What is American Neo-Romanticism? (Post #6)

Post #6 in our Neo-Romanticism series.

Watercolor landscape by R. S. Perry

What is American Neo-Romanticism?

American Neo-Romanticism is not significantly different from European Neo-Romanticism except that all neo-romantics have produced some music that exhibits distinct nationalistic influences. Some assert that Neo-Romanticism is more prevalent in America than in other countries. Walter Simmons states that, “Yes, it seems to be true, to some extent, that Neo-Romanticism is a largely American phenomenon. But I believe that much of that impression is due to the fact that the analogous composers from other countries aren’t that well known.”1

Ernest Bloch, of course, was both an American and European neo-romantic. However, to state the obvious, since no two neo-romantics, American or otherwise, are exactly alike in style and musical content, their nationality (or nationalities, as in Bloch’s case) is often one of the primary differentiations between them. Additionally, as stated earlier, these posts will explore the influences of differing ethnicity within the same country, the United States, on three distinctly different American neo-romantics: Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still and Samuel Barber.

Walter Simmons’ statements on American Neo-Romanticism are definitive. Several of his main points are paraphrased or quoted below from his description of the broad category he calls 20th Century Traditionalists, 2 in which he includes American Neo-Romantics along with other categories such as American Neo-Classicists, American Nationalists and Populists, and some American opera composers. He describes how “the modernist position” (atonality, serialism, etc.) gradually ascended to dominance in many of America’s universities in the early and middle 20th century.

The modernists claimed that a “crisis of tonality” had beset European music around the time of WWI. They held “that the emphasis placed on subjective experience by the romantics—especially, the grandiose distortions and exaggerations that resulted from excessive self-absorption—had become narcissistic and self-indulgent.”3 The modernists declared the death of tonality and composers like Arnold Schoenberg actively sought to systemize “the absence of tonality.”

Even though much of the music they produced was often considered inaccessible by many, if not most, ordinary American concert goers, many American academics, seeking a new musical language to create an authentic American music, adopted and assimilated many of the principles of the modernist movement. Additionally, many of them mounted an all out assault on traditional concepts of tonality, and often belittled those who continued to produce tonal music.

At the same time “there continued to be many American composers for whom the crisis of tonality never existed and who were not concerned with either the development of a distinctly American musical style or with the other issues that concerned the modernists.4 The three composers that I will be discussing in this blog did not buy into “the crisis of tonality.” Instead, along with other American composers of the time, they concerned themselves with expanding and developing traditional harmony and tonality in new and creative ways.

Post #7 will discuss Challenging the Modernist interpretation of musical History.

1 Simmons, Walter. “Re: 20th Century Neo-Romanticism as primarily an American phenomenon.” Message to J. S. Graves. Jan, 24, 2010. E-mail

2 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 1-8

3 Ibid. p. 2

4 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 6

Comparing Classicism and Romanticism (Post #5)

Post #5 in our Neo-Romanticism series.

From the Creation Series by R. S. Perry

Classicism is “a style supposedly notable for masterly compactness of form, moderation in the use of resources, and avoidance of undue emotionalism.”3 Composers of this period, such as Haydn and Mozart, often produced music that conformed to the general aesthetic ideals of balance, symmetry, variety and clarity of musical idea. They also had a certain reverence for specific musical forms and harmonic principles. Their works tended to be formal and often emotionally restrained or controlled.

On the other hand, Romanticism can often be defined as a movement away from some of these values towards their opposites: less emphasis on traditional form and control and more emphasis on giving emotional expression full reign. This often resulted in the development of new, freer forms; new harmonic and rhythmic languages; works for larger orchestras, and more imaginative and daring use of musical ideas and instrumentation. “The main musical implication (in Romanticism) is that the composer is more concerned with the vivid depiction of an emotional state than with the creation of aesthetically pleasing structures. The attempt at more and more ‘vividness’ led to (a) a trend to the evocation of ‘extreme’ emotions, and (b) an expansion of orchestral resources for this purpose.”4

While Neo-Romanticism obviously leaned more heavily in the romantic direction, it exhibits some of the traditional elements of both Classicism and Romanticism, and even earlier periods. Ernest Bloch, for instance, loved many aspects of both the Renaissance and Baroque periods and composed several concerti grossi using neo-romantic techniques.

Post #6 in this series will discuss What is American Neo-Romanticism?

3 Jacobs, Arthur. The American Dictionary of Music. Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1961, p. 74

4 Jacobs, Arthur. The American Dictionary of Music. Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1961, p. 314

Neo-Romanticism Post #4

Neo-Romanticism Post #4

Paper Hibiscus by R. S. Perry

A young composer often finds himself the recipient of a vast array of disparate musical histories and styles, and spends much of his early years on a journey of discovery that involves peeling away layers of the self, of sifting and sorting through inherited cultural detritus, thereby discovering personal preferences that become stylistic markers of his own works. The beginning composer thrills at the thought of finding and expressing something new and exciting in response to his inheritance, of developing and presenting his own unique style without sacrificing some of the best that traditionalism can offer.

Walter Simmons, the American author and musicologist, places American neo-romanticists within the broader category of Twentieth-Century Traditionalists. These composers created “significant, artistically meaningful bodies of work without abandoning traditional principles, forms and procedures.”1 The best neo-romantics inherited a very large and diverse palette from which to make musical choices. The unique and personal choices that they made partly explains the power, the diversity, and the fascination of their music. Two of the most salient neo-romantic characteristics, persistent interest in expressing heightened emotionality in fresh and new ways, and the refusal to completely abandon tonality,2 set the neo-romantic composers apart from many of their contemporaries, especially those in the modernist, atonalist, serialist camps.

Composers like Samuel Barber and William Grant Still were more likely to use lyricism and melody to express their emotionality; Ernest Bloch was more apt to use “the integration of motivic development with harmonic progression”3 to present his emotional landscapes. However, neo-romantic music is primarily accessible, tonal, listenable; rythmically and harmonically exciting and melodically memorable. A fuller understanding of Neo-Romanticism will involve a brief discussion contrasting the major differences between Classicism and Romanticism coming up in Post #5.

1 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 8-9

2 The concepts of lyricism and tonality will be clarified later in this blog.

3 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 43