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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.

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

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.