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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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