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The American neoclassical composers wrote music of sanity and logic and civility, music that is modern yet built on tradition. Their music is timeless and universal. Listening to it, one is transported to a bygone era in American culture, and indeed in the culture of the West…

pistonThe tyranny of fashion weighs heavily on the classical music world—especially so when it comes to American music. Only a small fraction of the American concert repertoire is regularly performed—mainly a handful of popular classics by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Samuel Barber—and many treasures have sunk into neglect. Thus, author R. James Tobin knew that he was doing pioneering work when in 2014 he wrote his book Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint. The book attempts to revive interest in a group of American composers—generally called neoclassicists—which were highly regarded and frequently performed in the mid-twentieth century but have since fallen into eclipse. I am a lifelong lover of classical music and had long enjoyed the neoclassical style in twentieth-century music (more on that shortly), but I was not even aware that there was an “American neoclassical school” until I came across Mr. Tobin’s book—an indication of how far these composers’ star has fallen.

The disappearance of this group of composers from performance and discussion is regrettable, since their music puts the lie to the common misconception that twentieth-century music is all forbidding and cacophonous. The American neoclassicists wrote music of high craft that engages the intellect as well as the emotions and binds together tradition with innovation. In doing so, they added a unique brand of elegance and intellectual sophistication to American artistic culture, as well as a distinctive American contribution to Western music.

Neoclassicism, in European music, arose after World War I as a reaction against the bombast and emotional excess of late Romanticism as well as the chaotic experimentation of the early years of the twentieth century. Igor Stravinsky in France, Paul Hindemith in Germany, and their followers sought to return to the aesthetic precepts and thematic procedures of the pre-Romantic past—to build a new music upon the music of the “classic” eighteenth century. In contrast to Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal school, neoclassicists did not reject tonality; instead they updated and expanded it. Such Stravinsky works as Pulcinella and the Octet for Winds defined the neoclassical sound: a crisply energetic rhythm, a dry wit, a cogent musical logic, and a crystaline transparency of scoring that often emphasized the wry timbre of of the winds.

The neoclassical watchwords were clarity, emotional restraint, and objectivity. This does not imply that neoclassical music was cold or emotionless; on the contrary, it could be deeply felt. But heart-on-sleeve emotion à la Tchaikovsky or Richard Strauss was not a part of this aesthetic. The neoclassical composition was an objective statement, not the composer’s “self-expression”; self-sufficient and self-contained, it said what it had to say in a compact manner with not a wasted note. Irony, humor and charm were important ingredients, as well as a craftsmanship that shaped the composition into a satisfying arc.

As Tobin explains in his book, neoclassicism traveled to the United States via a two-way street, with young American composers traveling to Europe to study—particularly with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger—and with European neoclassicist composers such as Stravinsky and Hindemith taking up residence in the United States around the outbreak of World War II. Boulanger (1887-1979), was one of the greatest music pedagogues of the twentieth century. Her teaching emphasized the importance of craft and discipline in composing, a respect for the past, and a concern for organic unity in a musical work—what she called the grande ligne (“long line”). Her influence on American music—and in particular on the development of an American neoclassical style—was immense. She taught more than six hundred American musicians including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Walter Piston. While not all these composers were neoclassicists in the strict sense, all absorbed the Parisian aesthetic of refinement and rationality that Boulanger imparted.

Actually the Francophile trend in American music had begun earlier, at the turn of the century, when such American composers as Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) flocked to Paris to absorb the Impressionist style of Debussy. (Before this time, it had been the German Romantics to whom American composers had looked for models.) Hill, who taught at Harvard and counted Walter Piston among his students, worked in the pastel shades of Impressionism for some time but lived long enough to adopt the sharper outlines of neoclassicism as well.

Harvard University and the Boston area became a haven for neoclassical music in the years around World War II, thanks to a confluence of factors. Stravinsky gave a series of lectures at Harvard in 1939-40 and Boulanger taught at the Longy School of Music during the war. Boulanger’s former pupil Walter Piston was professor of music at Harvard from 1926 to 1960, influencing generations of musicians. And Serge Koussevitsky, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during its heyday, fervently championed the music of the American neoclassicists—especially Piston’s.

The Maine-born Walter Piston (1894-1976) has been called an “enlightened conservative” and his musical style “conservative modernism.” It’s fortuitous that Piston’s name evokes the precision of well-oiled machines, for he was an expert musical craftsman (and studied engineering early in life). His manuscripts were so precisely and meticulously written that they were sometimes printed as performance scores. Piston’s eight symphonies are masterpieces of American music, and the even-numbered ones are an excellent starting place for anyone exploring his music for the first time. The Second, written in 1943, is often thought of as a “war symphony”; for this listener it conjures up the spirit of the American people during World War II. The Fourth (1950) is a lovely pastoral, evoking the spirit of the New England town and fair; and the Sixth (1956) brings to mind the immensity of sea and mountains.

These descriptions raise the question of the “American sound” in music. To many listeners, the music of the American neoclassicists might sound European as much as American. And indeed, these composers did not feature overt Americanisms in their music in the way Aaron Copland did in such folksy works as Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. They were internationalists, placing their music within a Euro-American cultural continuum. But listen beneath the surface and you will hear a subtle, deep American quality—a dynamic rhythmic energy, an expansiveness and optimism. Despite their status as “pure” or “abstract” music, Piston’s symphonies often call to mind the wide open spaces of the American frontier, the playful tunes of village bands, and New England sea chanties.

Why an American neoclassicism? What was the appeal of the style to the composers of our country? One could cite the perennial desire among American artists for European polish and sophistication; recall the earlier “American Impressionist school” in both art and music, based upon the French model. But beyond this, our composers may have seen in European neoclassicism a style which they could mold to an American context. If every country has its distinctive “classical period” then ours is surely embodied in the colonial and federal eras and the nineteenth-century frontier and small-town life. There is a connection between the eighteenth-century elegance being evoked in neoclassical music and a feeling of the classical American past. Moreover, such characteristics of neoclassical music as clean lines, simplicity, energy, and lack of pretension might be seen as distinctly “American.” Far from being mere imitators of European neoclassicism, Piston and his cohorts created a distinctly American interpretation of the style.

In the 1940s there arose a new generation of American neoclassicist composers, dubbed the Boston Stravinskians. This group of composers (many of whom were Jewish Americans) was centered around Harvard and Brandeis Universities and included among its ranks Arthur Berger, Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, Louise Talma, and Harold Shapero, whose much admired Symphony for Classical Orchestra aimed to update Beethoven’s style for the twentieth century. Most of these composers had studied with Nadia Boulanger and were ardent admirers of Stravinsky.

Among this group, the present writer regards Irving Fine (1914-1962) as the American answer to Mozart for the exquisite polish, elegance and refinement of his music—and the fact that he died at a young age. Fine’s early works of the 1940s (The Choral New Yorker, Toccata Concertante) were explicitly neoclassical and Stravinskian. Later, he introduced neo-Romantic and, finally, twelve-tone elements into his music. His career culminated in his one and only Symphony (1962), which fuses twelve-tone technique with neoclassical clarity. Fine’s early death deprived American music of one of its most personal voices.

Regrettably, just as American neoclassicism was in full flower in the years after World War II, its undoing was already underway. This was an era of musical politics, with composers and critics marshaling themselves into various ideological camps. The partisans of Stravinsky and the partisans of Arnold Schoenberg—the originator of twelve-tone or serial music—formed highly entrenched groups. The twelve-toners cast themselves in the role of the “progressives” and the neoclassicists in the role of retrograde conservatives. Avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez went so far as to declare that composers who did not follow the new trends were “useless.” Such aggressive polemics caused neoclassicism to become increasingly marginalized.

Yet some of the composers discussed in this essay were interested in the possibilities of twelve-tone music, and some had come to feel that neoclassicism had exhausted itself in their work. And so as the 1950s wore on, a number of American neoclassicists arrived at a rapprochement with twelve-tone technique, often using it on a less than strict basis and combining it with neoclassical features. This was particularly true of Arthur Berger and Irving Fine; Harold Shapero, by contrast, was not in sympathy with the new trends and effectively stopped composing for several decades.

Actually, the neoclassicists and the serialists had one great thing in common: a respect for order, method and craft. Where they differed was in the nature of the method. Serialism was a rigorous system in which the twelve notes of the chromatic scale were employed on an equal basis, arranged in series and manipulated in various ways by the composer. This led naturally to atonality, with melodic lines which often leaped around in tortured fashion. Neoclassicism, while it could be angular at times, preserved traditional melodic shapes (the heritage of Boulanger’s grande ligne) and a sense of tonality, thus connecting it with the musical past. (The serialists, too, would have claimed that their method was the natural next step in musical history; this issue requires an essay to itself.)

In time the serialists came to dominate the musical establishment. “Modern music” became synonymous in the public mind with incomprehensible blotches of sound, noise-music judged by how much pain it inflicted on the listener. Finally, in the 1970s, new challenges to the avant-garde came in the form of neo-Romanticism and Minimalism—styles which, in reaction against the arid abstractions of serialism, ran to the other extreme of simplification (or dumbing-down, in the opinion of some). Neoclassicism, being no longer needed, got lost in the shuffle. Its centrist solution to the problem of modern music was forgotten, and a very smart aesthetic and repertoire fell into eclipse.

The eclipse continues to this day. Most books on American music pass over neoclassicism, and the repertoire remains largely unperformed. Many an oversimplified account of twentieth-century music leaves the reader with a one-sided impression of a steady devolution to a state of chaotic noise. The neoclassical tradition is completely glossed over, as if it never existed.

Fortunately, there are institutions dedicated to evangelizing on behalf of this repertoire. Good work is being done by conductor Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra, which several years ago produced an all-Piston concert and in November 2016 will present a concert devoted to the Boston Stravinskians. The Irving Fine Society is devoted to preserving that composer’s memory and sponsoring performances of his music. To date, R. James Tobin’s is the only book-length study of the entire American neoclassical school, and as such it is invaluable. Moreover, recordings of much of the American neoclassical repertoire exist.

The avant-garde composer Elliott Carter said of Walter Piston’s music that it “gives us hope that the qualities of integrity and reason are still with us.” That statement could be applied to all the American neoclassical composers, who wrote music of sanity and logic and civility, music that is modern yet built on tradition, European-based yet distinctly American. Although rooted in a particular historical period and place, this music is timeless and universal. Listening to it, one is transported to a bygone era in American culture, and indeed in the culture of the West.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Because of Robert Reilly’s outstanding book, Surprised by Beauty, I was recently introduced to Robert Simpson as a composer.

    He is absolutely worth investigation/listening and could also be profiled in future articles like this one.

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