Sondheim on Gershwin

Here’s a great quote from Stephen Sondheim, talking about the first line of “Summertime”, from Porgy and Bess:

That “and” is worth a great deal of attention. I would write “Summertime when” but that “and” sets up a tone, a whole poetic tone, not to mention a whole kind of diction that is going to be used in the play: an informal, uneducated diction and a stream of consciousness… . It’s the exact right word, and that word is worth its weight in gold. “Summertime when the livin’ is easy” is a boring line compared to “Summertime and.” The choices of “ands” [and] “buts” become almost traumatic as you are writing a lyric – or should, anyway – because each one weighs so much.

I absolutely agree that little details like this add up. I’ve agonized at times over whether this note is really a G flat as printed or should be a G natural, or whether the composer intended this note to be short or long, or whether the accelerando should start here or two beats earlier. In one sense, these are things which the listener won’t – and I would even say shouldn’t – be aware of. But from my point of view as a performer, each detail colors my understanding of that section, and therefore of the piece as a whole.

August 6, 2010