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What Is Neoclassical Music?

Neoclassical music is a creative revival, blending 18th-century classical harmony with modern elements. It's a bridge between eras, where composers like Stravinsky pay homage to tradition while infusing contemporary sensibilities. This genre offers a unique auditory journey, marrying the old with the new. How does this fusion of times resonate with you? Join us as we explore its timeless allure.
Peter Hann
Peter Hann

Neoclassical music, or new classical music, is a style of music that drew its inspiration from the traditional elements of classical music, including emotional restraint, balance, order and clarity. Popular between World War I and World War II, the music was a rebuttal to the much less formal and more emotional music of the Romantic Period. Neoclassical music written by composers in the first half of the 20th century aimed to restore the link to musical tradition following a wave of musical experimentation at the beginning of the 20th century. The composers did not want to ignore developments in music after the Classical Period but wanted to reintroduce a clear form, a tonal center and a melodic element. They added to the classical structure more modern chromatic elements, use of dissonance and varied rhythm that had been developed since the Classical Period.

One of the first works that can be referred to as neoclassical music was Symphony No. 1 in D major, by Sergei Prokofiev, which the composer called The Classical Symphony. This work, written in 1917, was in four movements in the style of a Franz Joseph Haydn symphony, though the composer used modern techniques within the classical form and the symphony reflects the composer’s own compositional voice. In the 1920s, Igor Stravinsky composed some works that generally looked back on the style of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach. These works used much smaller musical ensembles than the large-scale orchestras he had previously used and incorporated wind instruments, the piano and chamber orchestras. Notable works from his Neoclassical Period include the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and the Symphony of Psalms.

Neoclassical music draws from elements of traditional classical music.
Neoclassical music draws from elements of traditional classical music.

Stravinsky’s view was that the composer’s ability to express his musical personality was not restricted by adoption of the classical form but that composing within an established order could enable greater expression of musical ideas. Not all composers of neoclassical music had similar aims, and composers with very diverse styles have been considered part of the neoclassical movement. The German composer Paul Hindemith wrote works in the 1920s that used counterpoint in a complex manner, owing a debt to Bach, and this music also has been referred to as neoclassical.

Neoclassical music harks back to composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Neoclassical music harks back to composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Music that recalls the period of Bach and his contemporaries also is often referred to as neo-Baroque. Dmitri Shostakovitch wrote a set of preludes and fugues for piano partly inspired by his admiration for Bach, and this work could be referred to as neoclassical music, even though it is written in the idiom of Shostakovich’s own musical work. Shostakovitch also wrote pieces within the framework of traditional musical forms as a result of his problems with the political authorities of his time, who expressed the view that some of his music was out of touch with the wider populace.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is neoclassical music and when did it originate?

Neoclassical musical was inspired by earlier greats, such as Johann Sebastian Bach.
Neoclassical musical was inspired by earlier greats, such as Johann Sebastian Bach.

Neoclassical music is a genre that emerged in the early 20th century, characterized by a return to the order, balance, and clarity found in the music of the Classical period (1750-1820). It arose as a reaction to the perceived excesses of Romanticism and Impressionism, with composers like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith leading the movement. Neoclassical works often feature traditional forms such as the sonata and concerto, but with modern harmonies and rhythms.

Who are some of the most prominent composers of neoclassical music?

Prominent composers of neoclassical music include Igor Stravinsky, whose "Pulcinella" (1920) is often cited as a pioneering work of the genre. Others include Sergei Prokofiev, whose "Classical Symphony" (1917) exemplifies the neoclassical style, and Paul Hindemith, known for his "Kammermusik" (1922-1927) series. Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel also contributed to the movement, incorporating neoclassical elements into their compositions.

How does neoclassical music differ from classical music?

While neoclassical music draws inspiration from the forms and structures of classical music, it incorporates modern elements that set it apart. Neoclassical compositions often feature dissonances, complex rhythms, and innovative orchestration that were not typical of the Classical period. The neoclassical aesthetic values emotional restraint and objective expression over the emotive excesses of the Romantic era, creating a unique blend of old and new musical principles.

Can neoclassical music be identified by specific musical characteristics?

Yes, neoclassical music can often be identified by its use of classical forms such as the sonata, symphony, and concerto, but with a modern twist. Characteristics include clear tonality with unexpected modulations, counterpoint, and a preference for smaller ensembles. Rhythmic vitality and the use of ostinato are also common. The textures tend to be lighter and more transparent than in Romantic music, reflecting a preference for simplicity and balance.

How has neoclassical music influenced contemporary classical music?

Neoclassical music has had a significant influence on contemporary classical music by demonstrating how traditional forms can be revitalized with modern techniques. It paved the way for later 20th-century developments, including minimalism and postmodernism, which often draw on historical styles and contexts. Composers today continue to explore the balance between historical homage and innovation, a concept rooted in the neoclassical ethos.

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Discussion Comments

Glasis

This is not the only time in the 20th century that musicians attempted to introduce more modern elements into classical music, although it may be the only instance of new compositions.

In the 1960s and 1970s, existing classical pieces were adapted using sounds more identifiable with those decades.

For example, Minuet in G was redone as The Lovers Concerto, including adding lyrics.

In the 1970s, more jazzed up versions of classical favorites were popular. Many think this was done in an attempt to get young people to better identify with and appreciate the classics.

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    • Neoclassical music draws from elements of traditional classical music.
      By: kirvinic
      Neoclassical music draws from elements of traditional classical music.
    • Neoclassical music harks back to composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Neoclassical music harks back to composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
    • Neoclassical musical was inspired by earlier greats, such as Johann Sebastian Bach.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Neoclassical musical was inspired by earlier greats, such as Johann Sebastian Bach.