What is Neo-Romanticism? Post #3 in our series.

What is Neo-Romanticism?

Invert Ice Cream by R. S. Perry

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

On dissonance in music

Art by R.S.Perry, Little Rock artist.

Walter Piston says in his Harmony, 3rd Edition,  “Music without dissonant intervals is often lifeless and negative, since it is the dissonant element which furnishes much of the sense of movement and rhythmic energy. The history of musical style has been largely occupied with the important subject of dissonance and its treatment by composers. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the essential quality of dissonance is its sense of movement and not, as sometimes erroneously assumed, its degree of unpleasantness to the ear.”

It is the dissonant intervals in music, when used appropriately and judiciously, that tend to “push” or “pull” a musical idea along. (J. S. Graves) See my page, Favorite Quotes, for more quotes about music and the art of living. Feel free to comment or disagree with any of my blog comments or quotes.

Web page content often misleading or inaccurate!

I have learned that a web search often will not bring up the latest revisions to a particular website! What you get is a copy of an older version! If you are suspicious of that try reloading the page multiple times to get it to read the latest information on that website. Try clearing your browsing cache so that the new search will go directly to the (revised) website.  There are other ways.  Look for help on the Internet. Google for certain stores copies of web-pages that may or may not be up to date.

Neo-Romanticism post #2

Continuing our discussion of American Neo-Romanticism:

American composers in the early and middle periods of the 20th century produced some of the strongest and most impressive concert music in the history of the United States. While many different styles existed simultaneously, sometimes in the same composer, most American classical1 music of the time can be placed into one of two general categories:

  1. the traditionalists exhibited various forms of Late Romanticism, Neo-Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionistic Neo-Romanticism, among others. (More will be said later about the differences between these “isms.”)European models for the traditionalists were composers such as Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Mahler, and even Debussy and Ravel, 2 among many others. Prominent American traditionalists included Edward McDowell, Amy Beach, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber, and William Grant Still, and others.
  2. the modernists, essentially anti-traditionalists, were heavily influenced initially by contemporaneous avant-garde European movements, such as Impressionism and Expressionism3 (extreme Romanticism), but later defined themselves by moving away from these into the twelve-tone system, atonality, serialism, and various other adventurous and experimental non-traditional directions.The later modernists almost completely repudiated conventional and traditional musical styles and practices.

The big European modernist models were, originally, Debussy,4 and later, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. American modernists included Charles Ives, Roger Sessions, Wallingford Riegger, Henry Cowell, Milton Babbitt, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varèse, and Elliot Carter, among others. Stravinsky in particular, as did others, would later move towards Neo-Classicism5, a more conservative style that displayed some of the older traditional values, such as attention to regularity of structure, clarity and emotional control, while rejecting much of the radical, often extreme emotionalism of the Romantic tradition.

Many of the composers of this time actually produced works that were difficult to classify. Their music exhibited elements of both traditionalism and modernism, often in some kind of combination. Many started out as traditionists of some sort and gradually moved through a series of transformations into other forms of musical expression. Many became eclectics, taking what they liked from the various traditions, past and present, and integrating them into something fresh and exciting. (Neo-Romanticism post #3 will be posted in about a week.)

1 The word classical is used here generically to refer to all concert music and is not to be confused with the Classical period (±1730-1825).

2 Debussy retained many earlier stylistic practices but was not as concerned with form and control as Ravel was. Although Ravel is usually classed as an impressionist, his music is perhaps more accurately described as neo-classic impressionism, or even neo-baroque impressionism.

3 Generally this blog will use the convention of capitalizing and italicizing musical styles or periods that end in ism (Neo-Romanticism), and use lower case when referring to an individual (neo-romantic) or an individual’s style (modernist). However, when direct quotes are used the conventions of the quoted author are retained.

4 The impressionists can be viewed as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, exhibiting characteristics of both Modernism and Traditionalism.

5 Neo-Classicism contains elements of both Modernism and Traditionalism and will be further clarified later in this blog.

Three American Neo-Romantics (Post #1 in Series)

 Cultural and Ethnic Influences on Musical Style in the works of Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still and Samuel Barber

by J. S. Graves

I basically agree with R. S. Perry when she says that a composer’s “artistic identity is far more comprehensible when viewed against his background than when removed from it and considered solely in the context of individual genius,”1 This week I am mounting a new blog that will present some of the defining influences on the lives and music of three American Neo-Romantic composers, Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still (Little Rock, AR was his home town as a youth) and Samuel Barber.

There were creative consequences for these composers when they confronted or exploited their cultural and ethnic inheritance.2 This blog will investigate what some of those consequences were and what role the unique backgrounds of these three composers played in contributing to an American neo-romantic musical style.

I will examine important defining factors of their careers such as their social and economic circumstances, their educational backgrounds, influential persons in their lives, and the socio-political climate of the world in which they lived. I will post weekly on these subjects, starting next post with a discussion of the types of American concert music in the first half of the 20th century, followed by explorations of what Neo-Romanticism is.

Later I will discuss the seminal influence on American Neo-Romanticism of the life and works of Ernest Bloch, a European educated immigrant, considered by many to be the fountainhead of American Neo-Romanticism.3 Later blogs will be devoted to the lives and works of two other American neo-romantics, William Grant Still and Samuel Barber. Stay tuned!

1 Perry, Rosalie Sandra. Charles Ives and the American Mind. Kent State University Press, 1977 p. xvi

2 Culture and ethnicity will be interpreted broadly to include race, religion and nationality.

3 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 44