I recently read Virgil Thomson‘s book Music With Words: A Composer’s View, which has as its subject pretty much what you’d expect from the title. I was a little disappointed in the book itself, but he had two passages where he talked about the state of modern composition that I thought were interesting. Here they are:

Symphonic composition, either [in England or America], I have little faith in. And chamber music everywhere is chiefly tolerable today as an experiment in methodology. Writing more solo works for the pianoforte, the organ, the violin, or the cello is looking backward to the masters who by creating for these instruments with so comprehensive a palette actually patented, and exhausted, the gamut of feelings that anybody now living can find urgent in the sound of those instruments. There is still fun to be had with woodwinds maybe, just maybe. And the concert song in English is, I fear, a never-never land from which few invaders bring home booty.

But opera composed in English is still unfinished business, worth working at, and possibly, in view of what has happened since 1930 both in the United Kingdom and with us [in America], possibly alive and certainly wiggling. (page x, in the Preface)

Choral writing goes on busily everywhere with great expertness, with the best intentions, and with enough good musical ideas to keep the choirs a part of the modern-music establishment. Opera writing too goes on apace, though with little sympathy, I must say, from the great houses anywhere except in France, and occasionally in England. But opera is all the same the musical domain where music’s life is least nearly extinct. Symphonic composition? Dead as a doornail. Important piano works? Yes, there are many. Chamber music has still some life in it too, though not much liberty. Musical fun and games, let’s face it, are today in the musical theater. And I don’t mean the theater of dancing, where audiences avid for bodies pay little attention to sound. I mean the singing stage, both popular and classical. In both these domains activity is constant. Should miracles begin to happen there none need be surprised. And not just one miracle but a chain of them, a going-on phenomenon of the kind that happens somewhere in music about every half-century with seemingly no preparation, no reason for it, and no promise in it save for the fact that it does keep going on.

That I should like to see; and indeed I may see it, since it is almost the only door in classical music still ajar. (page 25)

Thomson wrote the book in 1989 (and thus did not live to see the miracles he wrote of, since he died later that year). Now, 22 years later, what do you think? Do you agree with his thoughts on the various genres alive and lifeless in classical music? Were they true at the time? Are they true now? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post, but first I want to hear yours!


Anything Goes (Film)

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:54 pm

If you’re interested in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, and you’re considering seeing the 1956 film of the same name starring Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor, here’s a word of advice: Don’t bother.

Anything Goes is one of my wife’s favorite musicals, not least because she acted in a production of it in high school. She introduced me to it, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know the music by listening to the soundtrack at work. It sounds like a great show, and I’d really like to see it live someday. I thought that getting the movie from Netflix would be the next best thing, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

The film has a completely different plot with completely different characters, features multiple new songs not in the show, and takes a few of the songs from the musical and puts them in a completely different context–not to mention rewriting the feel and orchestration of the songs so they’re sometimes barely recognizable. The style of the movie is the same style of every Bing Crosby movie from the 50s, White Christmas being the example coming most readily to my mind. Crosby plays the exact same character, Donald O’Connor plays the exact same character as Danny Kaye does in White Christmas, the music style is exactly the same, even the plot is very similar (two male entertainers who get romantically tangled with two female entertainers as hilarity ensues). It’s a perfect example of a formulaic movie, made simply to feature Crosby singing songs in a particular style. There’s nothing inherently wrong with formulaic movies, I suppose, but in this case they took a perfectly wonderful musical and disfigured it to the point of being unrecognizable in order to shoehorn it into the formula.

I’m not a fan of that general style of music, either. It all tends to sound the same, and in many ways it’s just as formulaic as the movie. The melodies can often be bland and staid, the harmonies are predictable, and the orchestration is always in the same style without much variation in timbre or texture. There’s much more energy and creativity in the music for the show.

So, unless you’re a fan of the Bing Crosby formula, you can avoid Anything Goes. Just get the soundtrack to the show, or better yet, see it live instead!


I was listening to my iPod at work today, shuffling through my work playlist that contains mostly pop/rock stuff and musical theatre, working along, when suddenly a song struck me dead in my tracks. (Figuratively speaking; though probably “struck my hands,” or “struck my fingers” dead in their tracks would be more truthful, since I work at a computer.) It was a song I hadn’t heard before from a soundtrack I’d recently added to my iPod, and the beauty of the opening made me stop what I was doing, close my eyes for a moment and listen. The song was “Your Daddy’s Son,” from the soundtrack of the musical Ragtime by composer Stephen Flaherty. I’ve never seen the show or heard the soundtrack, so I don’t know anything about the story, but the song is apparently a mother singing to her son about his father who left her. The opening begins only with some thin, high woodwinds, then adds some very quiet percussion and picking guitar as the mother’s voice enters, singing a simple tune only on the sound “ooh.” The song continues with simple scoring of piano, woodwinds, and strings, but picks up with percussion and brass as the words build in intensity and climax. The woodwinds, guitar and piano return for the third act of the song through the quiet dénouement. The melody of the song is in minor, with intervals and rhythms very reminiscent of a folk tune, and the orchestration adds to the haunting beauty of it. You should go check it out. You can listen to it for free on Grooveshark (which I’ve found to be more reliable than Last.fm or iLike) here (just double-click on the song’s name in the window).


Andrew Lloyd Webber vs. Stephen Sondheim

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:56 pm

For reasons that will remain undisclosed for now, I’ve been listening to a lot of musicals on my iPod at work lately. Most of this music, of course, comes from my wife, since she studied musical theatre in high school and owns lots of soundtracks. A few that are on there now are Phantom (not Phantom of the Opera, but a different musical on the same story), The King and I, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which is awesome. In addition to those, I also have Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Music, The Magic, which is a three-CD set of some of his “greatest hits;” and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. (If you’ve never seen the Into the Woods DVD, recorded from the stage production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch, you owe it to yourself.)

It’s been interesting to compare Webber’s music to Sondheim’s in Into the Woods. Webber’s songs are basically pop music adapted to the theatre: simple, catchy hooks and melodies, pop-style chord progressions and relatively tame rhythms with pop-style syncopations, with pop-Broadway orchestrations. Sondheim’s music, though, is closer to opera (or at least to classical) than to pop music. The melodies often contain difficult jumps that aren’t typical for vocal music and are more fragmented and motivic than long and flowing. The chord structures are often very complex. And the rhythms are constantly changing and shifting, difficult to pin down to a pattern or single time signature, and more closely follow the pattern of speech than typical musical patterns. I was surprised and impressed when my lovely wife and I watched Into the Woods a few months ago; the performances were good in themselves, but they were terrific considering how difficult the music was.

There’s nothing wrong with Webber’s music, of course; it’s pop-music candy for the ears. But for a substantial meat-and-potatoes meal, Sondheim delivers something unique and masterful that’s quite inspiring to an aspiring composer such as myself.


My lovely wife is a musical theatre connoisseur, and she recently gave me the soundtrack to Anything Goes (1934, although the version she gave me was the 1962 revival) to listen to. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, and just this morning finished listening to it all the way through. The lyrics by Cole Porter are quite clever–I must say that nothing I’ve heard thus far in my life can top Stephen Schwartz in Wicked, but I’ve been impressed with the lyrics in this show, especially in the songs “You’re The Top” and “Anything Goes.” And I’ve enjoyed the music as well. Musical theatre has never been one of my favorite styles of music; although I’m always up for seeing a good musical, I wouldn’t normally listen to a soundtrack on its own. But, when I gave Eleanor Coldplay’s LeftRightLeftRightLeft album and was looking for something of hers to listen to, I thought I’d take a musical to see what I could glean from the style.

I find that the music for Anything Goes is a little more interesting to me than “typical” musical theatre style. (Eleanor and I also listened to excerpts from Kiss Me, Kate recently, which is another Cole Porter musical from 14 years later, and we were both much less impressed.) The orchestra that it uses is an intriguing one: mostly piano, brass (in a big band sort of style), and drums/percussion, with only the occasional woodwind for color and a banjo (?!) just for good measure–hardly any strings at all. I have to give Mr. Porter props for that; I don’t think I could sacrifice strings in writing a musical, no matter how hard I tried. But I generally like the way the orchestra is used (even the banjo), although the piano parts can be a little hackneyed and most of its intros sound the same.

In listening to this musical, I also tried to deduce what musical elements make up the “musical theatre sound.” Certainly the orchestration (primarily brass and piano) has something to do with it. As far as the harmonies go, they tend towards a pop-jazz style, using lots of extended chords (sevenths, ninths, etc. without getting too crazy or dissonant), secondary dominants and active, mobile bass lines based around the tonic and fifth (C – G – C – G – C – G – C G A B – C etc.). And melodies and harmonies alike are in love with the sixth (e.g. the note A in C major)–somehow the sixth as a melody note is harmonious and “part of the chord” with the tonic triad in many songs (see, for example, the song “Heaven Hop” in Anything Goes). Apart from those, though, I’m not sure anything else jumps out at me, even though musical theatre is an almost instantly recognizable style.

What are your thoughts? What do you think of Anything Goes? Any technical or non-technical ideas about what makes something sound distinctly like a musical?