Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Lowell Liebermann



Lowell Liebermann
Photo by Linda Harris

Neo-romantic? That label makes me wince. Unfortunately, it is a label that seems to have stuck, whether or not it actually has anything to do with my music. And unfortunately, we live in a market-driven society, one that decides what or what not to buy based on brand names. The big newspapers trade in cultural brand names the same way that department stores trade in designer labels. Label recognition is everything, and truly informed analysis seems to be virtually non-existent.

My own music has always acknowledged tonality, but since my very first pieces I have freely mixed tonality with atonality, modality, serialism, octotonic, and synthetic scales, etc.—whatever elements I felt were necessary for the organic argument of a particular piece. (That makes it sound like an even more dreaded label: “eclectic.”) It is sadly amusing, therefore, for me to sometimes read a review after a performance or premiere, and all that the particular listener seems to have heard are the tonal passages. Once a label is stuck on, the ears shut off. Or perhaps it is just that some choose to ignore what doesn’t fit in their own agenda.

It has become trendy for some to accuse composers working with tonality of the “crime of nostalgia.” It seems to me that sometimes this is because their works don’t buy into a pose of irony that has become something of a “postmodern” cliché. (Let’s not even get into the debate that nostalgia is a perfectly valid and peculiarly appropriate “postmodern” response worthy of artistic treatment. And, please, let’s omit any discussion of “postmodern,” which is to me one of the most loathsome labels of all.) Today, a lack of angst is usually given a minus sign. Nothing offends some more than optimism or sincerity. It also seems it is now considered inappropriate or at best irrelevant in some quarters to write a piece for its own, abstract, sake. Music must have an extra-musical, often political, context otherwise much of the press does not know how to write about what they’ve heard. Indeed, some lack the analytical vocabulary and skills that would allow them to do so. But, after all, musical analysis does not sell copies of newspapers. Headlines do. Over-simplifications do. Stereotypes do. Back to the labels.

If forced to describe my own music as “neo”-something, I would (albeit reluctantly) have to say “neo-classical.” My compositional concerns have always been primarily about formal balance and organic unity. To me “romanticism” often implies a tip in the scales favoring subjectivity over objectivity, something that does not interest me very much as far as my own work goes. (And I do realize that this last statement is a whopping over-generalization of a kind that any discussion like this inevitably spawns. However, I allow myself the indulgence because I am trying to put into words merely what the label evokes to me and not aiming at its precise definition, of which there is none.)

As a developing composer in my early teens, my then-living heroes and perhaps biggest influences were Shostakovich and Britten, two composers I consider to be very “un-romantic.” Following their deaths in the late ’70s, I was already fairly well set in my own stylistic direction, and no other living composers came to unseat them in my personal pantheon. It would be for a generation younger than mine to worship the generation before mine, and set them up as their living idols. My compositional style has not really changed much since my student days, hopefully gotten more skillful and sophisticated, perhaps bringing in more and more varied elements, but I have never changed the basic way I approach writing music. And that approach has always started with tonality as its foundation. When I began studying as a youngster at Juilliard, one was definitely NOT supposed to write tonal music. The pressure against doing so was enormous, and I felt it from both teachers and peers. (There were exceptions, of course.) I remember, in the early ’80s, one teacher pointing to a passage of triads in my First Symphony saying “You CAN’T write that—the critics will crucify you!” How ironic, then, to be accused by one critic—on the occasion of the premiere of my 2nd Piano Concerto in 1992—of having “jumped on the bandwagon” of tonality, as if it were some kind of sudden, premeditated and scheming move aimed at guaranteeing an instant career. In fact, the style I was writing in pretty much insured me of NOT being performed by most of the few organizations that were receptive to new music (and this has not changed much, either.)

The attacks along the way have been at times vicious, and I could not have continued writing music without great personal conviction in what I was doing. However, I am not interested in proselytizing for or against any style or technique of composing: I simply write, out of purely selfish motives, music that I would want to listen to. I know of no other or more sincere way to approach it. I am thrilled when people appreciate my music, and disappointed when they don’t. But I don’t ever allow that to influence the way I write. Whatever kind of music one writes, there will be those who love it and others who hate it by its very nature.

For a long time there has been a continuum of composers writing tonal music, and I don’t see that going away any time soon. But it is not the only way to write music. I am heartened when I teach a master class at a college or university and see that many younger composers no longer feel that they are “supposed” to write in one style or another. They feel the freedom to try different techniques in the process of discovering what their inner voice is. And, indeed, a lot of these composers are embracing tonality. But I do think the climate is a little bit easier for them: there is less of a pressure to write in an officially sanctioned manner as there was when I was a student. That “manner” consisted then in, above all, avoiding undisguised tonality.

The problems young composers have to face today are far more fundamentally worrisome than stylistic ones, to the point that I am impatient with discussions like the one I find myself typing now. The real worries have to do with things like shrinking audiences and the resultant “dumbing down” that is widely engaged in by our cultural institutions; the whole pathetic business side of things; widespread lack of concern about, or rather, the organized campaign against, arts funding and education; etc. I have heard recently from more than one of my composer colleagues the disturbing sentiment that “It just doesn’t matter any more.” It is a time of crisis in our culture, and any mean-spirited attack that makes a potential audience member think: “I shouldn’t be enjoying this” or discourages an artist from trying to create is, to my mind, a destructive one. I am not advocating a suspension of critical faculties. But the fostering of a more responsible and encouraging press would definitely help things.

I recently attended a panel during which one of its members launched into a rather senile-sounding tirade against “all these young composers writing all this ‘neo-romantic’ music. And it’s all so boring.” His statement was a blatant instance of stylistic prejudice and stereotyping, just as silly as it would have been to dismiss all atonal music or all minimalist music, or all music of any kind. There is good and bad music of all kinds being written at all times, and the musical fascists that would impose their own stylistic prejudices on the public are the people who are striking a real blow to the health of our musical culture.

[Ed. Note: Koch International Classics will release two new CDs of chamber music by Lowell Liebermann in September 2003.]