All posts by John Graves

Tonality, Neo-Romantic Post #9

In an attempt to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the word tonal, Walter Simmons describes two basic kinds of tonality:1

    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

    2. 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.

Distinguishing characteristics of American Neo-Romantics

Post #8 in my series on Neo-Romanticism

Once again I am exceedingly indebted to Walter Simmons and his book Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. I quote him liberally and highly recommend his book to anyone desiring to fully comprehend American Neo-Romanticism and the works of these six wonderful composers. Also, please visit his website https://walter-simmons.com/ for more articles and information about his mission: The discovery and promotion of 20th- and 21st-century classical music that embodies traditional aesthetic values of emotional and spiritual expression, along with clarity of formal structure and coherence.

Despite the neo prefix “the early Neo-Romantics were not reviving a style from the past—they were evolving along a continuum still very much alive.”1 They embraced many stylistic features of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and indeed knew, or knew of, many of the ‘greats’ of that period: Richard Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Debussy and Ravel, among others. Bloch and Sibelius were life long friends, and he was also personally acquainted with Debussy and very much admired the French impressionists.

Simmons “posits a Neo-Romantic ideal, in which the expression of emotion, depiction of drama, and evocation of mood are joined with, rather than opposed to, formal coherence, developmental rigor, and structural economy.”2 The American neo-romantic “tended to emphasize intense, passionate emotional expression, lavishly colored instrumental sonorities, and a rich, chromatic harmonic language derived from expanded triadic harmony.”3 Simmons further offers the following four points as the ultimate distinguishing characteristics of American neo-romantics:

  1. Most “displayed a greater use—and a more economical and disciplined application—of classical forms and more modest durational proportions in general than their European models.”
  2. They “display certain characteristics often identified as ‘American,’ chiefly a heightened importance of rhythmic drive—frequently irregular, asymmetrical, and syncopated—and associated with this—a greater and more varied use of percussion instruments.”
  3. Especially by mid-century, they “expanded the harmonic language of their predecessors by raising the dissonance quotient…(often adding harshness, richness, or both), thereby expanding the expressive potential of the harmonic language.”
  4. Finally, “the American Neo-Romantics approached the matter of tonality somewhat differently from most of their European predecessors. In the earlier music of the neo-romantics, a tonal center is usually apparent at any given moment, although such centers may shift frequently within a work or section of a work, without a primary tonic exerting a unifying or hierarchical function relative to subordinate tonal regions. In other words, rather than an overall organizing principle as in much European music, tonality functions in neo-romantic music as a local expressive device, its relative strength or weakness contributing to a sense of emotional stability or lack thereof in the work at hand. Furthermore, in later neo-romantic compositions, a subjective perception of tonality may be absent altogether for greater or lesser periods of time, allowing for the expression of more extreme emotional contrasts. But even during passages when a tonal center is largely imperceptible, subjectively experienced tensions rooted in tonal expectations serve as important expressive elements.”4

1 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 10
2 Ibid. p. 11
3 Ibid. p. 12
4 Ibid. p. 12

Trouble in our Fur Family!

Is that right?

We recently had an unexpected, and unwanted, event with our Fur Children. Our little white female, Bella, suddenly attacked our yellow Lab, Sandy. Sandy is almost twice the size of Bella, but much more laid back. She was completely surprised by the attack, but tried to fight back. Unfortunately, both dogs were on leashes and I was holding both dogs. Somehow Sandy lost her footing and fell over. Bella went in for the kill. Before we could break up the fight Sandy had received multiple puncture wounds and was in a terrible state of shock. She had to be taken to the vet’s office. My wife also received a bad puncture on her hand.

We have been keeping the two dogs apart now for probably 4 weeks. But every time Bella sees, smells, or hears Sandy she shows that she is ready for a repeat encounter.  Bella is probably some kind of Terrier mix and there is a lot of negative literature  about how difficult it is, if not impossible, to get these two kinds of dogs back together.  Any experienced dog owners out there that have any suggestions as to how to successfully reunite these two dogs that used to be best of friends?

Challenging the Modernist interpretation of musical history (Post #7)

The painting above is by R. S. Perry, Little Rock artist and song writer. Please visit her website cronesinger.com.

Note: Please read Neo-Romantic Post #6 before reading Post #7. The term modernist is more fully defined there.  Modernists are primarily atonalists and serialists.

Walter Simmons, in his book Voices in the Wilderness,  “challenges the modernist interpretation of musical history, along with many of the assumptions on which it is predicated. For example, we reject the view that the fundamental significance of tonality is its function as a macrostructural organizing principle.”1 Mr. Simmons  also rejects “the assumption that the evolution of the tonal system proceeded according to a linear progression that led inevitably to the dissolution of tonality altogether.”2 More broadly, he rejects “the view that music is fruitfully studied as any sort of linear progression, with some hypothetical goal toward which all contenders are racing, the prize going to the one who gets there first.”3 He further asserts “that the most interesting composers are those whose music reveals the most rewarding perspectives, and does so through the means that convey them most effectively and convincingly…that the compositional languages adopted by the traditionalists of the 20th century allowed for a richer, subtler, more varied range of musical expression than ever before in history. That is, the renunciation of tonality as a fundamental structural principle—without it being replaced by an arbitrary system like serialism—freed tonality to function within itself as an expressive parameter of the greatest nuance, in conjunction with other parameters like melody, rhythm, tone color, and so on.”4

A careful study of 20th century American traditionalists reveals “that the most distinguished traditionalist composers created substantial bodies of work notable for their richness, variety, accessibility, and expressive power; that their music revealed distinctive individual features, recognizable stylistic traits, consistent themes and attitudes, as did the acknowledged masterpieces of the past.”5 These comments help immensely in clarifying our understanding of Neo-Romanticism as a subset of Traditionalism, but Simmons goes into even more detail when he delineates American Neo-Romanticism itself. That summary will follow in our Neo-Romantic Blog #8.

1 Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness, Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford, 2006, p. 6
2 Ibid. p. 7
3 Ibid. p. 7
4 Ibid. p. 8
5 Ibid. p. 8

In some ways “the good ol’ days” were truly better!

Celeste Guilford Cobb is my second cousin. Her grandfather and my grandmother were siblings. The comments below are taken from the preface to her new book of family remembrances, Tell it again, Desie.

Celeste was born in 1925 and lives in Columbia, South Carolina. She is the great granddaughter and oldest living descendant of George Sewell Guilford, the builder of the historic Graves House in Bluffton, SC. (See graveshouse.org.)

I WAS JUST THINKING

In my younger days people cared about and cared for each other.  Business was often transacted with a handshake, and we dealt with human beings rather than electronic devices. If we needed information, we talked to a knowledgeable person who took pride in helping us. We did not punch countless numbers and get a recorded message. And we called friends on the telephone and looked forward to hearing their voices; we did not communicate with our fingers.

We had dedicated teachers who conducted classes without the use of the Internet. They forfeited their Saturdays “off” to attend meetings and conferences. There were no “work days” during the week.

When we started school we were taught to write in cursive and took pride in neat, legible handwriting. We had to learn grammar and spelling and did not have “spell-check” to find our errors. We memorized multiplication tables and were taught the principles of math for business and everyday use (interest, percentage, etc.). Businesses had hand-operated adding machines, but calculators were never used in school. Girls had Home Ec(onomics) classes in junior high school and were taught a few homemaking skills. Boys had Shop and learned how to use some basic tools.

Young children had simple toys and relied on creativity and imagination for playtime. Older children had school, homework and organized activities but found time for outdoor sports—no sitting for hours in front of a computer or television screen.

We ate fresh, home cooked food with all the family sitting together at mealtimes.

Growing up we respected and obeyed not only our parents but all adults, and adults were expected to set a good example. Parents accepted the rearing of children as their personal responsibility and taught us moral values and the rewards of education and work. They worked to be good providers. Public assistance and “entitlements” were unheard of.

We took great pride in our appearance and would never be seen at school or anywhere in public unkempt. Our clothes were the best we could afford—stylish but modest. When I was a teenager, short shorts, one piece bathing suits and strapless evening gowns were the most revealing things in our wardrobes. In my early 20’s I bought a two-piece bathing suit, but certainly not a bikini. The lack of good grooming and what I consider inappropriate dressing in public (even in church) nowadays is very hard for me to accept.

Widespread destruction of human lives and property happened only during declared wars. We went about our daily lives without fear of being the innocent victims of some emotionally unbalanced stranger who had a grievance to settle with society.

On the positive side, science has advanced beyond my comprehension. I am certainly grateful for the many inventions which make life easier for me, as well as the technology that provides education and entertainment. However, as we have already experienced, all too often good things can become lethal in the hands of the wrong people.

I grew up in a different time—an era which is gone forever.

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, 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,  p. 43