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Stephen Sondheim's Clever 'Clowns'

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Just when Performance Todayhost Fred Child thought he was losing his taste for Stephen Sondheim's song "Send in the Clowns," calling it "sappy," commentator Rob Kapilow comes to the rescue with insights into how Sondheim builds the song, from its minimal opening theme to its complex, emotional chords. It was enough to make Child want to listen to the song again.

"One of the wonderful things about Sondheim's technique," Kapilow says, "is that unlike most composers who work with melody — particularly in the world of Broadway, which is dominated by melody — Sondheim is a motive composer. He works with tiny musical molecules, making a universe out of little building blocks that coalesce into a larger thing, more like a Beethoven or a Haydn than a Richard Rogers."

The beginning of the song, Kapilow explains, is a perfect example, almost an anti-Broadway melody. The idea is a simple four notes — almost more spoken than sung. A motive, right out of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, with its rhythmic dah-dah-dah-daaaah.

But Sondheim's real magic begins, Kapliow says, with how he sets the phrase "you in mid-air." The notes gradually rise, with the highest one on the word "in."

"To beautifully capture that idea of being left in mid-air; this is the highest note, but then we leave it. So you are literally hanging in mid-air," Kapilow says. "But all the emotion is in the chords."

By inserting single unexpected notes in his chords, Sondheim paints them with longing, reflection and what Kapilow calls "all that feeling of bittersweet missed opportunity."

"Great song composers, whether it's Schubert or Sondheim, do not really set words to music," Kapilow says. "What they set is the emotion that's behind the words."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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