Neo This, Neo That: An Attempt to Trace the Origins of Neo-Romanticism

Zachary Lewis
Photo by Chris Millette, romanticized by Randy Nordschow

The prefix “neo” appears often in practically every kind of writing about the arts. There’s neo-Classicism, neo-expressionism, neo-romantic, etc. Like many such labels, though, it’s one we use frequently without really clarifying or confirming its merit.

In the context of music, the term neo-tonality is being applied more and more often these days in reference to composers who have rejected serial and atonal methods in favor of a more conventional harmonic language. What’s more, the term is often used to connote the turning away from music that appeals primarily to an intellectual urge. “Neo-tonal” composers have, in the words of Glenn Watkins in Soundings: Music in the Twentieth

Century, “weathered the rites of passage involved in the scientific inquiry of the difficult decades immediately following World War II” and are now “in a position to breathe a new expression backed by an enlarged technique.”

But why the need for the modifier? Is there anything new or revolutionary about tonal music or tonality in general?

Not really. Tonality never went away, just as, in visual art, the concept of painting an object as it truly appears never disappeared, not even in the heyday of abstract expressionism. In fact, melody didn’t go away either.

Many incorrect assumptions about tonality can be said to share responsibility for the “neo” prefix; One of the most popular and most misleading is that atonal music is supposedly identified by a lack of melody and that tonal music, by contrast, is full of sweet, hummable tunes. But there are tonal pieces that are willfully unmelodic and atonal pieces with soaring melodies.

So, instead of “neo,” a more accurate prefix might be “re.” Better to use words like “recovery,” “revival,” and “return.” Sources of all types make it clear that tonality in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is not a new creation but merely another development in the progression of musical taste, the result of a shift in aesthetic priorities back to an older, persistent thread. In other words, there is only one definition of “revolutionary” that applies here: a revolution as a complete cycle of events.

In his book, The History of American Classical Music, John Struble writes, “In the case of [post-modern] composers, however, the resultant sound of the music has offered performers and audiences alike a much-needed relief from the harshness of total serialism as well as from the perceived chaos of aleatoric and electronic music. And conservative, contemporary audiences have rewarded them with a greater degree of attention and appreciation than was given to those composers whose work dominated the 1960s and 1970s.”

Essentially, mainstream audiences have never stopped listening to tonal music. But only recently have audiences felt empowered enough to demand it from their contemporary composers. It’s as if composers have followed the dialectic path that results from poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. “I’ve been there and it’s bleak,” the so-called ‘neo-tonal’ composers seem to be saying. “I’ve got only one life and I want people to listen.”

These composers were tired of observing the lofty but isolated standards of, among others, Milton Babbitt, the premier contemporary serialist, who once encouraged composers to “presume to attempt to make music as much as it can be rather than the minimum with which one obviously can get away with music’s being.” That view—otonality as a less ambitious or low-brow compositional tool, an old constraint—persists today. But it is fading, certainly within the popular arena and somewhat among the intelligentsia.

Composers of music for film and other popular industries—and most of such music is tonal—have always, and unfairly, been looked down upon as panderers. Richard Strauss is still seen by many as a sell-out because he grew wealthy writing music that is easy on the ears. But while experimental and atonal music of all sorts is still being played and appreciated by many, the composers who are getting the major commissions and enjoying the greatest financial success these days are those who have returned to or never strayed from an essentially tonal perspective. In the evolutionary struggle for survival, they’re winning, in part because their music speaks in a language recognized by the largest number of people across an ever more fragmented and impatient society.

“Not surprisingly,” writes Robert Morgan in Twentieth-Century Music, “this pluralistic quality in contemporary culture has encouraged a counter-movement: a desire to rediscover the past, to resurrect and revitalize its artistic traditions. Many composers of the last quarter century have therefore reincorporated traditional tonality in their work…as one among many possibilities that can be called upon to create formal coherence and expressive impact. In hopes of reducing the high degree of alienation that, on the part of many, has come to be taken as an inherent attribute of the modern situation, this turn to past has gone hand in hand with attempts to write music with greater audience appeal.”

Consider the number of composite, “re” verbs in that passage.

Similarly, Watkins describes the phenomenon as the “wholesale recovery of tonality and the triad in combination with a newly released expressivity has led to the recognition of a lively trend…” Indeed, within the last two decades or so, there has been a tremendous and highly visible revival of interest in music of the Baroque and early Classical periods, all of which is definitively tonal and expressive on an immediate, emotional level. Ensembles devoted to so-called authentic performances of early music have sprung up everywhere to meet a growing demand. Recordings of this music abound; there is almost a frenzy to discover hidden pockets of 17th and 18th century repertoire and bring them to light. Clearly this music isn’t new; it’s hundreds of years old and has been there all along, which serves as evidence of a shift in taste rather than a completely new development.

Of course, there have been revivals of interest in older music before, most famously Mendelssohn’s “rediscovery” of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s music continues to be the model of Baroque musical values: craftsmanship, clarity, practicality, emotion, and the primacy of melody (or a melodic line). There are those in these “neo-tonal” times who go so far as to believe the future of classical music lies with a re-adoption of those values.

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