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Classical antiquity
Renaissance Classicism
Age of Enlightenment Classicism
Classicism between the Wars

Neoclassicism in music was a 20th century development, particularly popular in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers drew inspiration from music of the 18th century, though some of the inspiring canon was drawn as much from the Baroque period as the Classical period - for this reason, music which draws influence specifically from the Baroque is sometimes termed neo-baroque.


Artistic description

Neo-classicism was born at the same time as the general return to rational models in the arts in response to World War I. Smaller, more spare, more orderly was conceived of as the response to the overwrought emotionalism which many felt had herded people into the trenches. Since economics also favored smaller ensembles, the search for doing "more with less" took on a practical imperative as well.

Neoclassicism can be seen as a reaction against the prevailing trend of 19th century Romanticism to sacrifice internal balance and order in favour of more overtly emotional writing. Neoclassicism makes a return to balanced forms and often emotional restraint, as well as 18th century compositional processes and techniques. However, in the use of modern instrumental resources such as the full orchestra, which had greatly expanded since the 18th century, and advanced harmony, neoclassical works are distinctly 20th century.

It is not that interest in 18th century music wasn't fairly well sustained through the 19th, with pieces such as Franz Liszt's Ŕ la Chapelle Sixtine (1862), Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite (1884), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's divertissement from The Queen of Spades (1890), and Max Reger's Concerto in the Old Style (1912), "dressed up their music in old clothes in order to create a smiling or pensive evocation of the past." (Albright, 2004). It was that the 20th century had a different view of 18th century norms and forms, instead of being an immediately antique style contrasted against the present, 20th century neo-classicism focused on the 18th century as a period which had virtues which were lacking in their own time.

Musical description

Neo-classicism (in music) is a return to a revived "common practice" harmony, mixed with greater dissonance and rhythm, as the basic point of departure for music.

Neo-classicism's most audible traits are melodies which use the tritone as a stable interval, and coloristically add dissonant notes to ostinati and block harmonies, along with the free mixture of polyrhythms. Neo-classicism won greater audience acceptance more quickly, and was taken to heart by those opposed to atonality as the true "modern" music. Neo-classicism also embraced the use of folk musics to give greater rhythmic and harmonic variety. Modernists such as the Hungarians Béla Bartók and Romantically inclined Zoltán Kodály and the Czech Leoš Janáček collected and studied their native folk musics which then influenced their compositions.

People and works

Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev and Béla Bartók are usually listed as the most important composers in this mode, but also the prolific Darius Milhaud and his contemporary Francis Poulenc.

Neoclassicism was instigated by Igor Stravinsky, according to himself, but attributed by others to composers including Ferruccio Busoni (who wrote "Junge Klassizität" or "New Classicality" in 1920), Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, and others.

Igor Stravinsky composed some of the best known neoclassical works — in his ballet Pulcinella, for example, he used themes which he believed to be by Giovanni Pergolesi (it later transpired that many of them were not, though they were by contemporaries). Paul Hindemith was another neoclassicist (and New Objectivist), as was Bohuslav Martinů, who revived the Baroque concerto grosso form in his works.

Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat is thought of as a seminal "neo-classical piece", as are his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and his "Symphonies of Wind Instruments", as well as his Symphony in C. Stravinsky's neo-classicism culminated with his opera Rake's Progress, with the book done by the well known modernist poet, W. H. Auden.

Stravinsky's rival for a time in neo-classicism was the German Paul Hindemith, who mixed spiky dissonance, polyphony and free ranging chromaticism into a style which was "useful". He produced both chamber works and orchestral works in this style, perhaps most famously "Mathis der Maler". His chamber output includes his Sonata for French Horn, an expressionistic work filled with dark detail and internal connections.

Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (1917), which remains one of his most popular works, is generally considered to be the composition that first brought this renewed interest in the classical music era in audible form to a wide public.

Busoni wrote in a letter to Paul Bekker, "By 'Young Classicalism' I mean the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong and beautiful forms." (p.20) Roman Vlad has constrasted the "classicism" of Stravinsky, external forms and patterns used in works, with the "classicality" of Busoni, internal disposition and attitude of the artist towards works (Samson 1977).

Neo-classicism found a welcome audience in America, the school of Nadia Boulanger promulgated ideas about music based on their understanding of Stravinsky's music. Students of theirs include neo-classicists Elliott Carter (in his early years), Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Astor Piazzolla and Virgil Thomson.

See also


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.
  • Samson, Jim (1977). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393021939.
  • Busoni; trans. Roasamond Ley (1957). The Essence of Music and Other Papers. London.
  • Stravinsky, Igor The Poetics of Music

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