Neoclassicism in the Interwar Period, part 1

Last week we discussed the daring and outlandish twelve-tone system, which challenged audiences more than ever before to find the meaning behind the sounds in music. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the Romantic period had reached a point of near-breakdown in the large-scale, autobiographical tone poems and epic symphonic works of Richard (not Johann) Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Today’s post will focus on the reaction to these two conflicting poles in the interwar years, a return to “simplicity,” but first a disclaimer is necessary.

Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, the head figures of (very) late romanticism, are hugely popular with audiences around the world and their works are programmed often. As a performer I know their works incredibly well. I admit it’s ridiculous, from a music history perspective, that I didn’t give them both their own blog posts, because their presence both in their lifetimes and now is enormous. However, I decided before I began writing this series that if I were going to take the time to do it, I would only talk about composers I genuinely enjoyed listening to. Sadly I’ve never enjoyed listening to Strauss and Mahler, even less now that I play them so often. I’m very much in the minority, though, so I’d encourage you to give any of Mahler’s symphonies, as well as Strauss’s tone poems, a listen. The main takeaway for our purposes is that they took romanticism to its limits, and there was a void after their death that nobody could fill in the same way.

Remember the idea of art moving in a pendulum throughout history? That eras are formed as reactions against the era before? By this logic, it’s no surprise that the immediate aftermath to over-the-top romanticism and twelve-tone serialism was nostalgia for simpler times.

Neoclassicism, or “New Classicism,” is a term that refers to many mediums of art; in music it refers to a return to the structures and characteristics of Classical era music but with modern harmonic language. Here are some elements to watch out for in identifying music that sounds “neoclassical” and how they were reactions against Romantic or twelve-tone music.

Strauss and Mahler’s works called for huge orchestras; one of Mahler’s symphonies is subtitled “Symphony of a Thousand” and called for the stage to be filled to capacity with choir, orchestra and soloists. In response to this, composers of Neoclassical sentiment tended to use smaller ensembles of players to imitate the intimate orchestra size in the Classical period.

Romantic era music had become heavily narrative, especially with the “tone poem.” Instead of being a “symphony” with movements and recognizable formats, the tone poem was entirely subservient to telling the story the composer envisioned. Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” is the story of “a hero’s life,” which in other words is his not-so-subtle autobiography.

As a reaction to this, Neoclassical music tends to use classical formats such as the symphony, sonata and chamber music formats like quartets and trios. It tends to be absolute music instead of program music, to make things simpler for the audience to follow. The major exception to this would be ballets, since there is obviously a story to tell with the music, and we’ll discuss Stravinsky’s later ballets in this article.

Due to this similarity in format to Classical music, the listener has a strange experience of familiarity and when listening to neoclassical music. The “skeleton” of the music is lighthearted, simply textured, not too much is happening at once. However, the harmonies are entirely different than what Haydn or Mozart would have written. This dichotomy of familiarity and dissonance is what I really enjoy about Neoclassical music.

Stravinsky’s Ballets

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is a towering figure in not just Neoclassical music but Western music as a whole. His Rite of Spring has been used in Disney’s Fantasia series, so I and many other people knew who Stravinsky was even as a small child. Stravinsky was Russian-born, but is better known for his training and professional presence in Paris and even the United States. Some Russian composers remained in Russia and their works would be heavily influenced by this choice, and Stravinsky’s style was profoundly affected by his choice to base himself in France.

Stravinsky is especially well known for his ballet scores, all of which were written once he had professional connections in France. The atmospheric “French” aesthetic we discussed before is alive within Stravinsky’s music, and combined with Stravinsky’s interest in rhythm, we have an exciting, versatile, and strangely lighthearted sound despite the dark stories some of Stravinsky’s ballets tell.

The Rite of Spring

This is one of the most famous works of western music, used in films, pop culture and adored by audiences in concert both as a full ballet and with the music by itself. It is a high achievement for Stravinsky and deserves the favor that it has because of its adventurous use of counterpoint, driving rhythm, and the narrative excitement that Stravinsky achieves.

The story is that of a fictional primitive, pre-historic Russian tribe. The tribe has a tradition and a belief that spring will not come unless a young girl dances herself to death. They ballet follows this sacrificial rite: the events leading up to the selection of which girl will dance, the other events taking place alongside the rite itself, the other tribes participating and the dances done to interact with them, and finally the girl’s dance itself.

Stravinsky sets the scene cinematically with a woodwind opening that is now famous. I’ve always imagined that it shows the cacophonous sounds of birds singing as the sun rises. Stravinsky writes for the bassoon to play far out of its normal range, experimenting with all sorts of new and interesting sounds to create a primitive-sounding atmosphere. The dances that follow are either heavily rhythm-focused, or eerily etherial. You’ll hear a particularly rhythmic dance toward the beginning, which is the selection of the girl to be sacrificed. The dance represents young, energetic teenagers dancing with passion and excitement, perhaps not knowing what they’re signing up for. An example of an etherial dance would be the beginning of the second part (the ballet has two parts with a short break in between). This is the dance of “mystic circles,” which I always associate with the intake of some sort of hallucinogens, etc, to prepare for such a brutal ceremony. Another favorite moment in this ballet is also in the second part, the “calling of the ancestors,” which has a slow but deliberate buildup to a hugely exciting horn call. The tempo stays disturbingly slow the entire time, but there is still an impressive trajectory of excitement.

I hope you enjoy the wild ride that is the Rite of Spring. It’s timelessly popular and, if you’re in the right headspace for it, thoroughly enjoyable because of how convincingly you are pulled into this fictional story. The dance format allows Stravinsky to retain a “classical” element to an otherwise very narrative format (the individual dances are more interesting than the ballet going on above), and I think this is why Stravinsky’s ballets are performed so often with the music alone.

More Stravinsky

If you’d like to hear more Stravinsky, try these other two great ballets which exemplify the small-scale nature of Stravinsky’s ensembles and plot lines. Stravinsky’s works suit a “small” show because of the element of playfulness his music tends to have. Both these ballets focus on toys and playthings having dramas of their own, and the music suits them both incredibly well!

The first is called Petrouchka, and it tells the story of a puppet who deals with love, loss, death and even haunting his unfaithful lover as a ghost. You will hear folk songs to evoke the sense of being at a provincial marketplace, a crowd watching a puppet show and being unaware of the show-within-a-show.

The second, which is perhaps my favorite of the lesser-performed ballet repertoire, is Jeux des Cartes or “card game.” In the spirit of a small-scale show-within-a-show, it also tells of the drama that happens below the surface of a plaything. This time it is the intrigue between the King, Queen, and Jack of the standard card deck. It’s so Neoclasscal that you’ll even hear a blatant nod to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra. Even if you aren’t familiar with that opera I bet you will recognize the quote; it’s that famous!

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