Feature: Mark Eden Horowitz on a new edition of his book, Sondheim on Music

Book feature

30 September 2010

Sondheim on Music

The second edition of my book, Sondheim on Music, is about to be published—the unplanned result of an unusual journey.

For the last nineteen years I have been a music specialist in the music division of the Library of Congress, mostly acting as archivist for our collections of the manuscripts and papers of Broadway songwriters, including Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Vernon Duke, Frederick Loewe, Leonard Bernstein, and Jonathan Larson. But the reason I ended-up in this field to begin with is because of my love of Sondheim's work, and because the quality and depth of his work justified for me a life and career dedicated to its study and preservation.

I had come to know Sondheim slightly while working on a production of Merrily We Roll Along at Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 1991. The following year I started at the Library; the year after that I read in the paper that Sondheim would be returning to DC to accept a special tribute at the upcoming Helen Hayes Awards. I wrote him a letter inviting him to a show and tell at the Library, with the subtext of, hopefully, making the case that his own manuscripts should eventually find their home with us. He accepted the invitation.

The show and tell itself went wonderfully well. I filled several tables with manuscripts from our collections that, with some research, I believed would be particularly meaningful to Sondheim. Among the things that guided the selection was his appearance on the radio program Desert Island Discs, where he selected several favorite works. In two cases we had the actual composer manuscripts for the pieces he had cited—Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. There were also manuscripts by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, by his teacher, Milton Babbitt, and by his collaborators, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers. Other favorite composers represented included: Brahms, Britten, Herrmann, Kern, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Stravinsky. A heady group; and one of the most satisfying displays I've presented, given Sondheim's enthusiastic and teary response.

After this, Sondheim agreed that his manuscripts would come to the Library as a bequest and we began to have a bit more regular contact, mostly via letter. In 1996 I applied for a grant that was offered within the Library for curators to propose special projects to enhance our collections. Though we didn't (and still don't) have the Sondheim Collection, as it had been promised, I proposed a "videotaped oral history with Sondheim, focusing on [his] work as a composer." The notion being that it would some day function as a kind of crib to be available to scholars examining his manuscripts—trying to anticipate their questions about markings, shorthand, marginalia, and the process of composing from sketches to fair copy.

I got the grant. It took more than a year to arrange the actual interviews—having to wait until Sondheim was back in his home after a devastating fire in his New York home (where miraculously his manuscripts survived…though clearly had been seconds away from going up in flames), working through competitive bids to hire a videographer, seeking input on questions from musicologists and musicians, and a preparatory trip to examine his manuscripts and make notes.

I'd like to think I was well-prepared for the interviews, and I think it quickly became clear that I knew his works well and cared about them deeply, but I think there were actually two other things that made our time together such a success. First, though Sondheim had been interviewed innumerable times, I don't thing he'd ever previously been interviewed with his manuscripts at hand, being asked fairly technical, craft-based questions about harmonies, rhythms and melodic lines…not to mention, pointing to a spot in his manuscripts, and asking, "What does that mean?" As a result, his answers were fresh and often unexpected—not only to me, but I think to him as well. Second, either through intimidation or cleverness, I was very good at nodding knowingly and encouragingly without actually saying anything, with the result that Sondheim often went on at unusual length, sometimes with surprising tangents along the way. The final blessing: like Bernstein, Sondheim is not only a brilliant, knowledgeable, and talented composer, but also a natural-born teacher.

In theory, that was it. I deposited the original tapes in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, and mostly assumed someone might make use of them decades in the future, after we had received Sondheim's manuscripts. However, I had had a set of both videotapes and audiotapes made for myself, and I decided that I really should try to transcribe the interviews so that one might be able to know where particular topics were discussed on the six-and-a-half hours of tape. Did I mention, Sondheim talks very fast. Very, very fast. Thankfully, my memory is now blurry about how long it actually took to transcribe the tapes, but I do have visceral memories of sitting for months at our dining room table, a laptop in front of me, constantly playing, pausing, typing, and rewinding brief excerpts of tape, filling in word by word the mosaic of the interviews.

By the time I was done I knew most of what he had said by heart. The more I thought about it, reread passages, shared them with friends and colleagues, the more I began to think, this really should be a book. Shouldn't it? One of the surprises had been that, though the original intent of the interviews was to be purely scholarly and focus entirely on the craft of musical composition (at least in part because of my decision to interrupt as little as possible), the final interviews were far more wide-ranging than I had intended and would, I believed, be of interest to more than just a small group of musicologists. A colleague at the Library had previously worked at Oxford University Press, and a colleague of hers from there was now involved with acquisitions for Scarecrow Press, and she put us together.

The process of turning a transcript into a book is mostly not very interesting. But there were exceptions. As I recall, Sondheim was mostly supportive of the notion of turning the interviews into a book, but I think he was relieved that, from the very beginning I had no intent of publishing anything without his input and blessing. I started by doing two drafts of a chapter, one as exact as possible a transcript, with every false start, unfinished thought, "ums" and the like. I then did an edited version that didn't put words into his mouth, but did eliminate verbal tics, reordered clauses so that thoughts flowed a little more logically, and did other minor edits. Around this time Sondheim had to return to DC for some unremembered purpose and I met him in his hotel's bar. There he handed me his modestly marked-up copy of my edited version. Most of his edits were grammatical corrections (I confess here and now, grammar is not my strong suit; my wife still struggles trying to get me to understand the objective case…this is perhaps the single most intimidating aspect of dealing with Sondheim on anything that involves writing), but he also made just a few changes to clarify his meaning, or to explain things a bit more fully than he had in our original conversations. I was thrilled. Thus began the pattern of my sending him chapters and, more often then not, getting a call from him where he would go through all his corrections and improvements. He never mentioned the original unedited transcript version of the first chapter, but he was subsequently always encouraging for me to, as he put it, "comb out redundancies".

The book was published in 2003. It won two awards, and an honorable mention for a third. The publisher was not particularly ardent about promoting the book, but it seemed to find a readership. There were a few reviews (though none in what I would call the mainstream press), but I began to hear wonderful things from people who had found the book and who claimed to love it. Now I should emphasize, the power of the book is in capturing what Sondheim has to say. My primary contribution was the notion of the interviews and that I somehow convinced him to agree (or, since I like food analogies: I may have been the waiter, but Sondheim was the chef.) The most gratifying responses have been from younger songwriters and composers—I'd like to think that Sondheim on Music has inspired and influenced their work.

As I said at the start, a second edition of the book is due to be released within a few days. This edition includes two new chapters of interviews which, together, increase the interview portion of the book (yes, there are a few other things in it) by about a third. The second new chapter in particular attempts to focus on Sondheim's earlier works, where the first edition focused on the shows between Pacific Overtures and Passion. Ironically, the publication of my book comes just a few weeks before the publication of Sondheim's own book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. I have read the galleys for Sondheim's book, and in all impartiality, it is spectacular. If you are only going to get one book, his is the one to get. But, if your budget and time allows you two, I think you might enjoy them as a pair—one focusing on lyrics and one on music; one crafted by Sondheim into glittering prose, the other capturing his (slightly) less polished voice.

By Mark Eden Horowitz, September 2010

The second edition of Sondheim on Music: Major Details and Minor Decisions is available now from Scarecrow Press.

Mark Eden Horowitz is Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress where he has worked as archivist for the collections of manuscripts and papers of Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Vernon Duke, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jonathan Larson, Jascha Heifetz, Jerome Kern, Frederick Loewe, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Vincent Youmans, among others. He has taught courses in musical theater and Sondheim at Georgetown University and is Contributing Editor to The Sondheim Review.



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