Changes and Developments In Te Use Of Tonality In Musicals From Showboat to Sondheim

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Changes And Developments In The Use Of Tonality In Musicals From Showboat To Sondheim

Tonality, although a simple fundamental aspect in all pieces of music, can have considerable influence on music in numerous ways.  Major tonality can be used to convey a mood of happiness.  Minor tonality can be well used for setting a melancholy tone.  Atonal or chromatic music conveys moods of extremity, such as tension and chaos.  In the world of musical theatre, these moods are an essential part of the music to really enhance the book in a way that cannot be matched by words alone.  The use of tonality, though, like many other aspects of musical theatre has developed and matured greatly over time to become a mightily useful tool in the creation of musical theatre mastery.  This is most obvious in the works of Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Jerome Kern’s Showboat is the masterpiece that transformed the way that people think about the modern musical and revolutionised the way in which they are written.  The musical introduced a well-devised plot and clever lyrics, which Kern wrote music to.  The score of the musical was no longer simply an accompaniment to the lyrics and the plot; it was far more intricate and clever.  It was used as a means of subtle implication and to give strength to the plot and the characterisation.  

In this play, Kern decided to represent the boat itself, ‘Cotton Blossom’, and also the Mississippi River upon which the boat travels, musically and in the form of the perfect fourth interval, which is used in many songs in the musical.  In “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, the following theme is immediately introduced to the lyrics ‘Fish got to swim and birds got to fly’:

This perfect fourth uses notes from the tonic chord of the major key.  This theme is found in many other songs in the musical, but now with the addition of another note, the sixth note of the scale.  For example, look at the following three short musical ideas in “Cotton Blossom”, “Ol’ Man River” and “Captain Andy’s Theme” respectively (all transcribed into C major):

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From “Cotton Blossom” -

From “Ol’ Man River” -

From “Captain Andy’s Theme” -

As can be seen, all these ideas use the three notes C, A and G, all used to symbolise the boat and the river.  In fact, the notes of “Ol’ Man River” are simply the same notes as in “Cotton Blossom”, but inverted.  The tempo was also slowed down a touch, overall giving a rather more melancholy mood.

Kern was very bold in introducing racial issues into a Broadway musical for the first time, and he was keen on the ...

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