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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott


In today’s post we’re going to explore one of those notoriously vague musical terms which gets bandied about from time to time. The term is neo-classicism and in one sense it’s a terribly inaccurate term, but it’s used to cover a lot of really interesting music. Let’s see what sense we can make of it.

In its usual sense as far as music is concerned, neo-classicism refers to a movement more or less between the two world wars in which composers made reference to music of the past in their works. More specifically, this reference is to styles or forms or devices used in what we now call the Baroque and Classical periods - the 18th century, in other words. Rather confusingly, neo-classicism is also used in other arts like painting and drama to refer to revivals of aspects of Greek and Roman classicism, but in music this isn’t applicable.

In some way or another, composers from every age have made reference to aspects of music from the past. Mozart used the style of Bach and Handel in works like the "Great" Mass in C minor, and Beethoven consciously sought to use Handel’s French overture style in his overture The Consecration of the House. In the later 19th century, Tchaikovsky invoked the spirit of his idol Mozart in one of his orchestral suites and, more famously, in the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880.

Four years later, Grieg wrote his Holberg Suite, originally for piano but also transcribed for string orchestra. This was written to commemorate the bicentenary of the famous Danish dramatist Ludvig Holberg. In paying homage to the “Molière of the North”, Greig evoked his period by using dance forms known from the Baroque suite. The Rigaudon at the end even evokes the Baroque concerto grosso with solo parts contrasted with the full body of strings. [listen]

Statue of Ludvig Holbein in Bergen, Norway

The later 19th century saw in creased interest in music of the past as a lot of music from earlier ages was published for the first time. The complete works of Bach and Mozart appeared in monumental editions, as did collections of music from even earlier ages. Brahms studied the music of composers like Heinrich Schütz, for example, and this led his to create his own choral works which are clearly inspired by the late 17th century German style. This is Brahms’ ravishing motet Ich aber bin elend, composed in 1889, five years after Greig’s suite. [listen]

Johannes Brahms

These nods to the past from Romantic composers could very well be called neo-classical in the broader musical use of the term. However we normally think of neo-classicism as being a 20th century movement in music, and the name which above all others is thought of in this context is that of Stravinsky. Igor Stravinsky’s stylistic life fell into roughly three periods. After initial studies with Rimsky-Korsakov and the production of Romantic-sounding works (like the early Symphony no 1 in E flat) he came into his own with the first period which we might call his “modernist” period. This period includes the three great early ballets which culminated in The Rite of Spring in 1913, but by the early 1920s Stravinsky was looking backwards in time for fresh inspiration.

Stravinsky encountered admiration and ridicule in equal measure as a result of his taking on the mantle of neo-classicism. Some regarded it as a brilliant foil to his own modernist works, and to the atonal world of Schoenberg and his disciples. Others (mainly Schoenberg and his disciples) regarded it as a total cop-out, an inability to develop, a stunted growth as a composer. Stravinsky composed largely in some sort of neo-classical context for about three decades, until he shocked the musical world again by taking on Schoenberg’s own serial style of composition and making it his own.

Perhaps the first neo-classical Stravinsky work was the ballet Pulcinella, composed in 1923. He took as his starting point music which was believed to have been composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who lived in Naples in the early 18th century. (It’s since been shown that more than half the music isn’t by Pergolesi at all, but by 18th century contemporaries of his.) [listen]

Igor Stravinsky (1920s)

Scored for chamber orchestra and three singers (the singers are omitted in the suite drawn from the complete ballet, linked above), Pulcinella invokes the harlequined Punch and Judy world of the Italian commedia dell’arte, and it caused a sensation when it appeared. Here was the composer of The Rite of Spring imitating - and reinterpreting - music of a bygone age. For our purposes it’s an excellent introduction to Stravinskian neo-classicism. These aren’t just arrangements, they are Stravinsky’s own “take” on the 18th century; he uses so-called “wrong notes”, uneven phase lengths and occasionally disjointed rhythms - all parts of his own style - to look at this music through his own peculiar lenses.

So many of Stravinsky’s works of the 20s, 30s and 40s can be described as neo-classical, although none really lose his ability to “bite”. While we use the term “classical” to mean music of the later 18th century, it’s true to say that most 20th century neo-classicism - in the music of Stravinsky and others - is really making reference to Baroque music. The catch cry of the movement was “Back to Bach”, and there’s more Bach in neo-classicism than, say, Mozart. Composed in 1930, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms has at the start of its second movement an instrumental fugue of almost stony-faced austerity. This fugue continues once the choir enters with a fugue of its own. The neo-classical movement reignited an interest in the form in which JS Bach excelled - fugue - and Stravinsky’s take on it is simultaneously cold and beautiful, like polished marble. [listen]

Stravinsky’s most famous neo-classical work of the 1940s is the Concerto in E flat, known as the Dumbarton Oaks concerto after the name of the house of the patron who commissioned it, and in which it was first performed. The composer himself invoked JS Bach when he referred to the work as a concerto in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos. There’s no mistaking the connection with the third Brandenburg Concerto, in particular. Even the initial melody bears a striking resemblance to Bach’s.

Dumbarton Oaks, Georgetown DC

Stravinsky’s scoring reminds us of the third Brandenburg as well. Bach’s work uses eleven solo instruments - 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, a double bass and a continuo instrument - in ever-changing combinations to create solo and tutti divisions. Stravinsky’s work is also scored for an orchestra of soloists, in this case fifteen - flute, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos and two double basses. These also work individually and as a tutti group, and not long into this recording there’s even a fugue. The Bach estate should have got royalties from this! [listen]

The work which brought Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase to an end was his opera The Rake’s Progress, composed in the last 40s and early 50s, completed in April 1951. Immediately after writing the opera he wrote the Cantata on old English texts, a work which while it has elements of neo-classicism, shows Stravinsky clearly looking in the direction of serialism.

A scene from The Rake's Progress

The Rake’s Progress sets and 18th century story, based on 18th century paintings, and it uses exactly the same sized orchestra Mozart used in The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. The conventions of Italian opera of Mozart’s period are observed, with the musical numbers separated by recitatives which are accompanied by keyboard. [listen]

Stravinsky is the most obvious example of 20th century neo-classicism but by no means the only one. Even Schoenberg, the figurehead of the other great strand of 20th century composition, the atonal/serial side, can be seen to have been influenced by Bach in aspects of his music. However it was in France that neo-classical approaches to composition were perhaps most popular, and it’s worth remembering that despite his Russian birth, Stravinsky was a French citizen from 1934 (having lived in France since 1920) until he took up American citizenship in 1945.

Francis Poulenc wrote many works which seem to look back to the past for inspiration on some level or another, one of which is the ballet Les Biches, composed for Diaghilev around the same time as Stravinsky wrote Pulcinella. Poulenc regarded the work as being in the 18th century “fête galantes” mode, inspired by the elegant Rococo paintings of Watteau. The ballet has almost no plot: a group of 16 idle women are lounging in a salon, when three athletic men enter. They dance in varying combinations with lots of flirting going on. Poulenc’s score, unlike that of Pulcinella, uses no actual 18th century music as its starting point. Rather the music is constructed using clichés of the period, all dressed up in delightful French frippery. [listen]

Francis Poulenc

Some years earlier, the elder statesman of French frippery, Erik Satie, wrote his three-movement Bureaucratic Sonata, which at around four minutes is one of his longer piano works. This draws its inspiration from the later Classical period, rather than from the Baroque, being a parody of a piano sonata by Clementi. Written in 1917, this tells a story which only Satie could have invented. It’s apparently about an office worker who dreams of promotion and hums “an old Peruvian air which he collected from a deaf-mute in Lower Brittany”. The recording linked here has the score in the video, on which the stages of the story can be read. [listen]

Erik Satie

When one of his ballets was described as having a “new spirit” Satie quite tellingly responded by saying, “For me, the new spirit is above all a return to classical form - with modern sensibility”. This perhaps more than any other single statement summarises the essence of neo-classicism, something which Maurice Ravel wonderfully displayed on occasion. The French tradition of earlier times of commemorating the memory of a dead composer by writing pieces in a collection called a tombeau was taken up by Ravel around the time of the first world war. Intended as a homage to French music of the 18th century, Le tombeau de Couperin invokes the name of the great dynasty of French composers from the 17th and 18th centuries. Ravel wrote the work originally for piano, with each of the six movements dedicated to a friend who had died in the Great War. Ravel then orchestrated four of these to make the orchestral version heard in concerts today. Like Grieg’s Holberg homage, Ravel’s suite uses early dance forms such as the minuet, forlane and this, the concluding rigaudon. [listen]

Maurice Ravel

Some decades later, in 1944, Darius Milhaud wrote two viola sonatas, the first of which is unashamedly neo-classical. The score says that the work is based on “unpublished and anonymous themes of the 18th century”. I always thought this was a joke, with Milhaud inventing his themes, but Grove Online claims that some of the raw material was actually composed by the little-known 18th century French composer Baptiste Anet. In any case, the four movements of the sonata follow the four movement structure of the Baroque sonata - slow-fast-slow-fast - and the whole mood is definitely a parody of the music of that period. This work is a special favourite of mine as I played it a lot in my former life as a violist. (The linked video also has the score.) [listen]

Daruis Milhaud

Another composer who often composed in a neo-classical vein was the German composer Paul Hindemith. In his sonata for alto horn and piano (nowadays usually played on the regular French horn) the same four movement structure is used which Milhaud used in the first viola sonata. The musical content is less of an early music pastiche, but there are elements of the baroque style still there, such as ending with a finale in compound or triple time. Hindemith does both! [listen]

Pau Hindemith (1923)

One of the great homages to Bach, and in particular to his Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Keyboard, came in 1950 and 51 at the hands of Dmitri Shostakovich. Upon re-discovering Bach’s monumental collection, and upon hearing them played by the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva, Shostakovich wrote 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano which, like each of Bach’s volumes, cover all the major and minor keys. This is intensely private, intimate music where the shadow of Bach is ever-present but never obliterating Shostakovich’s muse. This is the D major Fugue, played by Nikolaeva. [listen]

Dmitri Shostakovich
Tatiana Nikolaeva

Apart from Shostakovich, this post has mentioned two other Russian-born composers, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, and I want to end with another, Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev also dabbled in neo-classicism from time to time, and on no more famous occasion than when he wrote his first symphony. Writing a symphony that he imagined Haydn would write were he alive at the time, Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony of 1917 is perhaps a perfect synthesis of old and new: crystal clear structures within conventional tonality, yet with wonderfully unexpected turns of harmony and phrasing. [listen]

Sergei Prokofiev (c. 1918)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2006.

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