cannot think of ONE character he ever developed that I really give a *ssT about. As for songs...what really comes into your headz? Send in the clones? The little things we do together? Now...? I just think he is old and like old songwriters I give him a yawn factor of 9...

    quodlibet - nice term...where can we dig for others...

  10. #10

    Re: Sondheim Musical Composition Technique?

    Bravo! NMB, you are the ultimate pit-bull provocateur!

    I think I'm in love!

    No wonder why I haven't bought MOTU's Symphonic Instrument. Their bulletin board has no where near the character of this one!

    So I guess you're a big fan of Adam Geuttel's, Light in the Piazza, huh?


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