Neoclassicism in music was a twentieth century development, particularly popular in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers drew inspiration from music of the eighteenth century. 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.
Two significant composers led the development of neoclassical music: in France, Igor Stravinsky proceeding from the influence of Erik Satie, and Germany Paul Hindemith proceeding from the "New Objectivism" of Ferruccio Busoni.
Neoclassicism is a trend in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of "classicism", namely order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late romanticism, as well as a "call to order" after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although in many ways neoclassical music returned to the forms and emotional restraint of eighteenth century music, works by these composers are nonetheless distinctly twentieth century.
Neoclassical music 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 nineteenth century Romanticism to sacrifice internal balance and order in favor of more overtly emotional writing. Neoclassicism makes a return to balanced forms and often emotional restraint, as well as eighteenth century compositional processes and techniques. However, in the use of modern instrumental resources such as the full orchestra, which had greatly expanded since the eighteenth century, and advanced harmony, neoclassical works are distinctly twentieth century.
It is not that interest in eighteenth century music was not fairly well sustained through the nineteenth, with pieces such as Franz Liszt's À 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." It was that the twentieth century had a different view of eighteenth century norms and forms, instead of being an immediately antique style contrasted against the present, twentieth century neoclassicism focused on the eighteenth century as a period which had virtues which were lacking in their own time.
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.
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 neoclassicism was the German Paul Hindemith, who mixed spiky dissonance, polyphony, and free ranging chromaticism into a style which was "useful," a style that became known as Gebrauchsmusik. 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 his most popular work, 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.
In an essay entitled "Young Classicism," Busoni wrote, "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." Roman Vlad has contrasted 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.
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, Ástor Piazzolla, and Virgil Thomson.
In Spain, virtuosic harpsichordist Wanda Landowska began a revival of baroque music playing a modernized version of the baroque harpsichord in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, being influenced by Stravinsky also began to turn "back to Bach." His harpsichord concerto, Mov. 1 is more of an anti-concerto that redefines the baroque ideas of soli/tutti use. It also quotes a sixteenth century song by Jan Vazquez and uses thematic material from it throughout the concerto.
Even the atonal school, represented Arnold Schoenberg has been associated alongside Neoclassicism. In Schoenberg's case this is not due to his harmonic pallete but rather his clear return to classical forms and his adherence to them throughout his life, such as the Sonata-Allegro form of the first movement of his Piano Concerto. The forms of Schoenberg's works after 1920, beginning with opp. 23, 24, and 25 (all composed at the same time), have been described as "openly neoclassical," and represent an effort to integrate the advances of 1908–1913 with the inheritance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg actually came to neoclassicism before his teacher, in his Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1913–14), and the opera Wozzeck,which uses closed forms such as suite, passacaglia, and rondo as organizing principles within each scene.
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