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

Composers of the Second Viennese school and the total serialists of ensuing decades erected complex barricades designed to eliminate any hint of a tonal center. As those methods grew in popularity as modern, avant-garde, and fashionable techniques, composers who continued to write tonally were regarded as old-fashioned and passé. But tonality is a fundamental dimension of the art of music and simply could not be subsumed, even as other dimensions of music were explored. “There is no virtue in starting all over again,” wrote George Rochberg. “The past refuses to be erased.

Unlike Boulez, I will not praise amnesia.” In short, tonality never really fell out of favor, except among the avant-garde themselves.

Rochberg, one of the composers credited with the resurgence of tonality, has referred to total chromaticism as an “extremely narrow confine.” Ironically, Rochberg began his career as a prominent member of the serial community. He wrote of the “inevitability” of 12-tone music and felt himself to be “living at the very edge of the musical frontier.” Then, in 1964, Rochberg’s teenage son died tragically. Turning again to his music, Rochberg found serialism, as one writer put it, “empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow” (Michael Linton, “George Rochberg’s Revolution,” First Things, June/July 1998). Over the course of the ensuing decade, Rochberg re-adopted tonality. His string quartets for the Concord Quartet were resolutely tonal. Critical response was not positive. Suddenly Rochberg had abdicated his position on the frontier of music for one among the nostalgic rear guard.

Glenn Watkins in Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century, evaluating the return of tonality, says the sense of revival for most listeners in the 1970s was weaker than it was among the avant-garde because their musical culture had espoused tonality throughout the era of atonality and serialism. He points out that two popular staples of the repertoire, Rachmaninoff‘s “Symphonic Dances” and Strauss‘s “Four Last Songs,” had their premieres as recently as 1940 and 1950.

For one thing, tonality is a remarkably inclusive term. Though usually used in reference to Western music, it encompasses all music in which notes, chords, and progressions—or some portion of these—exist in a clearly-defined relation to a central key. That doesn’t rule out dissonance and it certainly leaves a lot of room for artistic leeway, in the same way that 12-tone methods or the choice of a tone row will not write the music for you. The observation that one piece of tonal music need not sound the same as another is almost moot.

There are also many forms of tonality, most of which would sound atonal to the proverbial man on the street: polytonality, bitonality, pandiatonicism, etc. All of these were in use almost continually by composers through the period in which tonality is assumed to have fallen—or, to be more precise, the period during which the prefix “neo” implies tonality fell—by the wayside.

Kyle Gann, a composer of microtonal music and author of a history of American music, argues that minimalism held the tonal line through even the period of rigid atonal dominance. Indeed the list of minimalist composers is a lengthy one and their music cannot be said to fall in the realm of atonality. In an article called “A Forest from the Seeds of Minimalism,” Gann points to Steve Reich‘s Drumming, Philip Glass‘s Einstein on the Beach, and Terry Riley‘s In C as examples of compositions that captured public interest precisely because they were easy to understand on first hearing and represented the near opposite of what was then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, going on among the avant-garde. Nor is there any doubt that minimalism was a tonal movement. It would be hard to miss the fact, for instance, that Reich’s “Octet” includes 50 pages of music in D-Flat Major.

The piece Gann cites as the harbinger of postminimalism, too, William Duckworth‘s 1979 piano cycle The Time Curve Preludes, shares that grounding in tonality. There later developed a body of composers whose styles were individual but who, Gann writes, “could still be generally characterized in common terms. By and large, despite fascinating differences, their music was tonal…” John Adams continues to represent the origins of that movement and his music is heard and discussed by millions today. His opera, Nixon in China, may not be universally-loved, but it holds enough potency to incite debate years later.

Around the time when minimalism had gained enough followers to be examined historically as a movement, another strain of composers had begun the re-approach to tonality on their own terms, such as David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Today, they are among the handful of composers whose music is actually being commissioned and performed by major orchestras and chamber ensembles.

Del Tredici’s return to tonality was more gradual than George Rochberg’s but was equally controversial. First coming to prominence with his startling serial settings of poetry by James Joyce, Del Tredici later embarked on a series of works inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll in which tonality gradually crept back in, culminating in the unabashedly lush tonal sound world of the Child Alice series, the first part of which, In Memory of a Summer Day, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. To this day, George Rochberg has not been honored with a Pulitzer.

As early as 1968, Corigliano composed a Piano Concerto, which he himself describes as being “basically tonal.” By 1991, he had composed an opera based on the same Beaumarchais characters that inspired Mozart and Rossini, which was the first opera commissioned and premiered by the Met since Samuel Barber, and his Symphony No. 1, a clearly tonal work composed in response to the AIDS crisis, was awarded the Grawemeyer Award, the highest financial prize for a contemporary composition. More recently, the Corigliano Quartet, an exciting and remarkably successful young group, began its career in 1996 after a performance of Corigliano’s String Quartet, a lengthy, moving, and undeniably tonal tribute to the renowned Cleveland Quartet. Within a year Corigliano won both an Academy Award, for his film score to The Red Violin, in 2000, and the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, in 2001, making Corigliano only the second composer in history, after Aaron Copland, to win both an Oscar and a Pulitzer.

Zwilich, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her undeniable tonal First Symphony in 1983, has also had great success in the past decade. The first composer ever named to the prestigious Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall in 1995, she was Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 1999. Like many so-called “neo-romantic” composers, her compositions are actively championed by performers not usually associated with new music such as the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio and the Emerson Quartet.

Until his tragic death in December of 1992, Stephen Albert had been another bright light among modern, tonal composers. He had won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for his symphony, RiverRun, and his music was in demand by most of the country’s top orchestras. Another American composer who died in the 1990s, Jacob Druckman, is often credited with coining the phrase “neo-romanticism” based on his curating two New York Philharmonic festivals of contemporary music titled Horizons: Since 1968, A New Romanticism. Ironically, Druckman’s own music, though often referencing older music and passages in functional tonality, never completely embraced a return to tonality, but was rather a post-modern mélange in which tonality, atonality, indeterminacy, and electronics were all fair game.

Today, there is a full roster of composers coming into their own as representatives of tonal music in the United States, some with minimalist leanings and others whose music has nothing to do with minimalism. A few that come to mind immediately are Lowell Liebermann, Richard Danielpour, Jake Heggie, Michael Torke, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis, and André Previn, all of whom are getting major commissions from symphony orchestras and opera houses across the country.

Even some composers who write for computers alone or in combination with other instruments, contemporaries like Ira J. Mowitz and Paul Lansky, have adopted tonality as a relevant mode of expression compatible with their sophisticated use of technology. Lansky, for example, paired a string trio with computer in his 1982 work, As If. His and Mowitz’s presence strikes a balance somewhat between themselves and the serial composers who strove to eliminate the imperfect, human elements of performance by means of computers or whose music simply exceeds the limits of human ability to perform it. And their efforts may come to represent the rejuvenated, tonal avant-garde.

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

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