Neoclassicism and Anti-romanticism – what’s it all about?

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Neoclassicism and Anti-romanticism – what’s it all about?

The years between the World Wars saw a speeding up of musical history. Prior to this period, broad encompassing terms for periods of musical development, such as ‘classical’, ‘renaissance’, or ‘baroque’, usually spoke of periods of time lasting several centuries, or at least several generations. By the early twentieth century, the late romantic period had already mostly given way to a number of new musical directions - Debussy and Ravel experimented with ideas of impressionism in music, and composers such as Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were creating works based off serialist, 12-tone row procedures(to name only two). By the end of the Second World War, these movements and others had already given way to other directions – Bartok and Khachaturian pursued folk influences, numerous composers in America were influenced by jazz and works for stage and film, John Cage was looking into the music of chance and random sounds. Within this historically volatile climate of the early twentieth century, I would like to examine two similar musical genres which were explored by a number of extremely influential composers: neoclassicism and anti-romanticism.

 

Anti-romanticism, as the name suggests, was a reaction against the ideals of musical romanticism. This is realized in a number of different ways. Early anti-romanticism, such as that evidenced in the works of Debussy, showed a change in the focus of depictive music from the grand and all-encompassing(for instance, the symphonies of Mahler, which are akin to self contained universes of expression) to the subtle and personal. An instance of this can be shown in Debussy's piano etudes, which show a preponderance with rippling water like effects and delicate twinkling sonorities. Similarly, many of the piano works by Eric Satie show a focus on non-directional harmonies – this means chords are used not for their tonal function but simply for their unique colour and expressive qualities. The music is kept relatively simple and elegant to allow focus on these delicate and extremely personal sound worlds. The reduction from grandeur and dramaticism is not just a reduction from orchestral to piano textures – piano works by Liszt or Mussorgsky, with their massive explosive gestures show how the excesses of romanticism could be displayed in full swing on a keyboard. However, reduced scoring, whether due to limited funding during the war, or due to composer’s personal choice, is an oft-cited anti-romantic feature. Works such as Stravinsky’s ‘A Soldier’s Tale’, which uses a large chamber ensemble set up(7 musicians actors), or Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, which used the meager available musicians of a concentration camp despite its extremely heavy and serious subject matter, demonstrate this. As one of the main ideals of musical romanticism was dramatic self expression, many works which demonstrate a return to structured formality exemplify both anti-romanticism and neoclassicism.

 

Whereas anti-romanticism was showing itself in a number of forms by the very late nineteenth century, it wasn’t until around the 1920s that neoclassicism started to develop a distinct following. Neoclassicism is often used to describe works which make use of classical or baroque musical references or compositional techniques juxtaposed with the increased rhythmic, harmonic and melodic vocabulary of the twentieth century. One simple example of this might be writing an alberti bass figure(type of classical harmonic compositional feature) which makes use of extended chords such as 9ths or 11ths. Some examples of composers who used neoclassical compositional techniques include Bartok(the first movement of his ‘Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta’ uses a traditional baroque form fugue structure but with winding chromatic melodies and constantly changing time signatures), Hindemith(his series of ‘Kammermusic’ works include numerous references to baroque forms such as the concerto grosso, and melodic figuration and ornamentation reminiscent of baroque dances) and most famously Stravinsky(whose notable ‘Octet’ for winds includes stripped down and exposed harmonic and rhythmic features, blatantly referencing classical mores). This style, which developed almost internationally, was a reaction to the extreme complexity of the Second Viennese School and other complex process derived composers such as Edgard Varese. Often, but not always, this music is typified by a construction which serves only to fulfill a musical form – in a similar manner perhaps as solving a musical puzzle. Stravinsky’s reasoning behind writing neoclassical works mostly for winds was that he felt that their tone was much harder and more exact, and less expressive and vague than that of string sections. A term strongly associated with this style is ‘Gebrauchsmusik’, translated to ‘utility music’, meaning music composed for a specific purpose such as an event or commission, as opposed to a personal desire for self-expression.

 

From this it can be seen that while there is some common ground between neoclassicism and anti-romanticism, they are still separate musical movements, and certainly not interchangeable. I hope this has helped to increase your understanding of these oft confused terms.

I love to sing.  Aaron Anastasi 

Hi disong, interesting post

Hi disong, interesting post and interesting subject. I've been meaning to comment on it but not time so far! I'll do as soon as I can.....

Strange timing of your post.

Strange timing of your post. For the last week or so I have been revisiting and discovering much of Stravinsky music, and so many of these things have been playing in my head.

 

To be honest, I still haven't come across a convincing explanation of how, in such a short period of time music changed so much, unbound experimentation became the norm, and shock came to replace novelty. The impression one is left is “if it could be thought it was done/suggested/proposed/attempted”. One of my favourites is Cage’s 4’33, “composed” in 1951, where the pianist is asked to sit and not play/do anything during that time.

 

To be sure, the whole thing is the child of Romanticism, and its emphasis in individual creativity and genius, as opposed to genres, styles, traditions,etc...

 

But before things got fully out of hands atonality came directly out Romanticism too, the first scission produced by Wagner and then Liszt, and amplified (with good manners) by Richard Strauss and Mahler. So I wouldn’t agree that non-directional tonality is defining of the anti-romantic reaction.  I think it could be argued that Schoenberg was always (at heart and in style) a Romantic composer. The thing is that later “neo-romanticism” was made synonymous of lush orchestration and tame armonies.

 

The problem with terms like Neoclassicism and Anti-romanticism is that are quite hard to define and narrow into stylistic terms. Anti-romanticism was a reaction, a “feeling” if you will, but not properly a style or school. You can trace to Debussy and Paris, Schoenberg and Vienna, Stravinsky and again Paris, Charles Ives in the States, Bartok,  etc. Whatever they have in common can only be described in negative terms, in what they were not, or didn’t do. (anti-romanticism, avoidance of personal expression, avoidance of subjectivism, etc).

 

Neoclassicism is somehow different, in that there are stylistic markers although at the end is possibly just as hard to define. Why it starts with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1920) and not Prokofiev Classical Symphony (1916)?. Why is Reger’s closeness to Bach not neoclassical but Hindemith’s or Stravinsky’s is? If the use of strict counterpoint, canons, fugues, ostinato, etc is part of it, what about the Second Viennese School use of all these things? If “irony”, understood as objectivism and distance is a defining character, to get Hindemith and Stravinsky in the same boat seems a bit of a stretch….

By the way, Stravinsky’s septet, which I didn’t know is great! I much prefer it to his octet.

Spam, spam, spam, spam........

This is spam, Camaron! It is a long cut and paste from another website, followed by a link to something being sold..........It is one of the now familiar techniques of spamology. 

Hope you well, anyway! We

Hope you well, anyway! We must get back to Goldbergs soon.........And I hope Chris is still well and around, too.

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

This is spam, Camaron! It is a long cut and paste from another website, followed by a link to something being sold..........It is one of the now familiar techniques of spamology. 

Ha! I didn't see the link. It says something about the forum state that the most interesting post in a while (only post, actually?) comes from a spammer!!

 

Yes, we have unfinished busines with the Goldberg. It is Chris' thread, let's hope he comes back to finish it.

The state of forum and some...Stravinsky.

Camaron, you are probably right that the introductory post of this thread was the "most interesting one in a while", even under the new familiar technique of spamology (as Jane put it), but it was not the "only one". I have sent two posts lately, i.e. one on 14/03 and one on 24/03, but I guess they were of minimal or no interest to the handful members being around this period of time.

I sincerely hope that Chris will be back soon, in full swing, so that he will lead the way to deal with the "unfinished business" of his quite interesting thread on the Goldbergs. Unfortunately, I find myself very busy this period but I will try to contribute occasionally.

As long as this thread might exist, may I suggest (in case you don't know them yet) two less known works by Stravinsky, one of his neoclassical endeavours and one of what one might call his anti-romantic period: a) The Concerto in Re (although it was written in 1946 in Holywood, he used the French word for the tonality) and b) the two Suires for small orchestra (composed and reworked between 1917 and 1925). The Concerto is a string orchestra experiment based on Baroque forms (e.g. concerto grosso) in a rather strict formalistc tone, displaying, however, the audacity of a quite condensed motivic structure, where all three movements rely on the semitone and its inversion.

The Suites might be considered as a sort of his "petit riens", dealing with an intriguing way of handling folk and popular ballroom dances, not for the sake of dancing but for listening experience. In both works, despite the reservations one might have for the genuine character and intent of the compositions, there is always the originality, the intelligence and the high spirit of this ambivalent but, in any case, significant composer. In the Suites, in particular, one can admire the condensed use of a full orchestra (one flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, one and two trumpets respectively for the two suites, one trombone, one tuba, percussion and a small number of strings).

Whatever Stravinsky might have been, his music is almost always original and surprising.

Parla

 

 

Sorry Parla, it wasn't meant

Sorry Parla, it wasn't meant as a comparison, I forgot about yours!

Yes, I know the works (but only recently), although less so the suites. The concerto I like very much. In a similar neoclassical vein, my favourite work is his Dumbarton Concerto (1938), a sort of a modern take on a Brandenburg concerto, with actual quotations. I like how it teases you with its harmonies, making you believe it is going somewhere and then totally doing something very different. The motoric rhythms are as much Stravinsky’s as Bach’s!

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