JOSEPH STYRAUS | Queens College, City University of New York
No piece of music exists in isolation or can be fully understood apart from its predecessors. But, while no work can entirely avoid referring to the past, some works do so in a more explicit manner than others. There is a whole class of works, such as avant-garde works of this century, that relate to the past primarily by means of negation or denial.1 For another large class of works, references to the past are explicit but superficial and do not significantly shape the structure of the new work. Frequently in pieces of this type, a traditional form is uneasily grafted onto a fundamentally unrelated musical structure. Milton Babbitt is referring to just this antagonism of form and underlying structure when he speaks of "the merely thematic formalism" resulting from "the transference of the external 'forms' of triadic music to twelve-tone contexts, resulting in a divorce of these 'forms' from their essential tonal motivation."2
1. Even as extreme an example as John Cage's. 4'33", while obviously avoiding overt reference to earlier music, can be fully appreciated only through knowledge of the norms it denies.
Another group of works, which alone may properly be called neoclassical, makes conscious, explicit reference to earlier models (most often from the eighteenth century) in such a way that the relationship of the work to its predecessors lies at the aesthetic and structural center of the new work. In such pieces, the reinterpretation of certain explicitly invoked models shapes the musical structure in a profound way. Here is no "merely thematic formalism" but an attempted synthesis of classical forms with modern harmony and voice leading.
2. Milton Babbitt, "Some Aspects of Twelve Tone Composition", The Score 12 ( 1955):55.
It has been generally acknowledged that Stravinsky's invocation of earlier models, and neoclassicism in general, were, to a significant extent, a reaction against perceived Romantic excesses. Stravinsky's disparagement of Wagner for the "murky inanities of the Art-Religion"3 and the "insult to the dignity" of endless melody4 are typical of a common distaste in the first part of this century for much of late Romanticism. To aid them in their struggle to resist the influence of their
3. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, trans. Knodel and Dahl ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), p. 60.
Ibid., p. 62.