May 21, 2020

Sondheim vs. Weill's "Fruity" Sixths

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
If you forced me to make a list of favorite composers, Kurt Weill would be at the top, Maurice Ravel would be second, and, though I'm not exactly sure about the order after that, Stephen Sondheim would definitely be in the Top 5 (don't ask me to name the others in the pantheon, I don't want to get distracted here). The affinities here are not incidental, I don't think: These are three composers who craft music of the highest sophistication in popular forms, and whose harmonic language, to varying degrees, works the outer edges of Western tonal music, flirting with and sometimes bedding down eagerly with dissonance. All are first-rate tunesmiths not content with mere tunes, whose signature chords are thicker than simple triads.

Those signature chords make all the difference, though: Weill, as has been widely noted (including by me), is known for his use of major sixths (think of the third and fourth note, under "shark bites." in "Mack the Knife"; it's a chord that has a ghost of its own relative minor key in it, and as such naturally feels haunted, irresolute). Ravel is king of the ninth—major, flat, all kinds (as Herbie Hancock demonstrates here), an alternately splashy and expansive or curdled and cramped chord sound.

Meanwhile Sondheim, as Steve Swayne details in his essential book How Sondheim Found His Sound, took a lot of his harmonic tastes from French composers, including Ravel, as well as from film composer Bernard Herrmann (who would be in my own Top 10). Herrmann loved the major/minor seventh (the opening chord of the Psycho theme, which you can hear all over Sweeney Todd; spelled in C, you'd play C Eb G B-natural). From his French influences Sondheim took a love for sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, even thirteenths—odd-numbered chord extensions which, if you add them up, often form whole other chords, schmeared on top of the root chord (try C E G in the left hand, Bb D F; you could call this a C11, or Bb over C, though to make it truly Sondheim-y, take out the E on the bottom). Sondheim's harmonies, true to his less-is-more aesthetic, can also sound stark rather than full, subtractive rather than additive: As I noted in that parenthetical, he often avoids the third of a triad so you can't quite place whether a chord is major or minor, instead layering it with a jagged 2 or a 4. The result is a suspended, or sus, accompaniment figure, a nervy, open-ended chord that is arguably his signature sound (think of the opening of Company or Pacific Overtures, to just name two examples). It's a tic that, while Sondheim executes it brilliantly, has become something of a musical theatre cliché, as Dave Malloy has noted.

In any case, the throughline here, as always in my favorite music, is harmonic adventurousness, singularity, flavor. And to my ears Sondheim and Weill, in particular, sound related, cousins in off-kilter tunesmithing. Consider this great Sondheim film theme. Maybe it's the chamber jazz chug of the orchestration, but this sounds sneakily, smokily Weill-like to me:

Sondheim's contemporaries, Kander and Ebb, were obvious Weill-o-philes; his influence is quite naturally all over the Weimar sounds of Cabaret, and they have acknowledged his influence in all their work. Sondheim's longtime collaborator in pushing the musical theatre forward, Hal Prince, was such a Weill fan that he helped created the misbegotten, neither-flesh-nor-fowl Broadway fan-fic show LoveMusik (in which, for the record, I found much to admire). But it turns out that not only does Sondheim not acknowledge a debt to Weill. He is a non-fan, and has expressed that distaste in no uncertain terms. In a scathing footnote in Swayne's book, he reports this exchange, from a 2003 interview:
SONDHEIM: I never liked [Weill's] stuff except for Threepenny, and some of his American stuff I like. There's a rumba version of "Girl of the Moment" in Lady in the Dark—I mean, I like so little of his stuff I can pick out the pieces I like—it's the theme that goes with the lyric [Sondheim sings]: "Hoping I'd discover some wonderful lover." And that about covers it. What I love about Threepenny is how harsh and dissonant it is. I like it when it's played by a small band. But outside of that, Weill's musical language is anathema to me.
SWAYNE: Anathema?!
SONDHEIM: Well, in the sense that I don't like it. I mean, anathema like those fruity chords with the added sixths. They make me come all over queasy.
Okay. That's some strong stuff. While Terry Teachout has helpfully pointed out that Sondheim probably does not mean "fruity" as an anti-gay slur—"it's more of a wine term," as he put it—this quote hit me like a ton of bricks. To know that Sondheim hates Weill is a bit like hearing your parents fight in the next room. (Or maybe it's analogous to the weird frisson my friends and I felt when we read one songwriting hero, Randy Newman, diss another, Elvis Costello.)

Years later I had occasion to reach out to Sondheim for a story I was writing about concert revivals of two musicals Weill wrote with Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday. I already knew of his distaste for Weill's music, but I was curious—given that Sondheim's shows are often cited as examples of experimentation with form at the contested boundaries of the musical and the opera, a la Bernstein, Blitzstein, and Weill—if he had any thoughts about the two shows I was writing about. I couldn't use his response for the story but it's relevant here:
I know the scores well, having seen the original Lost in the Stars (my favorite songs being "Big Mole" and "White Man go to Johannesburg," if I remember the titles correctly), and I know Knickerbocker Holiday through recordings (going back to the original 78s). But I'd rather not comment, as I'm not as big a fan of Weill's songs as others are, and I wouldn't want to offend people. Also, I don't think Weill's American shows are experimental in any way (it's the actual songwriting that accounts for the unusual, quasi-operatic feel), except for Lady in the Dark, all of which wouldn't be helpful to your premise.
So yeah, that's a more gracious, non-argumentative diss than "anathema." And "except for Threepenny" is a big exception, right? I can hang onto that. Also taste is taste, whaddya gonna do? Sondheim's capacious, tendentious lyric books proved he's got his opinions and he's sticking to 'em.

I couldn't leave this there, though. Slur or not, that "fruity chord" comment still stuck in my craw. I don't have a lot of Sondheim scores lying around, and I only have limited time to take apart all of his songs. But one score I do have a copy of is one of my favorites of his, Pacific Overtures, which I love especially for its harmonic affinity with 20th-century French or French-adjacent composers (De Falla was one of his main inspirations for its harmonic sound). Accordingly there are lots of sus chords (they basically underpin all of his towering masterpiece, "Someone in a Tree"), ninths, and the like. I was about to give up when suddenly, staring right at me from the midst of the spare, lovely "There Is No Other Way," I saw it and cried out, vindicated, "I caught you!" It's in the song's exquisite B section, under the central word in the phrase "the bird sings" (at 1:55 below):

I mean, can it be a coincidence that that searing, yearning harmony—which I had the privilege of hearing the song's original singer, Alvin Ing, reprise in his inimitable tenor in a 1998 revival at East West Players—is among my favorite moments in all of Sondheim's music? The Bard of Turtle Bay may have felt queasy about employing that "fruity" chord here, but he sure did save it for a big payoff. Or maybe he just prefers not to do anything twice?

Footnote: Randy Newman later reversed himself on Elvis Costello.

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