Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim


Sondheim’s score is one of his most complex, with orchestrations by his long-time collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Relying heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, its compositional style has been compared to Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Bernard Herrmann (who scored Alfred Hitchcock films). Sondheim also utilizes the ancient Dies Irae in the eponymous ballad that runs throughout the score, later heard in a musical inversion, and in the accompaniment to “Epiphany”. According to Raymond Knapp “Most scene changes bring back “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, which includes both fast and slow versions of the “Dies Irae”. He also relies heavily on leitmotif – at least twenty distinct ones can be identified throughout the score.

Depending on how and where the show is presented, it is sometimes considered an opera. Sondheim himself has described the piece as a “black operetta”, and indeed, only about 20% of the show is spoken; the rest is sung-through.

Stephen Sondheim has said that he was influenced by, of all people, Bernard Herrmann, the film composer “When I was fifteen years old I saw a movie called Hangover Square, another epiphany in my life. It was a moody, romantic, gothic thriller starring Laird Cregar, about a composer in London in 1900 who was ahead of his time. And whenever he heard a high note he went crazy and ran around murdering people. It had an absolutely brilliant score by Bernard Herrmann, centred around a one-movement piano concerto. I wanted to pay homage to him with this show, because I had realized that in order to scare people, which is what Sweeney Todd is about, the only way you can do it, considering that the horrors out on the street are so much greater than anything you can do on the stage, is to keep music going all the time. That’s the principle of suspense sequences in movies, and Bernard Herrmann was a master in that field. So Sweeney Todd not only has a lot of singing, it has a lot of underscoring. It’s infused with music to keep the audience in a state of tension, to make them forget they’re in a theater, and to prevent them from separating themselves from the action. I based a lot of the score on a specific chord that Herrmann uses in almost all his film work (a minor/major seventh chord, or 4–19 (0148)) and spun it out from that. That and the “Dies Irae,” which is one of my favourite tunes and is full of menace.”

As for the ‘Herrmann chord’, since this unstable sonority has qualities of both major and minor, its ambiguous particulars allow for many harmonic possibilities. Although the ‘Herrmann chord’ is conceived as a vertical harmony in a specific inversion (seventh in the bass), both Sondheim and Herrmann use this sonority in other fascinating ways.

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