The Art of the List Song

Here at The Listeners’ Club, lyrics normally take a backseat to music. But today, let’s bring some of the Broadway musical theater’s most exhilarating lyrics into focus with a brief survey of the list song. List songs are built around extensive inventories of people, places, and things. They open the door to lyric writing filled with sparkling virtuosity and unexpected rhyme. Surprise is a key element of humor, and in this respect the …

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Aftertones of Gymnopédie: Channeling the Spirit of Satie

Yesterday marked the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the colorfully eccentric French avant-garde composer, Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie had a profound influence on later composers, from Debussy, Ravel, and Milhaud, to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky. Even more amazing is the way Satie’s music anticipates the minimalist and ambient styles of the late twentieth century. The three serene Gymnopédies for solo piano, completed in 1888, remain Satie’s most famous and powerfully evocative works. With sublime, …

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Remembering Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook, the Tony Award-winning lyric soprano who came to prominence during Broadway’s Golden Age and later re-emerged as a star of cabaret and concert hall, passed away yesterday. She was 89. Cook was known for her wide vocal range and her magical ability to color musical phrases and shape lyrics. In her later years, her voice darkened and she performed to great acclaim into her eighties. In 1956, she played the …

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Music For Midsummer’s Eve

Today is Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. Held each year around the summer solstice, Midsummer festivities have roots in ancient pagan rituals. With countryside bonfires and maypole dances, Swedes and other Scandinavians mark the beginning of a brief period of warmth and extended daylight after many dark, cold months. This time of year, in northern Sweden the sun never sets, while in the south it sets for only an hour or two. Midsummer’s Eve in …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, the American composer and lyricist, celebrates his 87th birthday today. Last summer, there were rumors that a new Sondheim show, currently in the “workshop” phase, would open this year, off-Broadway. With or without a new work, Sondheim’s contribution to American musical theater is undeniable. With Sondheim, the modern, plot-driven musical (a genre which emerged with Jerome Kern’s 1927 Show Boat and matured with Rodgers and Hammerstein) reached its zenith. Sondheim scores such …

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Who Needs Trumpets?

Last weekend, I played for a wedding which included a stirring two-trumpet fanfare. This was followed immediately by an outdoor Richmond Symphony concert which featured John Williams’ main title music for Star Wars. Both occasions reminded me of the trumpet’s deeply celebratory and heroic connotations. Listen to another classic John Williams film score, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and you’ll hear how clearly the trumpet evokes the personality of the film’s protagonist: adventurous, heroic, impetuous, and slightly …

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Re-Imagining Sondheim on the Composer’s 86th Birthday

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim turned 86 yesterday. His contributions include the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), and music and lyrics for A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Into the Woods (1987), and numerous other groundbreaking shows. His sophisticated, envelope-pushing musicals will almost certainly rank among the Broadway theater’s most enduring works. Sondheim’s genius has always gone beyond “songwriting” in the Tin Pan Alley (or even Andrew Lloyd Webber) sense. Writing stand-alone commercial hits has …

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