Is It Romantic?

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

I’ve always had trouble with the words "classical" and "romantic" used to describe the opposing trends of intellectualism and emotionalism in music. Perhaps this was because I grew up in the 1970s and before I ever learned to appreciate so-called "classical music" (which strangely includes music that is both "classical" and "romantic"), "classical" meant I Claudius on Channel 13 and romantic meant a TV commercial for a candlelit dinner accompanied by a K-Tel soundtrack of Mantovani playing instrumental versions of popular love ballads.

This makes it somewhat difficult to engage in a semantic discussion about the term "neo-romantic" which has been frequently trotted out by music critics over the last 20 years to describe recent "classical music" which is clearly "tonally"-oriented and more "accessible" or "listener friendly" than music employing the formal scaffoldings of serialism or indeterminacy. The jury is still out on whether "minimalism" or "post-minimalism" is part of "neo-romanticism" or whether it is in opposition to it.

The problem with words beginning with the prefix "neo-" is that there is an implication that what it signifies is somehow a regression to something that has previously existed and is a reversion back to a something that had been discarded and was forgotten. Of course, most composers who have been categorized as "neo-romantics," both those who accept and reject the term, do not view their work as a reactionary anachronism but rather as an appropriate up-to-date sound world that is more contemporary-sounding than the now older modernist tradition they have been deemed apostates from. To complicate matters further, many of today’s so-called "neo-romantics" trace their lineage to composers who have employed a tonally-based music language throughout the twentieth century. So how could something be described as "neo-" if it never went away? You still with me?

It seemed fitting that this September, the month in which we celebrate the birthdays of both Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, the two composers whose names are most often invoked by opponents of modernism, that we took a stab at the word "neo-romanticism" and try to come to terms with its complex trajectory. We asked Zachary M. Lewis to sort the last century of tonally-based compositions and "melody" (another charged word). And, in further acknowledging Schoenberg who also composed tonally-based music at the end of his life, we asked a total of 13 composers, Schoenberg’s dreaded number, whether they accept or reject the term neo-romantic.

The centerpiece this month is a lengthy conversation with John La Montaine, a composer who rejects all stylistic appellations. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, La Montaine was one of America’s most successful composers. Slightly younger than Samuel Barber and David Diamond and a contemporary of Harold Shapero and Ned Rorem, all of whom never abandoned tonality, La Montaine was on a meteoric career path which included winning the 1959 Pulitzer Prize and a commission to compose music for JFK’s inauguration. Though his major works are infrequently performed today, La Montaine continues to compose and self-publish his works and though his works are clearly tonally-oriented, it would be hard to describe what he does as neo-anything!

We’d like to know your thoughts as well and invite you to contribute your ideas to our interactive Forum.

It is almost a neo-cliché (new word, why not?) to say that any attempt to find clear paths in the history of the present time is illusory, but the quest for a definition of neo-romanticism might be the clearest proof that any attempts at definitions and lineages are extraordinarily windy paths at best!