A Composition Lesson from Stephen Sondheim

As both a lyricist and and composer, Sondheim was one of those rare artists whose craft and intellectual rigor were just as profound as his psychological insight and humanity.

My favorite song of his is probably “Send in the Clowns” (Barbra Streisand’s version is fantastic), but “Being Alive” is a close second.

Another connection I feel to Sondheim is that, teacher-wise, he would be my “compositional uncle” — both he and my Brandeis dissertation co-advisor David Rakowski studied with the American serialist icon Milton Babbitt. (Fun fact: Babbitt loved musicals and even started writing one.)

So it made me happy to see this tribute article from David Pogue the other day, “Lessons from Stephen Sondheim, the teacher”:

Stephen Sondheim may have been best known as one of the greatest composer/lyricists the theater has ever known. But he often said that he would have loved to have been a teacher — and he was an extraordinarily generous one to generations of young composers.

I was one of them. . . .

Pogue then elaborates on three key lessons he learned from Sondheim:

  1. Content dictates form
  2. It’s always worth the time to make your rhymes perfect
  3. Live the adage, “Be willing to kill your darlings”

You can read the details here.

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