April 10, 2010
As a person who specialized in twentieth century music, I can say with all sincerity that neoclassicism was a necessary breath of fresh air in the grand scheme of history. The nineteenth century had been rushing along, with music ever more expressive, ever more unpredictable. Beethoven’s dissonances in the Third Symphony from 1804 were like a loose thread in a sweater: Beethoven tugged, and little by little, the sweater started to unravel. The rubber band of tonality became stretched further and further until it finally snapped in the twentieth century, bringing the dissonance of atonality. And just when chaos appeared to reign supreme, neoclassicism was born, bringing with it come sort of order. Whew!
The term “neoclassicism” suggests a revival of old styles, a look backward to see what knowledge and wisdom we can mine from the past. Neoclassicism in architecture, for example, draws upon many physical features found in ancient Greek and Roman buildings. The exterior of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., a fine exemplar of this neoclassical style, suggests a Greek temple with its many Doric columns. Neoclassicism in music, however, may not be as easy to observe. It is not a singular style with a prescribed set of procedures, but instead encompasses any number of stylistic processes and allows for varying degrees of interaction with older traditions. One neoclassical composer can pay homage to earlier styles by subtly mimicking those styles, while another might rework and incorporate actual pre-existent music into a more modern sonic milieu. A work may even be classified as neoclassical—even if it sounds nothing like a Baroque or Classical piece—if it follows some formula or process popular in earlier times, like sonata form, for example.
We associate the label neoclassical with music written between the two World Wars, and in fact, it coincides with a general revival of rational, less fanciful styles. In this way, it seems to be a reaction to the First World War, which must have left everyone feeling, well, less than fanciful. And indeed, neoclassicism didn’t spring from the ashes of the war, fully formed. Some of the first experiments with procedures we associate with neoclassicism began even before the war was over. Erik Satie’s Sonatine Bureaucratique (1917) is considered one of the first pieces to explore neoclassical terrain because the work is a parody of a sonata by Classical composer, Muzio Clementi. Another early neoclassical attempt was Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (1917), although Prokofiev spoke of the work as a one-time experiment rather than an indicator of a new stylistic direction. He described it as a piece Haydn would have written had the Classical legend lived to see the twentieth century.
Igor Stravinsky was one of neoclassicism’s leading proponents, and the style is associated with his middle period (1920-1951). For Stravinsky, neoclassicism began with Pulcinella (1920), a ballet that drew upon musical themes of early Classical composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (the music was later proven to have been written by a number of different composers) and Commedia dell’arte characters. Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned the work from Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes, the same company that premiered his Firebird and Rite of Spring, was the one who suggested the music of Pergolesi to Stravinsky. It was an interesting thing to see the work of old masters in the hands of such a modern, forward-thinking firebrand. Stravinsky himself understood the importance of what had happened when he brought old and new together. The composer famously said, “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which all of my late work became possible.”
To Stravinsky, neoclassicism was the way into his own future. To other composers, it was an opportunity to let go of hyperemotional, overwrought tendencies and really get back to basics. For humanity in the chaos left by the First World War, unknowing of the horrors to come two decades later in the Second, it was a way to stop time for a moment. If only they could have stayed there forever, suspended in that delightful mixture of old and new, but time marched—and marches—on.