Song 335: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, “Somewhere” (1957)

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Until four or five years ago, there were very few musicals that I liked. I thought that was the case, anyway—it turns out that I was really only familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber variety, the kind whose emotional maturity are … lacking. I didn’t know much about Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan, and I did not know a thing about Stephen Sondheim.

I’ve since learned the errors of my ways. I’ve learned to love Sondheim, especially; his mastery of the English language—in both formal and informal ways—is really amazing. He’s clever without being showy, and he can write some heartbreaking lines when he wants to.

Take, for example, “Somewhere,” which is, in my somewhat uninformed opinion, less lyrically complicated than other Sondheim works. The song’s goal is to portray hope and desire, in an aching sort of way: Tony and Maria are mired in the gang culture of New York City, and in “Somewhere,” they sing about a place nothing like the dirty, dangerous city where they live. They’re not sure what that place would even look like, they just know they want to be there. The language is simple—”There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us/Peace and quiet and open air/Wait for us/Somewhere”—and I think that’s a perfect choice for such a simple desire. It’s not simple to accomplish, but as desires go, there isn’t much to it: Get us out of here, to a place where we can be with each other.

In composing the music for “Somewhere,” Leonard Bernstein stole a little phrase from Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” concerto. At 0:25 in this recording, you can hear that phrase, which shows up in “Somewhere” as the words “There’s a place for” (“us” is a little higher in Bernstein’s composition). I love that Bernstein’s love of Beethoven was so great that he even snuck him into a Broadway musical, and also that he had the sense to sneak it in at all. The interval between “there’s” and “a” is a minor seventh, one note short of an octave. That one-note difference gives the interval a sense of longing and loss, as if the song can’t quite reach the octave. It’s a fitting sound for a song about the perfection just out of arm’s reach.

“Somewhere” always makes me think of “Over the Rainbow,” a song that includes a full octave interval (on the word “somewhere”). I like to think that Bernstein was making a sly reference to that song, that he was using a similarly wide interval to communicate hope but lopping off a note to make it slightly discordant. Given his wide-ranging interests, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. (Bernstein pulled off another interval trick with West Side Story‘s “Maria,” in which the weird augmented fourth interval between “Mah” and “ree” in the title word makes for an off-putting, but appropriate for the song, couple of notes.)

It’s that minor-seventh interval that makes this song work so well, and it’s what makes “Somewhere” one of my favorite songs. This melody is one of the best in pop music (which “Somewhere” definitely is, especially considering its firm place in the pop songbook), and it’s one of Sondheim’s finest—and, incredibly, first—hours.

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