Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Nancy Bloomer Deussen



Nancy Bloomer Deussen
Photo by David Lawrence

I consider myself a composer of the Romantic tradition but I’m not sure about the “neo” since I have been writing essentially in this idiom since I was 18 years old, back in the early 1950s. I may have matured harmonically and acquired new composer skills (counterpoint, orchestration, computer techniques, etc.) but my work has consistently been tonally oriented, melodic, and strongly emotional as well as intellectual. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that for me emotion can best be expressed through melody as it is upon my melodic ideas that the entire development and harmonic basis for a work rest.

Since we older tonal composers were buried for some 40 years and have only recently re-emerged it would be appropriate then to say, that I am a NEO-romantic composer.

As an older composer who has lived through many aesthetic changes in the world of concert music, I feel uniquely qualified to answer whether or not classical composers are returning to tonality and the use of melody. In a word “yes,” but with reservations. I might add, before I proceed, that I have been a tonalist from the beginning of my career and remain so to this day despite incredible pressure from peers, critics, and other composers to do otherwise. My belief is that one must compose with complete honesty and from the heart regardless of what idiom may or may not be “in.”

Following along my path first as a student composer, then a young adult composer and now a mature composer my experiences are as follows… When I was in an eastern conservatory in the early ’50s, the Bartók String Quartets were the model followed closely by serialism. However, outside the university there still existed strong tonal/melodic voices such as Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Gian-Carlo Menotti, and Aaron Copland who were accepted by the mainstream and music critics alike. From the early ’50s on I saw a gradual change so that by the early ’60s the model of education in conservatories for young composers had changed to almost 100% atonalism and the idea that if the work wasn’t completely “new with no references to the past” then it had no merit. Along with the music education came the critics who now rarely gave a favorable review to any tonal/melodic work. For those of us who were tonal composers this was a dark period which lasted almost 40 years. We were rarely performed, received few grants, were not admitted to music conservatories, and if we were performed we received scathing reviews and in general were rejected and the object of ridicule by most peers and critics. The only area where tonal, melodic music persisted during these years was in film music, which is why the new tonal, melodic music is now often compared to film music. Throughout all of this period, the audience became increasingly disenchanted with what was occurring in contemporary music causing many to cancel orchestra subscriptions and retreat to their own recordings.

As recently as the late ’80s this situation still seemed to exist judging by the composer symposiums I attended as well as numerous concerts of contemporary music. However, against all odds, in the background (or one might call it the underground) there existed a number of young composers as well as older ones like myself, who embraced tonality and traditional forms and melody as essential ingredients in any composition. The major breakthrough occurred when minimalism was introduced and although in its infancy it was formless and lacked any important melodic material it was based on consonant harmonic structures, and after years of intractable contemporary music the audience heaved a sigh of relief and spontaneously embraced it. Since the early ’90s the return of tonality has proceeded unabated. Many conservatories are still teaching the 12-tone technique as well as experimental “sound paintings” but outside of the university, tonalism is on the march and tonal composers have united in a number of organizations (ie: Derriere Guard, Positive Music Group). Orchestras are “taking a chance” on new tonal compositions since some music critics are also “taking a chance” and actually giving good reviews to new tonal compositions. The last to emerge anew in the new tonality I feel is melody since in composing a straight forward seamless melody a composer leaves him/herself open to the most vitriolic of criticism as we are only working after all with 12 semitones and being completely original melodically is almost impossible. Also, as is readily known, few can compose a good melody as it is perhaps the most difficult of all to do.

All of this movement towards tonality, I feel, is a natural progression or cycle in art itself where one sees the other arts also becoming more representational using more traditional forms and that is as it always has been. An action followed by a reaction from one century to the next and that is what keeps art alive.