Monthly Archives: December 2011

Is Sondheim Classical?

Share Button

The Australian Broadcasting Company recently released a list of the “Top 100 Classical Pieces of the 20th Century.”  As with any list, there is much fodder for discussion, debate and derision (judging from this list, Stravinsky apparently stopped composing after 1913). Blogger, pianist, and educator Elissa Milne was particularly disturbed by the complete omission of Sondheim’s work, particularly considering the inclusion of Bernstein’s West Side Story in the top 20.

Now I love Sondheim’s work with a fiery passion. My first exposure to Sweeney Todd in middle school forever altered my understanding of musical theater and its possibilities. The most viewed posts on this blog are in depth analysis of his works. Stephen Sondheim is no slouch. However, I find that his exclusion from this list of classical works, even in light of West Side Story‘s inclusion, makes perfect sense. There is something inherently more classical about West Side Story than any of Sondheim’s work.

In my admittedly unconvincing responses to Elissa’s tweets, character challenged as they were, I pointed out that West Side Story is more suited for the concert hall with symphonic suites and adaptations, and that there are nothing like the ballets of West Side Story in Sondheim’s work (with the exception of the “Cookie Chase” in Anyone Can Whistle, which seems, like of much that piece, rather self conscious). But these are more symptoms than causes. The real reasons that Sondheim’s works are inherently unclassical is also their primary strengths. I would characterize these strengths as a combination of specificity and inviolability.

The beauty of Sondheim’s music and lyrics are that they are Continue Reading

4 Responses to Is Sondheim Classical?

  1. Meh. It feels like splitting hairs to me to try to make fine distinctions between what is “classical music” and what isn’t. The way the term is used is so fuzzy that it’s pointless to try to define its borders; as soon as we succeed in defining “classical music” in a way that makes it possible to make these fine distinctions, we are no longer using the word in the way that anyone really uses it.

    It seems to me that, as most people use the term, West Side Story is not classical music. It also seems to me that Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is classical music. But I’d bet that if you asked a thousand people, you wouldn’t get anything like unanimity on either of those points. The term is just too nebulous.

    Oh, well. If you want a language to be logical, you pretty much have to invent it yourself. Living languages sprawl.

    • Brian Rosen says:

      I agree that these distinctions for classification’s sake is a bit pointless, but the thought exercises that accompany such taxonomy can be enlightening. The larger point is that there is SOMETHING different between West Side Story and Sondheim’s work that, for me at least, allows the term “classical” to apply. It’s the figuring out what that something is that is, I hope, interesting and perhaps useful.

  2. I think it’s important for artists to think deeply about what they’re doing, and why. The category thing, not so much.

  3. Jirashimosu says:

    I think that classical is a matter of time rather than matter of style. Let’s give Sondheim’s work a 60 year space and we’ll see what happens.

Leave a reply

Glacial is the New Black: Satyagraha and Shen Wei

Somewhere imprinted in my brain is a sacred rule of story: take only as much time as you need to get an idea across. Get in, make your point, get out. Keep things moving and don’t lose your audience. But this week in New York two separate pieces, both non-narrative, reduced me to tears byContinue ReadingContinue Reading

One Response to Glacial is the New Black: Satyagraha and Shen Wei

  1. David Rodwin says:

    These are my thoughts on Satyagraha. A little less technical a little more emotional.

    And I give a shout out to you and Music vs. Theatre!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88035Q94a84

Leave a reply