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

On the topic of melody, 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.

Most musical people think tonality is “melodic” because they can, for example, hum the theme from the second movement of Mozart‘s “Elvira Madiganconcerto. And they think atonality isn’t because almost no one can actually recall the row from Berg‘s Violin Concerto, even if they know and love the piece. But imagine asking someone to sing a melody from a string quartet by Darius Milhaud, who was a tonal composer.

That just proves the error in the assumption, and the point of this discussion: if atonal music by necessity lacks a melody, which it doesn’t, then melody must have shared the fate of tonality when it supposedly disappeared during the frightening “modern music” age, which it didn’t. For clearly, melody has always been with us.

“Melody” is another one of those incredibly general terms. In fact, one could say it’s even more inclusive than tonality. The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines melody quite simply as “a succession of notes, varying in pitch, which have an organized and recognizable shape.” The definition goes on to admit the difficulty in explaining why some melodies last and become popular while others don’t, but it places no further constraint on the concept itself than to say: “long-lived melodies possess the valuable quality of logical organization.”

Check any other source and not one will attempt to say that a melody must follow the form I-IV-V-I or, for that matter, mention any aspect of traditional diatonic harmony. No requirements of length or shape. Melodies of vastly different forms run through the history of music in the western hemisphere: the early Greeks, the chants of the dark ages, the loves of the troubadours and meistersingers. Melodies appear throughout the symphonies of Beethoven, the 12-tone masterpieces of Schoenberg, and have survived to make Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears wealthy (if not happy together).

In short, a melody can be pretty much anything. Melodies permeate many of the masterworks of the 20th century, tonal and atonal alike, even those who have achieved greatness but are still battling for a wider audience. Composer Gloria Coates, in an interview with Sequenza 21, says she never set out to write a symphony per se but had been writing works in three or four movements and what was her Music on Open Strings ended up feeling “heavier.” That was her justification for calling her work a “symphony“; it was heavy, complicated and longer. Those terms are far more relative than Brahms would have allowed, but one suspects a similarly loose interpretation has come to bear on melody as well.

Twelve-tone music marked a clear turn from tonality, but in terms of melody, it’s hard to find a better example of a logical organization than a 12-tone row. True, some definitions of melody include rather subjective terminology, claiming a melody must be “meaningful” or “hang together.” But even those less tangible dimensions apply to atonal melodies. To use the example again, a 12-tone row is designed not only for its own qualities in its original form, but for its “meaningful” possibilities, for its ability to form the thread through a piece and “hang together.”

All of this leaves aside the sphere of popular music, in which melody has always, at least until the development of rap, been a fundamental expressive tool. The history of popular music alone is a testament to tonality’s unbroken endurance.

from Neo this, neo that…An Attempt to Trace the Origins of Neo-Romanticism
By Zachary M. Lewis
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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