Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Jake Heggie



Jake Heggie
Photo by Lisa Kohler

This question makes me smile, because it brought me back to when I was at UCLA studying with Roger Bourland almost 20 years ago. The L.A. Phil hosted a Green Umbrella concert featuring his work and some others, titled: “The New Romanticism.” It was all about the return of tonality and lyricism in music. So, obviously, this is an issue that has been tossed about a lot over the years. I read an article once about how a composer today can’t ignore the power and influence of the cinema. That article was penned by Poulenc in the mid-1950s…not too long after Boulez had written “Schoenberg est mort.”

Have tonality and lyricism ever gone away? Of course not. Our focus can be drawn to many ways of expressing ourselves, and when something innovative and fresh comes along, it will naturally draw our attention and interest. It may influence us and make us rethink what we are doing. That seems terribly healthy to me. But even when the focus has been on something rigid, angular, and dissonant, there have always been composers writing lyrical, tonal work.

I have never considered myself a “new romantic” just because I tend to favor long lyrical lines and colors more rooted in traditional harmony. I think of myself first and foremost as an American theatre composer, for that is where my heart lies: in the theatre. Serving drama. Exploring character, psychology, motivation, spiritual crisis and human interaction. Like most composers, we are a product of our time and the influences we have tuned into as we grow and develop. There are many different audiences, and thankfully, many different composers for them. Does the success of Dead Man Walking, Little Women, Florencia en el Amazonas, and A View from the Bridge signal a great return to tonality and lyricism? Seems to me that Carlisle Floyd, Dominick Argento, Ned Rorem, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, and a few others have composed a number lyrical successes along the way, too; even when Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and Boulez had rightfully found their way into the concert hall and academia.