In an attempt to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the word tonal, Walter Simmons describes two basic kinds of tonality:1
the strict constructionist position which dates from 18th century Germany and Austria, where “a primary tonal center serves as an overall organizing principle, unifying all other aspects of a composition,” and
the loose constructionist position which refers to “all music in which tension/resolution expectations rooted in tonal harmony play a role in the expressive impact of a composition.” This kind of tonality permits the use of atonality “as an expressive device within a tonal composition, in passages where the subjective experience of a tonal center is largely absent, even though a theoretical tonic may be adduced through elaborate objective analysis.”2
The loose constructionist position on tonality most accurately describes the music of the American neo-romantic, and highlights, for me, the most ‘neo’ part of their appellation. They are Late Romantics who, rather than being satisfied with producing music like 19th century romantics, continued to develop and evolve their, and our, sense of how tonality, harmony, rhythm, and form could be used most creatively in the 20th and now, the 21st century.
1 Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. p.13
2 Simmons, p. 13