Monday, May 10, 2010

Very Warm for May: A Musical Analysis

Robbie Cowan is a performer, musician, coach, director, and liturgist. He has worked with Moon many times in the past and is a recent graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where hereceived his Masters in Music with honors in voice and musical theatre in May of 2009.  Robbie asked to write a guest blog in which analyzes the music of Very Warm for May, the second half of the post does get a bit technical (you musicians and singers out there are gonna love it!), but I still found it fascinating.  Please enjoy!

“All The Things You Are” is nearly universally recognized as the greatest song in the musical theatre canon. Stephen Sondheim, who first saw Very Warm for May at age 9, cites it as his inspiration to begin a career as composer. Jazz legend has it that auditioners for the Miles Davis band were asked to play the song (from memory, of course) in non-standard keys picked randomly on the spot by Davis, himself. It is also frequently mentioned by composers as the one song that they wish they could have written.

One song does not a musical make, though, and this great praise for one number often overshadows an otherwise completely remarkable score. For instance, “In the Heart of the Dark” is another particularly striking song.

Both are moving ballads; both are similar in tempo and style, but these two pieces have interesting dissimilarities as well.

Lyrically, “Things” is an effervescent declaration of love, “the dearest things I know are what you are.”

“Dark” is a short narrative about fleeting romance, “the sun's on its way to steal my dreams. I know that you will fade in the light, and all I can do is wait for the night.” One song is a broad statement, the other a quiet contemplation.

Melodically, too, the songs are markedly dissimilar. “Things” is characterized by a leaping line, covering a vocally demanding 12 note range. It never moves in scalar motion [moving from one note to another in consecutive 1/4 or 1/2 steps] for more than a few notes, preferring instead an energetic rise and fall. Dark dwells on single notes for entire phrases and moves in half-step motion for most of the refrain.

Perhaps most interesting is the differences in harmonic structure.

In “Things,” the verse begins with a progression reminiscent of the high romanticism of Tchaikovsky or Chopin. Once we begin the main theme, though, we are taken through whirlwind modulations which never allow us to settle into a firm tonal center until the very last cadence.
This harmonic progression is not haphazard; it is very well plotted along the circle of fifths, landing briefly on certain chords only to quickly recontextualize them within the harmonic structure. This avoidance of a tonal center perhaps plays on the lyrical intent; the song represents a dizzy, leaping, adoring sort of love.

“Heart of the Dark's” frequent utilization of pedal tones in the verse seems to imply a very different message. The lyrics in this verse speak to waiting, and the pedal serves to reinforce that feeling. In the chorus we find ourselves firmly entrenched in a tonal center, and the harmonic structure favors stepwise motion to the circle of fifths.

This type of motion seems to suggest a static sort of yearning, as the lyrics indicate, a waiting for the dark.

At one point my character [Raymond Sibley - the young composer] mentions that he is looking forward to hearing the song performed, and I can say that I share this sentiment in real life, too. For all of the merits of “All The Things You Are," there is something about the simplistic melancholy of “Dark” that I find heartbreakingly beautiful. Sung by Alex Kaprielian [Miss Wasserman], whose beauty is only matched by her golden voice, this song near the end of the show is really a remarkable musical moment.

Pay close attention to the entrance of the chorus in rich eight part harmony and the extended final cadence.

Having long been familiar with "All the Things," I was amazed to find another remarkable song in this score, and thanks to Moon for making those discoveries possible!

-  Robbie Cowan

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