Octavian’s Theme

From around the age of ten or so, after I had seen the movie version of South Pacific, I became a big fan of Broadway musicals, and it was the music that I listened to the most often. Oh, there were occasional detours into Pop or Rock or Jazz, such as when the Beatles invaded America, or Vince Guaraldi cast his fate to the wind, but it was mainly the scores of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Irving Berlin that I listened to most often.

When I went to Penn State, I became much more interested in Pop and Rock, that being 1967, the year that the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper album, but also because I was in a milieu where popular music was king. While I didn’t lose my interest in Broadway, for the next few years it was most definitely a secondary interest.

Then in about 1971, I became much more interested in Classical music. It had long been an interest of mine as we had had some Classical music records while I was growing up, and I was a pretty faithful viewer of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, but now it became my primary interest, as I was reading books (mostly borrowed from the Pattee Library on campus) on the lives of various composers and musical theory.

And sometime in 1972, I think, I began to explore opera.

While I had fiends who were mainly Italian opera fans, I rapidly gravitated to German opera, in particular the operas of the two Richards—Wagner and Strauss. And of the Strauss operas, my favorite then and my favorite today was and is Der Rosenkavalier. I usually name it as my favorite bar none.

I often jokingly describe Der Rosenkavalier as “the story of the Marschallin, a 30-something aristocratic woman, who seduces her 17-year-old cousin Octavian; the Marschallin is one of the most beloved characters in opera.” Clearly there is much more to it than that. But the very first music that is heard in the Prelude to the first act is an exuberantly rising horn figure that is usually called Octavian’s Theme.

Octavian s Theme

More on that later.

Two of the magazines that I read in those days were High Fidelity and Stereo Review, which featured reviews and articles on the latest audio equipment, but more importantly from my point of view, devoted a large portion of their content to articles and reviews of the latest albums—and they were quite catholic in their music articles as they included Classical, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Broadway.

In one of those magazines (I forget which one) there was a monthly opinion column (by someone whose name I have long forgotten) that I nearly always disagreed with. Actually, strike out that “nearly”. I always disagreed with him (it was a he, after all) insofar as I was familiar with the music that he discussed, so when he talked about music I was unfamiliar with, I developed an instant disdain for said music.

And so it was that he devoted an entire column to a new musical called Company. The music and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim, whom I had already decided was a poor composer. Anyway this column mentioned that Sondheim was embarrassed by some of his lyrics for West Side Story, and then it went on to praise the score for Company to the heavens. This only served to solidify my poor opinion of Sondheim.

And there matters stood.

Until 1973 when a review of the cast recording of a new musical entitled A Little Night Music appeared. I don’t recall the reviewer’s name but even though once again the score was by Sondheim, I did read the whole thing.

And the reviewer mentioned something interesting.

Apparently during one of the songs, a horn in the orchestra let loose with Octavian’s Theme.

Hmm, this might be an album worth exploring.

So I bought it, and after one listening I became a confirmed Sondheim fan. Well, maybe not quite that fast, but I was tremendously impressed with the score, both the music and the lyrics. And yes, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick had inserted, completely of his own volition, Octavian’s Theme into the climax of the ensemble number ”A Weekend in the Country”, simply because it fit with the upward rising theme of Sondheim’s music. So, thank you, Jonathan Tunick!

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