What do Procol Harum, Anton Webern, the Eagles, Steve Reich, and Otis Redding have in common? The answer, the Pulaski Skyway informs you, is that they've all appeared on The Sopranos. I’m a fan of the show, like any upstanding American citizen, and I love its wildly imaginative use of music. I realized something quasi-epochal was going on musically back in the second season, in the now legendary Webern episode. A man who has witnessed a mob hit doesn't understand at first what he's getting mixed up with. He is sitting in his living room with his wife when he sees Tony Soprano’s name in a newspaper article about the murder. He starts freaking out — “Where’s that detective’s number? Where on the fridge? Where on the fucking fridge?” — and ends up recanting his testimony. Playing in the background, presumably on the living-room stereo, is Webern’s exquisitely dissonant Variations for Piano. I'd have been no less gobsmacked if Galina Ustvolskaya had shown up as a guest on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. (OK, a little more.) What a divinely cracked tableau, a New Jersey couple unwinding to Austrian atonality after dinner. Then again, why not? These suburbanites are allowed to be eccentrics rather than stereotypes. Plus, the music puts icy menace in the air: Webern’s twelve-tone row unfurls like the web in which this man is trapped.
Kathryn Dayak, the show’s brilliant music editor, has singled out this moment as her personal favorite. “If I do nothing else for the rest of my life,” Dayak told the Kansas City Star, “I'll always have that: getting a solo piano piece by Webern into the show.” Is this the same Kathryn Dayak who is the timpanist of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra? Let's hope she gets to run amok in the final season — perhaps Tony will graduate from Rommel documentaries on the History Channel to Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. There’s much else to be said about music on The Sopranos— the way obscure or mediocre songs carry an emotional weight that more famous ones could not — but I’ll leave it to whoever’s researching the inevitable musicology dissertation on the topic. And I hope someone's writing a suitable Requiem for Adriana, bless her soul.