Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Aesthetic Signature

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Aesthetic Signature

Article excerpt

Horowitz's second edition expands his conversations with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim has clearly reached iconic-adjective status. If "Sondheimesque" arguably lacks the wide currency of "Pinteresque" or "Shavian," it nevertheless clearly denotes certain irreducible qualities - an unmistakable aesthetic signature with wide influence over the theatrical landscape he helped to shape.

It counts as a large compliment, then, that in the second edition of the indispensable Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, Sondheim himself offhandedly coins a new adjective, "Horowitzean," for the microscopic attention to detail shown by his interlocutor, Mark Eden Horowitz, the music scholar who has persuaded the songwriter to leave his score manuscripts, sketches and notes to the Library of Congress. [Editor's Note: Horowitz is a contributing editor to The Sondheim Review.]

As before, the bulk of the book is an extended Q&A with Sondheim, with those score manuscripts near at hand for easy reference. The new edition includes a chapter on Bounce in its 2007 (pre-Road Show) iteration, and a lengthy new interview titled "Encore," which helps to fill in some of the first edition's gaps in the oeuvre. The result is that though both editions devote full chapters only to shows Sondheim has written since 1976 (not including 1981's Merrily We Roll Along, which Horowitz confesses he may have avoided unconsciously to spare Sondheim's feelings about that show's painfully brief Broadway bow), one still comes away with a portrait of the artist in full, from his early obsession with French and Spanish composers to his apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein II and studies with Milton Babbitt, from his work alongside giants of mid-20th-century musical theatre - Prince, Styne, Bernstein, Robbins and Laurents - to his own current status as a storied veteran.

As before, the talk can be dauntingly technical at times - if your concept of "harmony" begins and ends with Simon and Garfunkel, you might be a little lost in the talk of counterpoint and chord spellings, ninths and suspensions. But, as before, the rewards for slogging through a discourse, say, on Italian bugling (for the score of Passion) are myriad stray insights and anecdotes: how the influence of Paul Bowles on Leonard Bernstein's music is underappreciated; how yearning and striving pulses, wave-like, through Sondheim's accompaniment figures (think of Sweeney's opening six-note phrase, or the churning ostenato under "Being Alive"); how Seurat's Grand Jatte painting still makes him cry just to think of it; about Richard Rodgers' seemingly unconscious genius; about his love of Brel and hatred of Weill. …

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