I believe that tonality and melody are treated with greater interest and more flexibility by composers and critics today than, say, in 1960, when I entered college. It’s no secret that composers like Britten, Barber, and Bernstein, were routinely pilloried by progressive
mavens who preferred the stylistic purity of Webern and Boulez, and/or the cutting-edge efforts of Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Xenakis, and/or the complexity of Carter. Times have changed, but not because some imagined monolithic composing community has rejected atonality and returned to the triad. It (the “community”) has not, because there is no real common practice to define a real mainstream and because the legacy of Schoenberg has mingled with the legacies of Stravinsky, Debussy, Ives, and others. Instead, we seem to have a rich array of “mini-streams,” some of which overlap in emphasis and approach. On balance, it appears that a very healthy and amazingly varied eclecticism has replaced the stylistic hegemonies of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. For those of us who conduct or perform as part of our livelihood, I think it is accurate to state that we can program a greater diversity of new music today than ever before, and that may be due, in part, to a wider adoption of tonality.
As a composer, I don’t reject the label “neo-romantic,” if neo-romantic suggests that my music can include tonality and atonality along with traditional and current techniques. However, “hardening of the categories” is an unhealthy condition and labels can constrain, overly reduce, and mislead while they purport to distinguish and clarify. For example, in discussing potential guests for a music festival that I direct, one colleague referred to two of my favorite composers, John Corigliano and Jennifer Higdon, as neo-romantics. To others on the committee this assertion implied that both composers are musical descendents of Sibelius and Hanson, a conclusion that is as useless as it is inaccurate. I once had a professor who dismissed the works of Hindemith, Fine, and Persichetti, because, he said, “They’re all neo-classicists,” which, in his mind, precluded their ability to contribute anything really new. Fortunately, these composers’ contributions have long outlived my professor’s pronouncement.