As some of you know I have long been interested in American Neo-Romantic orchestral music. So much so that I started a study over ten years ago and have been working on the book, off and on, ever since that time. (There was a lot of down time!) I finally decided to finish the project! If you ever wondered what Neo-Romantic music is, or just want to know more about it, my new book, Ethnic Influences on Musical Style, Three American Neo-Romantics,is now available on Amazon Books. The cover art is by my wife, R. S. Perry.
The three American Neo-Romantic composers that I discuss are Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still, and Samuel Barber. It is a small and affordable book. (122 pages, $7.95) I plan on making it available as an e-book soon. Stay tuned, or just check back on Amazon from time to time.
When I compose music, I sign it as J. S. Graves. When I write a book or an article I sign it as John Samuel Graves III. It’s kind of complicated. Perhaps I will explain it some day in this blog.
American Neo-Romanticismis not significantly different from European Neo-Romanticismexcept 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 Nationalistsand 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
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
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.”1The 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
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.1The 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 AmericanNeo-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
Continuing our discussion of American Neo-Romanticism:
American composers in the early and middle periods of the 20th century produced some of the strongest and most impressive concert music in the history of the United States. While many different styles existed simultaneously, sometimes in the same composer, most American classical1 music of the time can be placed into one of two general categories:
the traditionalists exhibitedvarious forms of Late Romanticism, Neo-Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionistic Neo-Romanticism, among others. (More will be said later about the differences between these “isms.”) European models for the traditionalists were composers such as Richard Strauss, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Mahler, and even Debussy and Ravel,2 among many others. Prominent American traditionalists included Edward McDowell, Amy Beach, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber, and William Grant Still, and others.
the modernists, essentially anti-traditionalists, were heavily influenced initially by contemporaneous avant-garde European movements, such as Impressionism and Expressionism3(extreme Romanticism), but later defined themselves by moving away from these into the twelve-tone system, atonality, serialism, and various other adventurous and experimental non-traditional directions.The later modernists almost completely repudiated conventional and traditional musical styles and practices.
The big European modernist models were, originally, Debussy,4 and later, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. American modernists included Charles Ives, Roger Sessions, Wallingford Riegger, Henry Cowell, Milton Babbitt, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varèse, and Elliot Carter, among others. Stravinsky in particular, as did others, would later move towards Neo-Classicism5, a more conservative style that displayed some of the older traditional values, such as attention to regularity of structure, clarity and emotional control, while rejecting much of the radical, often extreme emotionalism of the Romantic tradition.
Many of the composers of this time actually produced works that were difficult to classify. Their music exhibited elements of both traditionalism and modernism, often in some kind of combination. Many started out as traditionists of some sort and gradually moved through a series of transformations into otherforms of musical expression. Many became eclectics, taking what they liked from the various traditions, past and present, and integrating them into something fresh and exciting. (Neo-Romanticism post #3 will be posted in about a week.)
1 The word classical is used here generically to refer to all concert music and is not to be confused with the Classical period (±1730-1825).2 Debussy retained many earlier stylistic practices but was not as concerned with form and control as Ravel was. Although Ravel is usually classed as an impressionist, his music is perhaps more accurately described as neo-classic impressionism, or even neo-baroqueimpressionism.3 Generally this blog will use the convention of capitalizing and italicizing musical styles or periods that end in ism (Neo-Romanticism), and use lower case when referring to an individual (neo-romantic) or an individual’s style (modernist). However, when direct quotes are used the conventions of the quoted author are retained.4 The impressionists can be viewed as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, exhibiting characteristics of both Modernism and Traditionalism.5 Neo-Classicism contains elements of both Modernism andTraditionalism and will be further clarified later in this blog.
Cultural and Ethnic Influences on Musical Style in the works of Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still and Samuel Barber
by J. S. Graves
I basically agree with R. S. Perry when she says that a composer’s “artistic identity is far more comprehensible when viewed against his background than when removed from it and considered solely in the context of individual genius,”1 This week I am mounting a new blog that will present some of the defining influences on the lives and music of three American Neo-Romantic composers, Ernest Bloch, William Grant Still (Little Rock, AR was his home town as a youth) and Samuel Barber.
There were creative consequences for these composers when they confronted or exploited their cultural and ethnic inheritance.2 This blog will investigate what some of those consequences were and what role the unique backgrounds of these three composers played in contributing to an American neo-romantic musical style.
I will examine important defining factors of their careers such as their social and economic circumstances, their educational backgrounds, influential persons in their lives, and the socio-political climate of the world in which they lived. I will post weekly on these subjects, starting next post with a discussion of the types of American concert music in the first half of the 20th century, followed by explorations of what Neo-Romanticism is.
Later I will discuss the seminal influence on American Neo-Romanticism of the life and works of Ernest Bloch, a European educated immigrant, considered by Walter Simmons to be the fountainhead of American Neo-Romanticism.3 Later blogs will be devoted to the lives and works of two other American neo-romantics, William Grant Still andSamuel Barber. Stay tuned!