Neo Neo-Romanticism

I’m filled with torment. Is the question this month really whether there is such a thing as neo-romanticism in contemporary music? Does such a term refer to composers who are openly and proudly reactionary, led by Gian Carlo Menotti, alive and kicking at 92? But wait—doesn’t Stockhausen have an ego and artistic agenda bigger than Berlioz, the poster boy of Romanticism? And might not Charles Wuorinen romanticize the appeal and efficacy of serialism?

Intrinsic romanticism, that of the particular individual, is just as alive today as it has ever been; it is bound to be, for it is a human constant.

- Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic, and Modern

I’ve just sat down again after gazing at the mountains, lingering to admire the butterflies drawing sweet nectar from the flowers. Maybe we’re confusing neo-tonality, and the “recovery” from serialism, with neo-romanticism. But I thought those great lovers of deep tonality, Somei Satoh and Arvo Part, were neo-medievalists! And how could we possibly lump Peter Garland’s aesthetic of radical consonance with David del Tredici’s music? Perhaps a key question is whether there are composers under the moniker of “neo-romantic,” such as John Harbison, who are revisiting romantic forms and style with the same self-consciousness with which Stravinsky revisited classicism.

…whenever the word “romantic” is applied to art or artists, the overtones of falsity and improbability remain to be proved in each particular case.

- Barzun

But before we get too wrapped up in debating composers and aesthetic labels (which I hope you will!), let’s not forget that this is a larger cultural question. Barzun (disregarding his faults in assessing modernism, he did know romanticism) made the case that romanticism was a cultural vision with complex contradictions, perhaps capable of recurrence. The key elements of this vision evolved from Rousseau’s naturalism into an idealism, which, though rooted in individual reverie, aspired to envision social transformation. In that sense, music which might express such a recurrence of romanticism, is perhaps not that which retroactively celebrates 19th century form or style and therefore tends to get labeled “neo-romantic,” but rather music which aspires to dream and spiritedly breaks new ground. In which case, tonality might be of any kind and only an element of a larger, romantic, vision.

In this light, the term “neo-romanticism,” and how it is abused by the average music critic, is lacking historical and artistic veracity. Is it used in the visual arts or literary criticism? Is culture now so fragmented that -isms mean something only to their subculture? Can we agree to expand the limited vocabulary of musical and historical assumptions that has been handed to us?

I believe we need new cultural modalities and therefore need to use new terms. Zachary Lewis notes in his HyperHistory how often he uses terms beginning with “re” to describe our music today. I would add another that I have used to describe my own music: “reconstructionism” (being one who wants to counteract the cultural deconstructionists). It probably has a dose of romanticism in it. We live in a toxic culture, one which is more than ever built upon savaging the earth and its people. Realism is critical, but romanticism might well serve our need for new vision. If that’s neo-romanticism, I’m all for more of it.

We live in a society that has drastically narrowed our sensitivity to moral and spiritual issues; the problem we face is how to deal with a belief structure that has blocked both psychological and spiritual development. If there is a new agenda, a new vision now emerging within our society, how might one help put it into practice?

- Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art