Category Archives: New Posts

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

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

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

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, 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

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.

Quotes from Jeff Graves’ blog

I have gleaned a few quotes from my son’s blog, jeff-graves.com. I will add to these quotes from time to time. Please visit jeff-graves.com for insights and comments about technology and leadership:

Do your wounds make you a better leader? I believe mine have.  We all have suffered wounds of one kind or another.  This might be the loss of a loved one, a physical impairment, a mental or emotional disappointment, or simply a setback where things are not going the way we planned. If you let your wounds, your failures, your losses define you then you limit not only your own personal growth but your ability to lead others as well.