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

“Neo-tonality,” or the return of tonality, whichever you prefer, has its roots in America. It’s no accident that John Adams, the most widely performed living American composer today, seized on early American religious rituals as an inspiration for his Shaker Loops, one of the quintessential examples of minimalist (and, by extension, tonal) music.

It’s worth noting that America’s musical roots (at least those of its settlers) are bound up with tonality. The music of the early settlers was resolutely tonal, written to be sung by common folk in religious services. The first American composers of concert music, too, were heavily influenced by their European contemporaries. Even the symphonic works of George Whitefield Chadwick and John Knowles Paine, the men often credited with giving American music a national voice, tend to resemble the music of Dvorak. Along with Chadwick, Horatio Parker, and Edward MacDowell, composers of the New England School, considered themselves part of the European romantic tradition.

Further along the historical time-line, American composers continued to write tonal music, even as atonality took hold—among the avant-garde—overseas. William Grant Still was writing orchestral suites, ballet, symphonies based on African-American music during this period. Aaron Copland, too, was writing some of his most popular music then, and it was all tonal. Samuel Barber never abandoned the tonal center. His Essay No. 2 is a model of polytonality and in 1963 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a tonal Piano Concerto. “In writing this concerto,” writes William Martin in Music of the 20th Century, “Barber returned to the romanticism of his early works by reaffirming his allegiance to the principles of tonality, and by writing thoroughly vocal, expressive melodic lines.”

One could produce a string of examples of this type. There were many composers who never abandoned tonality and still maintained some considerable level of popularity and influence through the middle and into the latter half of the 20th century. Ferde Grofé was writing tonal tone poems inspired by the great American landmarks. Howard Hanson, another from this period, composed in a direct, tonal style often reminiscent of Sibelius and won a Pulitzer Prize for his fourth symphony, one of seven. Walter Piston fared even better with his eight symphonies. He received numerous accolades, including two Pulitzers, a Naumburg, and three New York Critics Circle awards. His writings on music—texts on harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint—were widely adopted. Today, Ned Rorem continues to represent this tradition and has produced a stream of art songs, chamber, vocal and orchestral works, all in a tonal framework.

The same kind of fervor that drives performers and record labels on their quest for dust-covered gems of the Baroque has infused others to launch a new search for overlooked tonal composers in America. The music of David Diamond, for instance, is being rediscovered as a steady, tonal voice in the American canon. Harold Shapero is another of those. Though Shapero explored 12-tone methods during the 1960s, he began his career with a tonal voice (Symphony for Classical Orchestra from 1947) and returned to it (Four Pieces in B-Flat, of 1970, and a second Classical Symphony in 1995). Works like these have enjoyed a second life of sorts in this ongoing tonal renaissance.

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

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