Neoclassicism (music)

Neoclassicism in music was a twentieth-century trend, particularly current in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of "classicism", namely order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late romanticism, as well as a "call to order" after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music. In form and thematic technique, neoclassical music often drew inspiration from music of the 18th century, though the inspiring canon belonged as frequently to the Baroque and even earlier periods as to the Classical period—for this reason, music which draws inspiration specifically from the Baroque is sometimes termed Neo-Baroque music. Neoclassicism had two distinct national lines of development, French (proceeding from the influence of Erik Satie and represented by Igor Stravinsky), and German (proceeding from the "New Objectivism" of Ferruccio Busoni and represented by Paul Hindemith.) Neoclassicism was an aesthetic trend rather than an organized movement; even many composers not usually thought of as "neoclassicists" absorbed elements of the style.


People and works

Although the term "neoclassicism" refers to a twentieth-century movement, there were important nineteenth-century precursors. In pieces such as Franz Liszt's À la Chapelle Sixtine (1862), Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite (1884), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's divertissement from The Queen of Spades (1890), George Enescu's Piano Suite in the Old Style (1897) and Max Reger's Concerto in the Old Style (1912), composers "dressed up their music in old clothes in order to create a smiling or pensive evocation of the past" (Albright 2004, 276).

Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (1917) is sometimes cited as a precursor of neoclassicism (Whittall, 1980), but Prokofiev himself thought that his composition was a 'passing phase' whereas Stravinsky's neoclassicism was by the 1920s 'becoming the basic line of his music' (Prokofiev 1991, 273).

Igor Stravinsky's first foray into the style began in 1919–20 when he composed the ballet Pulcinella, using themes which he believed to be by Giovanni Pergolesi (it later came out that many of them were not, though they were by contemporaries). Later examples are the Octet for winds, the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, Symphony in C, and Symphony in Three Movements, as well as the ballets Apollo and Orpheus, in which the neoclassicism took on an explicitly "classical Grecian" aura. Stravinsky's neoclassicism culminated in his opera The Rake's Progress, with a libretto by W. H. Auden (Walsh 2001, §8). Stravinskian neoclassicism was later taken up by Darius Milhaud and his contemporary Francis Poulenc, and Bohuslav Martinů, who revived the Baroque concerto grosso form in his works.

A German strain of neoclassicism was developed by Paul Hindemith, who produced chamber music, orchestral works, and operas in a heavily contrapuntal, chromatically inflected style, best exemplified by Mathis der Maler. Roman Vlad has contrasted the "classicism" of Stravinsky, which consists in the external forms and patterns of his works, with the "classicality" of Busoni, which represents an internal disposition and attitude of the artist towards works (Samson 1977, 28). Busoni wrote in a letter to Paul Bekker, "By 'Young Classicalism' I mean the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong and beautiful forms" (Busoni 1957, 20).

Neoclassicism found a welcome audience in America, as the school of Nadia Boulanger promulgated ideas about music based on her understanding of Stravinsky's music. Boulanger's American students include Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Ástor Piazzolla and Virgil Thomson.

Even the atonal school, represented by Arnold Schoenberg, showed the influence of neoclassical ideas. The forms of Arnold Schoenberg's works after 1920, beginning with opp. 23, 24, and 25 (all composed at the same time), have been described as "openly neoclassical", and represent an effort to integrate the advances of 1908–1913 with the inheritance of the 18th and 19th centuries (Rosen 1975, 70–73). Schoenberg attempted in those works to offer listeners structural points of reference with which they could identify, beginning with the Serenade, op. 24, and the Suite for piano, op. 25 (Keillor 2009). Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg actually came to neoclassicism before his teacher, in his Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1913–14), and the opera Wozzeck (Rosen 1975, 87), which uses closed forms such as suite, passacaglia, and rondo as organizing principles within each scene. Anton Webern also achieved a sort of neoclassical style through an intense concentration on the motif (Rosen 1975, 102).

Other neoclassical composers

See also


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  • Busoni, Ferruccio (1957). The Essence of Music, and Other Papers, translated by Rosamond Ley. London: Rockliff.
  • Keillor, John (2009). "Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31". website. (Accessed 4 April 2010).
  • Prokofiev, Sergey (1991). Short Autobiography, translated by Rose Prokofieva, revised and corrected by David Mather: published in Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-16158-8
  • Rosen, Charles (1975). Arnold Schoenberg. Modern Masters. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0670133167 (cloth) ISBN 0670019860 (pbk). UK edition, titled simply Schoenberg. London: Boyars; Glasgow: W. Collins ISBN 0714525669 Paperback edition, under the original title, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-691-02706-4.
  • Samson, Jim (1977). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900–1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-02193-9.
  • Stravinsky, Igor (1970). Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (from the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered in 1939-1940). Harvard College, 1942. English translation by Arthur Knodell and Ingolf Dahl, preface by George Seferis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-67855-9.
  • Walsh, Stephen (2001). "Stravinsky, Igor", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. New York: Grove's Dictionaries.
  • Whittall, Arnold (1980). "Neo-classical", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan.

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