I'm a little confused by what is meant we when say the 'Neoclassicism ' movement. Particularly this phrase from the official Wiki page.

Neoclassicism was an aesthetic trend rather than an organized movement; even many composers not usually thought of as "neoclassicists" absorbed elements of the style.

Aren't they both the same? Aesthetic trends do (in the end) turn out to be a movement, no?

In form and thematic technique, neoclassical music often drew inspiration from the music of the 18th century, though the inspiring canon belonged as frequently to the Baroque and even earlier periods as to the Classical period

This makes sense, composers like Stravinsky took inspiration from the 18th century - but what inspiration are we talking about here?

It has always been clear that Stravinsky loved Mozart claiming

So much of my music is stolen from Mozart

That doesn't automatically make him a Neoclassical composer though does it? So what was it about the music that made it Neoclassical?

Are we saying, therefore, in an attempt to understand precisely what Neoclassicism is, that it is purely taking the works of others (18th century) and putting your own unique style on it? To an extent, aren't many classical composers always doing this?

  • 3
    Personally, I feel like spending too much time trying to clarify genre labels is a waste of that time. Genre labels are always going to slippery, poorly-defined, and IMHO, not helpful in either the creation of nor appreciation for music. That is my opinion. I also personally prefer music that defies genre labels, and it seems like most of the most popular and enduring music in history at the very least stretches the boundaries of genre, if not outright demolishes them. – Todd Wilcox Sep 30 '20 at 16:23
  • Yes @ToddWilcox - the more I read about this topic the more I think you are right! – cmp Sep 30 '20 at 17:41

The music has the hallmarks of classical style, but it is written in modern times.

That is the literal meaning, but most of the stuff has some kind of expanded harmonic palette - seventh and ninth chord, maybe quartal harmony - or greater tolerance of dissonance. So, moderate phrase length and even proportions, fairly simple lines and homophonic texture, and relatively simple metrical rhythm will be typical characteristics.

There was a composer's tiff where Prokofiev called Stravinsky "Bach on the wrong notes." I think that was in reference to his neoclassical style at the time. Even if it was meant as an insult I think it sums up nicely how most of the classical features are the same, but the expanded harmony is the big difference.


Aesthetic trends do (in the end) turn out to be a movement, no?

The quotation you cited mentioned that it was not an organized movement. Some artistic "movements" are focused, with a clear leader or a certain group of individuals that set out on a specific path, or at least a group that perhaps share a common geographical location or education or political ideology that produced sense of common aesthetic purpose.

What that sentence means is that neoclassicism was not such an organized movement, but rather a trend that many different composers tended toward in very different ways. It was primarily a reaction against various excesses of late romanticism, expressionism, etc. - a return to relative aesthetic "order."

but what inspiration are we talking about here?

The Wikipedia article you cite lists all of this in the opening paragraph. Specifically, it says:

The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music.

There are potentially other features (specifically, I'd mention use of older classical forms and structure for pieces/movements), but that's a pretty good summary. And the "updated or expanded tonal harmony" often meant a simultaneous imitation of some older features of classical or baroque harmony that was often expanded in a different way from how romantic music had expanded the harmonic palette.

That doesn't automatically make him a Neoclassical composer though does it?


So what was it about the music that made it Neoclassical?

See the above quotation and the Wikipedia article you cited. Stravinsky in particular also drew on more classical ideas from ancient Greece too (as neoclassical elements in other arts, like sculpture, architecture, and poetry had during "neoclassical" phases).

Are we saying, therefore, in an attempt to understand precisely what Neoclassicism is, that it is purely taking the works of others (18th century) and putting your own unique style on it? To an extent, aren't many classical composers always doing this?

One way of looking at it is that the neoclassical composers sometimes tried to compose as if the 19th century never happened. That is, what if we took Mozart's use of harmony, counterpoint, form, etc. and expanded it in a slightly different way from what romanticism did to the music? Critics of neoclassicism sometimes have said it might end up sounding like classical era music with "wrong notes." So, you return to some of the form and aesthetic of a much earlier era, but develop it in a different way compared to the way it played out in the 19th century.

Note: If you're looking for further clarification on what any of these terms mean concerning various features of neoclassicism, please modify the question to be more specific (as a lot of the features are already noted in the article that is cited in the question).

  • You have elaborated on 'updated or expanded tonal harmony', care to elaborate on the other emphasised points? That would make this answer particularly astonishing. – cmp Sep 30 '20 at 17:39

Stravinskian neo-classicism did briefly become a movement, especially in France in the 1920s and 30s. On the other hand, Stravinsky’s and Prokofiev’s early neoclassical works ca 1916-1920 were not part of any particular movement or aesthetic leaning. Basically you are right, this type of neoclassicism refers to works around 1920-1950 which self consciously took the familiar surface features and forms of older works but changed the harmony, rhythms, orchestration etc. It was important as a ‘movement’ to the extent that it opposed the self-consciously modernist music coming out of Germany and Austria: Schoenberg, Webern, Strauss etc. It’s not about liking Mozart: all these composers liked him. Do all composers do this? Not really. I don’t hear much Haydn in Xenakis or Handel in Boulez. But I do hear Bartok in Ligeti and Ravel in Miles Davies, so does that count? Of course it counts for something but I don’t think that labelling this as neoclassical thinking helps to clarify anything.


Like other answers say the term neo - classicism is referring primarily to the classical form and is an oppositional movement to romanticism.

I’d like to add this translated quotation of an ETH-periodic journal:

The fact that the term "classicism" is bound up requires a definition and clarification, precisely because this term is often discussed in modern music and has led to various misunderstandings. Often referred to as neo-classicism, it includes the phenomena of so-called "objective music" and "new objectivity". It was definitely not chosen by luck, but, as is often the case with style names, it was introduced and widespread through custom. The term "classicism" comes from literature and the visual arts and is very imprecise when applied to music as a means of differentiation, since every art has its own laws. In addition, there is something negative about the designation, which can range from a dry, unrelated conservatism and a flattening epigonism to an artistic play with sophisticated refinements. But when the term "classicism" appears again and again for the music of the first half of our century with names like Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, it becomes necessary to examine whether the narrow, negative framework still coincides with the content of what This should be understood, because the works of these composers play a role in the development of music history that cannot be overlooked. The term “classicism” does not refer to itself like other stylistic terms, but also includes the relationship to the classical period. That is, he always thinks about a stylistic attitude that lies outside of himself. The classical harmony, in which discipline and freedom, expressive and formal forces are organically combined, acquires not only historical significance but also a qualitative one; a piece becomes a measure of value. The classic becomes a model through overcoming extremes, reconciling the polarities of emotional and intellectual forces and through its form, whose essential characteristic as a result of the balance is also unity. For musical classicism, the formal model is primarily important, not a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic one. Because the form is the point of reference to the past, his will to order becomes particularly clear. Under no circumstances should this remark be misunderstood. Every work of art includes form and order; it is precisely defined by these terms. A changing artistic style can, however, at any time require a shift in accent within the musical material, so that the listening experience is no longer primarily determined by the form, but a refined harmony, a rich palette of timbres or a vital rhythm can possibly disguise the incisions in the shape. Classicism seeks - as we said - the formal model and the clearly manageable structure. The attempt to rationally grasp an epoch and transfer it to the conditions of another time, as if the problem of a work of art were only a solution to be determined in advance, does not produce any creative achievement. The stylistic unity in the overall work of an individual artist is always the consequence of a creative talent. It is also evidenced by important classical works, which are by no means one-sidedly attached to the past, but definitely take a trend-setting position in music history. An analysis of classicism in the i. Half of the century would be incomplete if one wanted to overlook that. The concentration of musical means in Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, their relationship to the "objective", the activity and ambition of their music and the constant effort to find a secure technical basis for their art are of fundamental importance amid the sliding tendencies of form and various phenomena of dissolution.

Der Klassizismus in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts GERD SANNEMÜLLER

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