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.
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.
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