Neoclassicism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Neoclassicism. The 'new classicism' which appeared in the work of European composers in the early 1920s.


Neoclassicism. The 'new classicism' which appeared in the work of European composers in the early 1920s. Prokofiev's Classical Symphony (1917) was a possibly unwitting prototype but the trend was established and took on the dimensions of an ethos with Stravinsky's Pulcinella (1920), Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik (1922), Holst's Fugal Overture (1922), Vaughan Williams' Concerto Accademico (1925), and subsequent works by these and other composers, persistently Stravinsky but also Les Six (mostly Milhaud and Poulenc) and, later, Tippett in England, Françaix in France, and Piston in the USA.

Neoclassic works by these 'modernists' revived the principles, as distinct from the fabrics, of classicism. The return was not to 18th-century harmony but, rather, to stylistic essences: the objectivity, balance, clarity, economy, directness, and grace epitomized in the music of Bach and Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. It stemmed from reaction against the lush harmony, loose forms, obese orchestra, and extravagant emotionalism of late romantic music (Strauss, Mahler, Elgar, Franck, etc).

Neoclassicism first attracted Canadians in the 1930s as the result of several factors, among them the critical writings of Léo-Pol Morin, his piano performances in Montreal along with those of Alberto Guerrero in Toronto, and visits to Canada by Ravel and Stravinsky. Canadian music until then had been, in Murray Schafer's words, 'run by the pommies' (CMB Spring-Summer 1973), those powerful conservatives, represented at the administrative level by Sir Ernest MacMillan, Healey Willan, Eugène Lapierre, and Douglas Clarke, for whom Schoenberg's ideas were impractical and unappealing and most of what had happened after Strauss, Elgar, Debussy, and Ravel was a strain and a nuisance. However reactionary and suppressive this position may have seemed to the fulminating young talents of the day, an element of sense in it dulled any tendency among those talents to fall into dodecaphonic fanaticism.

John Weinzweig, while delving into Schoenbergian serialism, adopted many neoclassic procedures of rhythm and structure, modelled on those of Stravinsky. Barbara Pentland's music reflected an admiration of both Hindemith and Stravinsky. Jean Papineau-Couture, as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, was introduced directly to neoclassic Stravinsky and showed a powerful affinity for the clean textures and acoustic moderation intrinsic to neoclassicism. Thus three figures in the vanguard of Canadian composition in 1940 arrived by characteristically different routes at neoclassicism, which indeed may be heard as an influence in much Canadian music written between 1940 and 1970.

The unarguable neoclassics of Canadian music emerged, however, mainly in the 1940s and 1950s: Weinzweig's Suite No. 1 for piano (1939), Divertimento No. 1 for flute and strings (1946), Divertimento No. 2 for oboe and strings (1948), Sonata: Israel (1949) for cello and piano, Piano Sonata (1950), and Violin Concerto (1954); Pentland's output in the 1940s and well into the 1950s, notably the Concerto for violin and small orchestra and the piano Variations (both 1942), but also, in at least an aesthetic sense, later works such as the Piano Concerto (1956) and the Symphony for Ten Parts (1957); and the main body of Papineau-Couture's output, but most obviously the works of those two decades - the Sonata in G (1944, rev 1953), the Étude in B-flat Minor (1945), the Concerto grosso (1943, rev 1955), the Symphony in C (1948, rev 1956), and the Psaume CL (1954).

Neoclassics of the period include also Archer's Sonatina No. 2 (1946), Fanfare and Passacaglia (1949), Sonata for cello and piano (1956), and other works; Somers' Piano Sonata No. 4 (1950), Symphony No. 1 (1951), fugues 12 x 12 (1951), Passacaglia and Fugue (1954), Violin Sonata No. 1 (1968), and organizational elements in several of his other works; and Adaskin's Serenade Concertante (1954), along with much of his other music.

Morawetz, too, was a proponent of neoclassicism (Divertimento for Strings 1948, rev 1954, and Sinfonietta for Strings, 1963, rev 1968) and so was Blackburn (Concertino, 1948, for piano and winds). Many other Canadian works (eg, Jacques Hétu's Variations for piano, 1964, and for violin, 1967; his Passacaille for orchestra, 1970; and other works) contain elements of neoclassicism.

During the 1960s reaction set in. Abstraction and balance began to look like sterile tidiness, and expressionism seemed the answer to a growing need among composers and their audiences for something lustier. By 1970 the neoclassic movement had been overborne by a combination of circumstances: a nostalgia for romanticism; the return among serious composers of a desire to entertain (nudged by the challenge and seductions of pop); and the resurgence of the appetite for sheer sound (a dormant inheritance from Debussy, Bartók, Varèse, and Oriental music) whetted by the sound-potential of the new technology (electronics, stereophony, the acoustic revolution in concert-hall architecture). Weinzweig said (CanComp, January 1971): 'It's silly to think of writing a sonata today, not because sonatas are silly but because they originally grew out of needs very different from ours. I'm moving away now from abstract works and toward theatrical ones.'

But if in the 1970s and 1980s the mid-century neoclassic movement had lost its champions, the principles of neoclassicism were evident among the varied responses of Canadian composers to Western classical tradition. Serge Garant's series of chamber works called Offrandes (1969-71) was based on the theme of Bach's Musical Offering. The Bach and Mozart centennial observations of 1985 and 1991 stimulated creative commentary in works by composers as different as Morawetz, Somers, Marjan Mozetich, and Alexina Louie. Moreover, the 'return to tonality' espoused by younger composers in the 1980s often carried with it a return to neoclassic patterns, forms, and textures.

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