Swain, Joseph P(eter) 1955-
SWAIN, Joseph P(eter) 1955-
PERSONAL: Born May 19, 1955, in Malden, MA; son of Joseph Francis (an industrial planner) and Priscilla May (Green) Swain; married Janice Lee (a dentist), June 30, 1979; children: Joseph Francis, Gregory Lee, Cynthia Lee. Education: Dartmouth College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1977; Harvard University, A.M., 1980, Ph.D., 1983. Religion: Roman Catholic.
ADDRESSES: Home—22 Montgomery St., Hamilton, NY 13346. Office—Department of Music, Colgate University, 13 Oak Dr., Hamilton, NY 13346-1398.
CAREER: Music teacher at private school in Andover, MA, 1980-84; Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, assistant professor, 1984-89, associate professor of music, beginning 1989, chair of department, 1991-94, 2004-07. Music director at St. Mary's Church, 1988-90; Tapestry, All-Centuries Singers, 1992—and St. Malarchy's Church, 2000—.
MEMBER: Society for Music Cognition, American Bach Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edward R. Kenan grant, 1984; first prize, national musical analysis competition, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1985; grant from National Endowment for the Humanities, 1986; Deems Taylor Award, American Society of Composers, Artists, and Publishers, 1991.
Musical Languages, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
Harmonic Rhythm: Analysis and Interpretation, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to music journals.
SIDELIGHTS: Joseph P. Swain's book The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey provides occasionally acerbic commentary on fifteen representative American musicals ranging from 1927's Show Boat to 1979's Sweeney Todd. The reason for Swain's caustic commentary stems from his method, which, according to Geoffrey Block in Notes, "judges musical comedies not by how well they achieve their comic potential, but how well they measure up to tragedy, especially operatic tragedy." Thus, the happy endings of the musicals Show Boat and Carousel, for example, not only misrepresent their literary originals but are an expression of failure on the part of the composer to measure up to an ideal, Swain explains. On this score, Swain "is merciless in his dramatic indictment" of the six musicals that postdate 1957's West Side Story and which he treats in detail, Block continued. In fact, Swain's commentary on A Chorus Line is so negative that its publisher refused to grant the author permission to reprint portions of the score in The Broadway Musical, creating a stark absence when compared to the other, well illustrated, chapters, as several reviewers noted.
Swain's text has two objectives: to provide a brief history of each piece under discussion, and then to analyze the musical using the terms of musicology to show the relation between the drama and the music. In pursuit of his first goal, Swain's prose is "gossipy, informative, witty and fascinating, if not altogether blazing trails," remarked Jeremy Sams in the London Observer. In contrast, the response among critics to Swain's chosen approach for his second goal was mixed. Sams wrote: "The prose, hitherto unbuttoned, turns dense and tediously technical" when Swain turns to analyzing the music. Don Shiach, a contributor to the Journal of American Studies, contended: "There must be relatively few aficionados who will find Swain's detailed and technical analyses of Broadway scores easy to digest." On the other hand, a reviewer for Library Journal contended that Swain's musical analyses are "comprehensible even to musical amateurs" because his selections are so familiar. For Peter Davison, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Swain's "combination of verbal and notational analysis is never portentous, is genuinely critical, and illuminates the musicals as drama." Davison concluded: "The result is an essential book for those concerned with drama, song and popular arts."
As Swain once explained to CA: "The Broadway Musical was inspired in part by my wife, who persuaded me by example to take musicals seriously while we were in college, and in part by a course on the musical theater offered at the Phillips Academy summer session when I taught there. When I looked for reading material for that course, I found that there was no book which treated the music of the musicals seriously or in any detail."
In his book Musical Languages Swain "attempts to ask what music has in common with language," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, the critic adding that such an aim leads to an overly abstract text. Douglas R. Hofstadter, writing in the New York Times, also complained that Swain's tendency to resort to "harmony-theory terminology" was less than illuminating: "Trying to get at the 'semantics' of a concerto movement by recounting its harmonic syntax strikes me as being just as hopeless as trying to convey the meaning of some unseen ornate English sentence by merely describing it syntactically." "Although I tend to agree with most of his conclusions," Hofstadter added, Swain's arguments address long-held beliefs about "patterns of tension and resolution." However, the reviewer concluded on a somewhat hopeful note: "I hope the fact that [Swain] has reopened the great debate about the music-language analogy will encourage others to move farther in the directions he has suggested."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Journal of American Studies, December, 1991, pp. 500-501.
Library Journal, June 1, 1990, p. 132.
Music & Letters, November, 1998, Raymond Monelle, review of Musical Languages, p. 588.
New York Times, November 16, 1997, section 2, p. 37.
New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1997, p. 28.
Notes, September, 1992, pp. 70-72; December, 1999, Claudia Stanger, review of Musical Languages, p. 369.
Observer (London, England), December 30, 1990, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, June 9, 1997, review of Musical Languages, p. 35.
Times Literary Supplement, January 18, 1991, p. 19.