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

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