Is Sondheim Classical?

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 utterly imbued by the character performing them and the situation at hand. When taken out of context, placed in a performance situation outside of the show the song was written for, too much is lost. At best, a selection of Sondheim played in isolation evokes the particular moment in the show it’s taken from. If one isn’t familiar with the show, the song usually contains enough information and action to provide its own context. It is rare when a Sondheim song can survive in isolation, and when it does, its effect is mangled more often than not. Songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” or “Send In the Clowns” lose all dramatic potency when presented outside of their original contexts.

This doesn’t really happen at all in West Side Story, not because it’s any less great of a work, but because it’s a much more broadly drawn work. The characters in West Side Story are archetypes, stock characters themselves adapted from Shakespeare’s play, which was itself adapted from old Italian legend. We know very little of Tony or Maria’s inner lives, their dreams or ambitions, and nothing of their flaws or transgressions. We know only that they’re really hot for each other. Contrast this with Sondheim’s Into The Woods, essentially the story of archetypes evolving (or devolving) into fully realized human beings. As a result, most of West Side Story’s songs, certainly the most popular ones, could be applied to any story of young romance while the songs from Into the Woods could be applied to… well… Into the Woods. Add to that instrumental sections supporting ballet stage activity and a quintet that obscures its character specific lyrics in a complexly layered (and dramatically static) compositional tour de force, and you have a wealth of material that can be convincingly repurposed to any number of situations other than a production of the musical, West Side Story. It is this adaptability that makes West Side Story more inherently classical.

I believe (along with Lawrence Kramer) that the defining characteristic of classical music is the spaces between the composer, performer, and the listener, the difference between the platonic ideal of a piece as conceived by a composer, the realization of that piece by the performers, and the understanding of that piece by the listener. By this definition, pre-recorded (or mechanically generated) music is not classical, since it is of fixed form with no space for the performer or interpretation. On the other side of things, purely aleatoric music is less classical since there is no platonic ideal or intention from the composer to juxtapose against any particular performance or realization. The tension between the ideal and the realization is the stuff that classical music is made of.

This is why I believe West Side Story belongs in a list of classical music more than any Sondheim piece. The room for reinterpretation, adaptation, and recontextualization of Bernstein, et. al.’s work gives it a flexibility that any isolated segment of Sondheim simply cannot have. Sondheim’s songs must come from a very specific human being in a very specific situation. To be sure, different performers can bring drastically different approaches to a character, but the framework of the theater piece as a whole still dictates the rules. You can imbue Sweeney with as much gentle sympathy as you want, he’s still going to end up killing a lot of people. There just isn’t enough latitude for a performer within the piece to consider the piece classical, and no convincing way to take excerpts out of the framework of that piece.

So what about more traditional operas? Are they classical? One could make the case that for foreign language operas there is enough distance between the text and our own theatrical understanding to classify as clearly classical. We can take “Nessun Dorma” out of context just fine without having any idea what opera it’s from (Puccinni’s Turandot, number 52 in ABC’s list) or what the tenor is even saying for that matter. But what about operas in english? Does Britten’s Peter Grimes (number 50) have any more latitude or flexibility in understanding or context than Sondheim to modern ears? My gut says yes, but it’s a pretty close call. There is enough ‘foreign-ness’ in the way Britten handles text, in the quaint poetry of old-ish english, that excerpts might work outside the context of the opera. But in general, you don’t hear anything from this masterpiece outside of a full performance of the opera (with the exception of the Four Sea Interludes, whose inclusion alone may justify calling the work “classical”). On the other hand, the prelude of Peter Grimes handles exposition and provides forward momentum as naturally and inextricably as any Sondheim piece. Opera is, as usual, the exception to any rule.

OK. That’s probably enough of this. Chances are I’ve already given the matter more thought than ABC gave to their entire top 100 list.