What is Neo-Romanticism?
The attempt to find appropriate labels to aid in communicating what defines and what differentiates one musical style from another can be elusive, confusing and frustrating. The terms early, middle, late, neo- and post often create as many problems as they solve. Labels can be imprecise and inexact—or too exact, too limiting!
Few composers fit neatly into convenient and simple categories, because most go through various phases or periods. This is especially true of neo-romantics. I will start with the shorter, simpler, definitions of Neo-Romanticism and then progress to the more complicated, more nuanced descriptions.
The prefix, neo-, comes from the Greek word neos which means (1) new or recent, or (2) in a new or different way.1 The American Dictionary of Music defines neo as “the re-adopting (real or supposed) of apparently out-moded characteristics, suitably modified for a new era, so for example, Neo-Romanticism refers to the inclination of some composers to Romanticism even after the 20th century reaction against it.”2
From these perspectives Neo-Romanticism emerges as a new or different way of understanding and presenting 19th century Romanticism. A more complete, ‘simple’ definition would be that early and middle 20th century neo-romantic composers proceeded (as some composers still do today) to honor some (or all) of the Romanticism that came before them, but continued to evolve, and judiciously added aspects of Late Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, 20th century Modernism, and even Neo-Classicism—all integral, though often competing, components of their times.
Neo-Romanticism shares many of the stylistic features of Late Romanticism and the two are often difficult or impossible to tell apart. The differences are matters of degree. Late-Romanticism was essentially 19th century Romanticism that occurred in the early 20th century but had not been significantly altered from its earlier European models. This is especially true of American late-romantics such as Edward McDowell and Amy Beach, who modeled their work on such composers as Dvorák, Brahms, Grieg, and Liszt. American neo-romantics, by allowing more of the modernist influences to enter their work, and by permitting their neo-romantic styles to continue to evolve, were less influenced by American late-romantics who were often even more conservative than their European counterparts.
Even though American Neo-romantics often used many of the style features of earlier periods they modified those styles to reflect their own contemporary tastes and preferences. In this sense Neo-Romanticism can be thought of as a continuously evolving style of synthesis and eclecticism. Appellations such as Neo-Romanticism often connote a mixture of elements from previous periods. So there are paradoxes inherent in labels, especially those that use the neo prefix.
1 Agnes, Michael, ed. Webster’s New World Compact Desk Dictionary. Hungry Minds, Inc., N.Y., N.Y., 2002
2 Jacobs, Arthur. The American Dictionary of Music. Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1961