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Ode to Sondheim

An Ode to Sondheim: Unpacking Musical Genius in A Little Night Music
Written by Caitlin Main

In early 20th Century Sweden, a group of aristocrats spend a lavish weekend in the country; hidden desires are revealed and inharmonious partnerships are tested; and expectations of marriage and romantic fidelity are challenged.

The plot is Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music – the widely-successful adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. The success of A Little Night Music – it received six Tony Awards and has had countless revivals worldwide – could not have been achieved without Sondheim’s bold fusion of contemporary narrative techniques and classical musical forms.

By the early 1970s, Sondheim was widely acknowledged as the most influential musical theatre innovator since the seminal works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Before Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II– himself, a family friend and early mentor of Sondheim—began collaborating, musicals often consisted of a collection of songs and dances that contributed little to advancing the show’s plot.  With their landmark 1943 musical Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated narrative, dramatic action, and character development into what is now widely accepted as musical theatre.  They followed Oklahoma! with an unprecedented string of hits including Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, that redefined the modern musical and also the kind of impact this form of theatre could have.

Rodgers and Hammerstein transformed the musical into a cohesive structure of song, dance, and story, and their shows were often laiden with social commentary. Stephen Sondheim, in keeping with the innovation nurtured by his mentor, emerged in the musical theatre world, only to raise the bar even higher. During the 1970s, the most popular musical theatre convention was song form: a convention passed on from Vaudeville of creating songs for musicals that would stand alone outside the context of the show.  For the writers, one of the benefits of creating shows in this style was a financial one – a hit song could be covered by a pop or jazz musician—for example, think of the numerous covers of ‘My Favorite Things’—and could yield lucrative returns in royalties.

With the exception of ‘Send in the Clowns’ and a few others, Sondheim had very few stand-alone ‘hit’ songs in his career because of the innovation he brought to the musical theatre art form: writing songs so inextricably linked to the specific circumstances of plot, character, and intention that they are almost impossible to excerpt.  Sondheim’s songs are rarely covered by pop musicians because they tend to make little sense outside the context of their respective shows.  And yet, when Sondheim’s characters sing their songs in the narrative, they become perfect expressions of those characters’ immediate desires.

Creating songs that give the spectator a particular and unique insight into characters and their motivations is the singular innovation that Sondheim brought to the art form of musical theatre; it has since become the norm for modern musicals from Pippin to Hamilton

In A Little Night Music, instead of leaning towards the popular music of the time—as had been the convention of musicals— Sondheim chose, instead, to draw inspiration from 19th Century classical music--echoes of composers such as Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel can be heard throughout the score.  This unlikely fusion of a classical musical style with a contemporary, even cynical narrative created something unique: a modern operetta.  On the surface, A Little Night Music sounds as light and airy and effervescent as a Strauss piece.  And yet, if you listen to the words each character sings, you discover incredibly complex and rich psychological through-lines more reminiscent of Ibsen or Strindberg.

Also, Sondheim, perhaps boldly, chose to compose A Little Night Music almost entirely in triple metre which denotes three beats to a metre or multiples thereof (the time signatures 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8 are all examples of triple metre).  Triple metre can be heard in popular dance styles like the waltz, the mazurka, and the minuet.  

These basic dance styles were reimagined into the orchestral realm by classical composers. Sondheim builds off these orchestral variants to evoke the classical music tradition and its connotations, such class or status.  For instance, songs set in waltz-time, like ‘Remember’ and ‘The Sun Won’t Set’ recall a similar fusion of grandiosity and delicacy that emanates from Ravel’s Valse Nobles et Sentimentales.  Even the show’s title A Little Night Music takes its cue from Mozart by bearing the English translation of Mozart’s divertimento, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’.  Sondheim’s choice of title directly acknowledges his classical inspirations. In addition, Sondheim captures the quintessential light-hearted tone of the divertimento and therefore, creates the musical’s aristocratic atmosphere.  This atmosphere situates the spectator within the world of high society Sweden at the turn of the 20th century.

Similarly to his classical predecessors, Sondheim adds his own twist to pre-established dance styles, particularly the waltz.  Sondheim infuses a cynicism of ‘fidelity’ into the narrative, in order to alter the historically romantic connotations of the waltz, as a dance. [1] Historically, the waltz was considered scandalous due to the closed hold “waltz” position. As time progressed, waltz (¾) time became popular amongst composers and the waltz trickled into the aristocracy, filling ballrooms and courts across Europe. This appropriation of waltz shifted its connotations from a scandalous style to an idealized and highly romantic style.  However, Sondheim returns to the scandalous roots of the waltz “by making [the waltz] a sonic sign of decoupling instead of coupling”.[2] The waltz, in A Little Night Music, becomes a vehicle for the disintegration of devotion and marriage which ultimately undermines its romance.  In the waltz ‘Remember?’ the Liebeslieders, who function as a chorus of sorts, sing about old flings and sexual encounters.  ‘Remember?’ occurs at a pivotal moment in the musical: the recently married, Fredrik crosses paths with his old fling, Désirée. The waltz is romantic and sentimental, yet it misleads us.  New romance comes at a price, infidelity.  Functioning paradoxically, the waltz simultaneously builds and destroys romantic partnerships.  As a result, Sondheim presents a pessimistic belief on the temporary state of fidelity and in doing so, subverts societal expectations of love and marriage.  Sondheim’s cynicism of fidelity complicates the waltz’s classical significance as a romantic form.

At the end of Act I, Sondheim’s epic ‘A Weekend in the Country’ moves swiftly through a sequence of events.  The guests receive their invitations, reveal their qualms about attending, and promptly prepare for the weekend at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau.  However, this sequence is not just a means of advancing the plot efficiently.  Sondheim also creates a sense of anticipation in both actors and audiences through music. ‘A Weekend in the Country’ is written in seven parts with each part revealing new plot elements.  In each part, Sondheim revisits the chorus leading us, the audience, to believe this will be the last verse. Just as we think the song is about to end, a new part begins. The tempo marking agitato creates the agitation spectators might feel whilst stuck in perpetual anticipation.  As a result, the characters and spectators jointly anticipate the weekend in the country – we are left longing for the resolution of Act II. Sondheim’s ability to create agitation and anticipation within the score demonstrates his thorough integration of music and plot.

Likewise, Sondheim also integrates character and relationships into his score via his use of leitmotifs. Leitmotifs are reoccurring musical themes tied to characters, settings, or ideas.   In Act I’s musical sequence ‘Now/Later/Soon’, Sondheim ties leitmotifs to Fredrik, Henrik, and Anne whom happen to be in a love triangle.  In ‘Now’, Fredrik deliberates his future with his younger, virginal wife Anne.  Fredrik, a lawyer, works through his choices systematically, “A, I could ravish her, B, I could nap…” Sondheim articulates Fredrik’s lawyerly logic in song by pairing smooth musical alternatives with rhyming couplets.  In contrast, the oft-forgotten Henrik laments over unrequited love and unfulfilled sexual desires in ‘Later’.  Sondheim compliments Henrik’s angst-ridden lyrics with a slow-tempo 3/2 time to draw out Henrik’s inner turmoil.   Finally, Sondheim returns to waltz time for ‘Soon’ where the teenage Anne relishes in her relationship with Fredrik, promising sexual relations in the future. Near the end of ‘Soon’, Fredrik and Henrik join Anne in waltz time with their themes ‘Now’ and ‘Later’ to unify the sequence.  This is a masterful choice on Sondheim’s behalf; by ascribing to Anne’s metre, Sondheim depicts the sway desire holds over the men and their fixation on Anne.

Sondheim is also able to convey subtler, internal conflicts of his characters through musical composition techniques. For instance, Sondheim toys with the audience’s expectations of metre. In ‘Send in the Clowns’, Sondheim uses a counter-rhythm – the song of a flute in duple metre - to fight the steady pulse of triple metre.  At this point, the score has been dominated by triple metre and therefore, the additional counter-rhythm disturbs our expectations of the song. This musical choice creates tension within the score, mirroring Désirée’s discomfort during the emotionally honest moment. The rhythmic back and forth between the two metres elicits Désirée’s conflicted self and her longing for the seemingly unattainable.  By destabilizing triple metre, Sondheim communicates Désirée’s inner conflict and yet again, highlights the profound impact of Sondheim’s music in A Little Night Music.

In fact, Sondheim’s evocative music even has the power to subvert the written word.  In several musical sections, Sondheim maintains the integrity of naturalistic dialogue and thoughts with multiple voices overlapping and interrupting each other. For most, this is a risky composition choice as it requires the listener to abstract meaning from the entirety of the piece rather than individual lyrics.  In this sense, the lyrics become secondary to the overall musical tone produced by the ensemble.  The women of the Liebslieders’ quintet sing about the pain of perpetual longing in the short piece ‘perpetual anticipation’. The individual voices blend together and create a cycle. Only the words ‘perpetual anticipation’ emerge amidst the abstracted lyrics.  The total effect is the creation of ‘perpetual anticipation’ not only within the characters but within the music and minds of the audience. The song connects the ‘play’ world and the ‘real’ world as we both experience ‘perpetual anticipation’ from the music’s effect, similarly to ‘A Weekend in the Country’.  Unlike ‘A Weekend in the Country’ though, Sondheim ties anticipation to the broad human experience instead of specific plot points and thus, he may forgo lyrical coherence. Sondheim abstracts lyrics and blends voices to not only depict commonalities amongst characters – in this case, the experience of longing – but also to bridge the gap between the spectator and the spectacle.

These are just some examples of the techniques Sondheim has used to craft this celebrated masterpiece: subverting the expectations of traditional musical forms; extending musical sequences to create anticipation; overlaying leitmotifs; incorporating surprising counterrhythms; and constructing elaborate sound and word collages.

The real genius of A Little Night Music, however, lies in Sondheim’s choice to marry contemporary musical storytelling with 19th Century classical musical traditions.  This creative decision places A Little Night Music in a liminal space somewhere between past and present.

Perhaps that is why A Little Night Music, although written in 1973 and set in 1900, feels so relevant today. Sondheim, a master musical dramatist and a devoted student of classical forms has constructed a timeless score that allows audiences to reconnect with his compositions over and over again.


[1] Joseph P. Swain, “A Little Night Music: The Cynical Operetta,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, e.d. Robert Gordon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 315.  

[2] Steve Swayne, “Sondheim the Classicist,” from How Sondheim Found His Sound, ed. Steve Swayne (New York: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 310.

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