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State of Scholarly Research on

eoclassicism in Music
2006 by Helen Kin Hoi Wong

In searching for a definition of Neoclassicism in music, one is struck by the lack of


consistency in terms of its set of defining features, the choice of Neoclassical repertoire and
composers offered by writers of historical surveys of Western Music. While a broad definition
like the one offered in the ew Grove Dictionary typifies where writers' agreement ends, no
two historians seem to agree which composers should be included in the list of
Neoclassicists.1 Apart from Stravinsky who had explicitly associated himself with this term
and identified himself as one of the movement's advocates, nearly every composer who was
writing during the interwar period has shared the same fate of being portrayed in one history
textbook as Neoclassicist while excluded in another.2 The inconsistency of the term's general
usage was a result of its "rootlessness'. Unlike its counterpart in Western Art and Literature
where it is widely understood as the 18th century revival of the Classical Antiquity in Arts of
ancient Greece and Rome, the term Neoclassicism in music was borrowed and used literally
without carrying its original meaning. It is also because of the term's ambiguities that it opens
a variety of research possibilities, inviting scholarly interpretations of its meaning from a
variety of standpoints. In this essay, I will examine the current state of scholarship on

According to the ew Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the term Neoclassicism is broadly defined as
"A movement of style in the works of certain 20th-century composers, who, particularly during the period
between the two world wars, revived the balanced forms and clearly perceptible thematic processes of earlier
styles to replace what were, to them, the increasingly exaggerated gestures and formlessness of late
Romanticism." Arnold Whittall, "Neo-classicism," in The ew Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. L. Macy
(Accessed 10 Dec 2005), <http://www.grovemusic.com>.
2
The statistics obtained by Martha M. Hyde in her article "Neoclassic and Anachronistic Impulses in
Twentieth-Century Music" best serve to illustrate this phenomenon: -Bryan Simms in his recent survey lists the
principal neoclassicists as Stravinsky, Poulenc, Hilhaud, Honnegger, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, and Tippett.
Robert Morgan omits Strauss, but adds Bartok, Ravel (in his later music), and Schoenberg (in his twelve-tone
music). William Austin's even more extensive list includes, among others, Debussy, Reger, and Prokofiev.Martha M. Hyde, "Neoclassic and Anachronistic Impulses in Twentieth-Century Music," Music Theory Spectrum
18, no. 2 (Autumn 1996): 200-35.
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Neoclassicism in music by presenting six representative works of different research


orientation. All these works represent a variety of research directions and enable us to a more
multifaceted understanding of the term's meanings.

The first extensive research devoted to this topic is Scott Messing's eoclassicism in Music:
from the Genesis of the Concept Through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic. It first appeared
as a dissertation in 1988 before its book publication in 1996.3 Using a historical research
method, Messing unearthed scattered references from the end of 19th century through the
early 1920s, such as newspapers, magazine, reviews by critics, and correspondences of
musicians, etc. His aim is to provide a historical survey and critical analysis of the origins and
development of the term Neoclassicism: how this term first came to be used, what was its
meaning to its contemporaries and how has its meaning changed over time. In tracing the
historical accounts of the usage of the term, Messing finds that the term carried different
meanings at different times, and the ambiguity of its meaning was a result of national
prejudices (the term Neoclassicism was originally used by the French to criticize 19th-century
German composers who manipulated 18th century instrumental styles at the expense of their
originality), the aesthetic change caused by the disillusion following World War 1, and
political torsion among composers striving to create a space for themselves in the
overpopulated state of the repertoire, as represented by the polemics of Stravinsky and
Schoenberg. His research has demonstrated that musical style is largely shaped by cultural
ideas. By reconstructing the history of cultural politics surrounding the term Neoclassicism,
Messing's work serves to provide a foundation stone on which stylistic problems and aesthetic
issues can be further explored.

Scott Messing, eoclassicism in Music: From the Genesis of the Concept Through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky
Polemic (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1996).
2

In his book review of Messing's eoclassicism in Music, Richard Taruskin analyzes the term's
meaning from a sociomusicological perspective.4 By taking account of the socio-political
elements involved in interpreting the music, Taruskin tries to ask questions about "what"
Neoclassicism is: "So what was it, hardboiled modernism or futile nostalgia? Can we define it,
or can we only "know it when we see it"? What was its relationship to its own contemporary
world, on the one hand, and to the world of the past, on the other? What did it mean to its
contemporaries, and what should it mean to us? Should we call it a musical style at all? A
concept? A practice?"5 Taruskin adopted Messing's use of critical responses to Stravinsky's
works as well as the composers own prose during the period 1914-23, to determine the link
between that composer's musical style and the aesthetic which attempted to define that style.
Taruskin believes that public discourse played a large role in determining the Neoclassical
style of music. For example, Taruskin argues that Stravinsky sees the word "Neoclassicism" a
useful sign for his publicity, and when the term was first used by his supporters, it was used to
contrast with Schoenberg's music which was criticized as "Tristanesque and romantic."6 In
order to maintain the popularity of his music Stravinsky further composed in this style. So it
was the public discourse which turned him into a Neoclassicist. Therefore, Taruskin argues
that it is not just the surface features of a work or the genre which define a work as
neoclassical, but the ideological motivation of the person who creates the work, and a
Neoclassical work is a product of the socialization of the composer in that particular place and
time of history. And moreover he equates the conception of Neoclassicism produced by some
historians with the idea of producing authentic music, recreating the past with modern ideas.

Seeing Neoclassical works only as products of the twentieth century, Joseph Straus attempts
4

Richard Taruskin, "Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology," review of eoclassicism in Music: From the
Genesis of the Concept Through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic, by Scott Messing, 19th-Century Music 16,
no. 3 (Spring 1993): 286-302.
5
Ibid., 287.
6
Ibid., 289.
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to explore the relationship of these works with the musical past. In his book Remaking the
Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition, Straus provides a study of
musical construction of early 20th century, to identify strategies composers employed in order
to come to terms with earlier music.7 Straus added to his theoretical and analytical method a
psychologically oriented perspective. His analytical framework is based on a theory of poetic
influence by literary critic Harold Bloom, as published in his two books titled The Anxiety of
Influence (1973) and A Map of Misreading (1975).8 Bloom's theory of poetic influence
proposes that major poets struggle against the suffocating weight of their predecessors,
creating new poems by 'misreading' older ones through a complex series of rhetorical defense
mechanisms. Adopting Bloom's theory, Straus argues that the classical tradition burdens
modern composers with a sense of anxiety and belatedness, and neoclassical works are a
manifestation of their struggle for priority between new and old elements, and compositional
procedures used in Neoclassical music are a means of pushing their predecessors aside and
clearing creative space for themselves. While being labeled a post-Freudian theory of
compositional influence", Strauss theory is not without weaknesses.9 By adopting Harold
Bloom's standpoint in looking at musical creation (i.e. by assuming that a musical work only
exists in relation to other musical works), Straus is ignoring the intrinsic difference between
poetry and music, and is denying both the autonomous aspects and creative aspects of a
composition. By interpreting composers' choice of musical language as an act of defense
aroused by their anxiety of influence, Straus is also undermining the individuality and
originality of composer's musical thinking, which are more vital to their artistic achievements.
It is as if Straus was telling us that one composer can only succeed by canceling the influences

Joseph Straus, Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1990).
8
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), and
Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
9
Robert Balchin, "Musicology, 11, 2: Disciplines of Musicology: Theoretical and Analytical Method,' in The
ew Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 10 Dec 2005), <http://www.grovemusic.com>.
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of the other. Despite the weaknesses that lie in Straus' basic assumptions, his comprehensive
musical analysis does offer an alternative and imaginative interpretation of Neoclassical
music from the perspective of composers themselves in terms of their relationship with the
musical past.

First presented in the joint conference of the American Musicological and Theory Societies
titled "Historical Reflection and Reference in 20th century Music: Reflection and Beyond,"
Marianne Kielian-Gilbert's article -Stravinsky's Contrasts: Contradiction and Discontinuity in
his Neoclassical Music" offers a psychological interpretation of Neoclassical music.10 In
Neoclassical music Kielian-Gilbert sees that composers highlighted in their neoclassic works
aspects which were historically linked to the music of the past but aesthetically linked to
music of the present, resulting in what she calls "historically charged musical contrasts". She
sees that the degree to which these charged contrasts vary shows parallels to the dynamics in
human relationships. Kielian-Gilbert defines a spectrum of five stages ranging from autonomy
and separateness on one end, to intimacy and integration on the other. With this model she
tries to explore the different degrees or dynamics of these contrasts in Neoclassical music. Her
finding is that these contrasts were set up (i.e. how composers deal with old musical elements
in a new setting) in a very individual or personal manner. This individual handling of the old
materials is a reflection of composer's relationship to the past. Her essay provides a deeper
biographical understanding of composers through the structure of the their neoclassical works.

In her essay "Neoclassic and Anachronistic Impulses in Twentieth-Century Music," Martha M.


Hyde tries to establish a theory of Neoclassicism while taking into account some of the

10

Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, "Stravinsky's Contrasts: Contradiction and Discontinuity in his Neoclassical


Music," Journal of Musicology 9, no. 4 (Autumn 1991): 448-80.
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extramusical issues raised by the recent scholarship I mentioned earlier.11 Using an inductive
method (i.e. using results from well-established analyses of well-known neoclassical works
by other theorists to arrive at a general conclusion), she tries to illustrate four strategies by
which 20th-century composers created works that engaged or reconstruct the past, while
maintaining their personal styles. She identifies two criteria for a work to be called Neoclassic:
it first must fulfill the criteria of a "classic" - a work or style that is significant enough to
outlived its creator and be served as a model to later composers, The second criteria is that the
compositional approach must involve linking different period styles together. She described
this contradiction of styles as anachronism. Hyde adopts Straus' theory of anxiety of musical
influence to explain it as one driving force behind a composer's anachronistic impulses, and
that the compositional approach is to recover or revive a past model. Her research offers a
new way of defining Neoclassicism that shows an integration of music theory and new
musicology.

Having written many essays arguing for a formalistic approach to understanding music, Pieter
Van den Toorn realizes an ideal, analytical model of Neoclassical music in his essay
"Neoclassicism and Its Definition" (a chapter contributed in the book Music Theory in
Concept and Practice.)12 While opposing to Taruskin's approach in interpreting Neoclassical
music by focusing on its ideological aspects, Van den Toorn argues that musical analysis
should be the true focus of musical study, rather than more broadly critical approaches that
assume socio-politcal and humanistic perspectives. He argues that the knowledge generated
by formal and technical approaches will provide listeners greater freedom in terms of
individual response to musical works since they are free of any socio-political constraints. To
11

Martha M. Hyde, "Neoclassic and Anachronistic Impulses in Twentieth-Century Music," Music Theory
Spectrum 19, no. 2 (Autumn 1996): 200-35.
12
Pieter C. Van den Toorn, "Neoclassicism and Its Definition," in Music Theory in Concept and Practice, ed.
James M. Baker, David W. Beach and Jonathan W. Bernard, 131-56 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press
1997).
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demonstrate how this mode of understanding neoclassical works can be achieved, he


identifies features which belong to the common practice period and how they are assimilated
within the post-tonal context, using the frameworks of Schenkerian, set, and octatonic theory.
In his conclusion, he has singled out Neoclassical music as the one which analysis serves
partially to its full understanding because of its socio-political nature. But he maintains that
this subject should not be looked at without an application of formalistic analysis.

Given the diversity of interpretations of the term Neoclassicism, it is perhaps impossible to


summarize the above findings into a body of knowledge that leads to the configuration or
revelation of the term's true meaning. The true meaning perhaps never exists. But in the
course of understanding the term from different scholarly perspectives, one can see that
Neoclassical music, just like any other music, is born of human's desire to express through
available means. Neoclassicism as a means of expression is both fulfilling and effective as it
not only links composers' creative ideas with their inspirational sources, it also communicates
with the listeners in familiar language. Just like the music, Neoclassicism as a term will
continue to attract more scholarly interests, searching for its available meanings.

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