Neo-Classicism

By Gutman, David | Gramophone, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Neo-Classicism


Gutman, David, Gramophone


Early last century, post-Romantic music that lent a modern twist to Classical and Baroque styles and forms became described as neo-classical. David Gutman recommends 10 of the best examples of the concept

The 20th century was characterised by a peculiar enthusiasm for conceptual abstractions, some positively dangerous, others merely dignifying an ongoing cultural trend. Neo-classicism, a concept long associated with the reaction against Rococo excess in the visual arts, was initially attached to music by French critics bored with Mendelssohn and Brahms. When the catastrophe of the First World War made symphonic amplitude look irredeemably passe, Stravinsky was the big beneficiary, the first musician to whom the word neo-classique was applied in a non-pejorative sense. Partly through shrewd self-promotion, his decluttered, deracinated post-Pulcinella style came to embody the values of sobriety, objectivity and grace which the French liked to claim as their own. In the opposite camp were those decadently psychological Germans and the dastardly convolutions of post-Wagnerian harmony. Thanks to Nadia Boulanger's influential teaching and the exile of neo-classicism's principal exponents, a mainly Parisian tendency morphed into the muscular mid-century strain of American art music sworn to defend tonality.

Borrowing musically from the past was, in truth, nothing new. What did perhaps set this 'ism' apart was its embrace of incongruity and distortion, stirring up the old and the new 'like oil and vinegar in the same bottle', as Paul Griffiths puts it. Despite tweaking an idiom Prokofiev once described as 'Bach with pockmarks', Stravinsky never relinquished his fondness for ironic distancing and the monumentally antique. Even Schoenberg and Webern were apt to choose traditional formal moulds for their distinctly non-traditional material. Broader terminological definitions risk opening the floodgates to symphonic precursors such as Beethoven's Eighth, Mahler's Fourth and Sibelius's Third, not to mention that further raft of composers whose fitful retrospectivism is conventionally shrugged off as nostalgia pure and simple. I've myself passed over Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Respighi, Richard Strauss and even Poulenc in an unavoidably selective sampling of the phenomenon.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Stravinsky. Pastorale

Joan Sutherland sop

LSO members

Decca (F) 430 0062 (1/70R,

9/91); (S) 478 3243 (23 discs)

Stravinsky wrote his presciently anti-emotive vocalise in 1907, the year of harpsichord revivalist Wanda Landowska's St Petersburg debut. Written for soprano and piano, it is often arranged, and this recording sets a diva's playful droopiness against the unambiguously 'modern' ensemble of oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon (Stravinsky's own 1923 scoring). Satie had already rebooted the domestic miniature dans le style ancien; this gem suggests another starting point.

Busoni: Sonatina No 3,

'Ad mum infantis'

Thomas Ades pf

EMI (S) [2] 456324-2 (A/OO (R))

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

An unclassifiable missing link between Sibelius, Schoenberg and the youngsters he mentored (notably Varese and Weill), Busoni won acclaim as a pianist while writing copious aesthetic commentaries. Wearing a mask of childlike innocence, the Sonatina No 3 may even have been intended for harpsichord (he had recently purchased one from Arnold Dolmetsch). The search for 'something durable again' subsequently gave rise to Busoni's notion of 'Junge Klassizitat' (literally 'young classicality').

Bloch: Concerto grosso No 1

Francis Grier pf obbl

ASMF / Sir Neville Marriner

EMI (S)[2] 456319-2 (3/80 (R))

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While Paris-based Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc and Martini) adopted Stravinsky's neo-classicism, parallel trends elsewhere may reflect the way Baroque instrumental music was being presented to the public. …

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