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Is Sondheim Classical?

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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.

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How to write an #operaplot

Looking through the 900 odd (sometimes very odd) #operaplot entries, I started noticing some distinct trends, a number of “schools” of #operaplot authoring. This isn’t that surprising, there are only so many ways one can distill a multi hour convergence of music and theater into a coherent series of 140 characters (130 excluding the #operaplotContinue ReadingContinue Reading

12 Responses to How to write an #operaplot

  1. Chickenfeet2003 says:

    “Batter my ears three noted score” was Dr. Atomic

  2. Dale Matt says:

    Brilliant!

  3. Irene Vartanoff says:

    Irene Varatanoff (to my knowledge) does not exist, and this entry is not one of the 25 I submitted under my correctly spelled name. But the entry is very good, so whoever wrote it, congrats.

    • Brian Rosen says:

      Ah. You’re right. I copied that off of the OM summary, but searching the twitter archives shows that its actually RalphGraves’ submission. Thanks for letting me know!

  4. Brian/MvsT: This is a fabulous collection and assessment! Thank you! I love being defined a lyric…but, you see, I’m really a dramatic coloratura trapped in a lyric’s body! 😉 😉

    You too have proved that the body of strong entries is quite large… 30 or so, me thinks. Honestly, I think J.K. should just set up a pin-the-tail-on-the-entry to pick the top 7, it’s so subjective this year.

    San Francisco, eh? Perhaps our paths will cross one of these days.

    Enjoy my “Best of…” here:
    http://jumpingclappingman.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/jcms-best-of-operaplot/

    • Brian Rosen says:

      Yah. I have my favorites, but it will all depend on his sensibilities.

      I’m sure our paths will cross. I’d venture that we have several facebook friends in common. And if the ROTL prod of Into the Woods you were in was the one with Maggie as Cinderella (as far as I know, the only one they’ve done), I’ve seen you on stage.

      • NO WAY! That was indeed the production, and Maggie was my Cindy. TOO FUNNY! (Is she a friend?)

        That was in the earlier beginnings of ROLT. They just won 6 BATCC Awards…they’ve come a long way!

        Take care!

        • Brian Rosen says:

          Yep. Maggie’s a good friend. We’ve been in several shows/operas together. She’s played my wife at least once. She’s actually the main reason I saw that production (I had just finished music directing her in A Little Night Music.) I’ve heard great things about ROLT these days. Lots of friends in their productions. I would have LOVED to do Jerry Springer this time around, but I’ve got prior commitments. 🙁

  5. […] wrote a fantastic assessment of several emerging categories of entries titled: “How to write an #OperaPlot.” My La Traviata/Copa Cabana entry was grouped under “Lyrics.” I jokingly posted […]

  6. […] my above “Copacabana” Traviata entry was included in musicvstheater’s “How to write an #operaplot,” under “The Lyrics,” on his blog Music vs. […]

  7. […] Digestible Opera Chunks | More #Operaplotting | It’s Time To Admit That I Have A Problem | How To Write An #Operaplot Vancouver Opera Blog – Do You Operaplot? Another Musicology Blog It’s The Most […]

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Hilary Hahn vs. The Richter Scales

Hilary Hahn is one of the most successful classical music artists alive.  Debuted with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, finished her bachelor requirements at Curtis at 16, signed with Sony at 17, and was named “America’s Best” young classical musician by Time Magazine at 22.  She recently turned 30, and like anyContinue Reading

2 Responses to Hilary Hahn vs. The Richter Scales

  1. Brian Rosen says:

    Cool!

    Just don’t let my wife know that Hilary Hahn is “my gal”.

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