What Is Neoclassicism?

In terms of music, neoclassicism refers to a period in the twentieth century that occurred between 1920 and 1950, roughly between the first and second World Wars. Composers sought to return to earlier musical principles during this time. Composers were primarily concerned with the classical principles of music, but they also revisited ideals from other periods of music, such as the Baroque and Renaissance.

Classical music was largely based on aesthetic principles such as emotional restraint, balance, and order. These ideas contrasted with those of the Romantic period, when composers aimed to push music to its emotional limits. They also differed from early-nineteenth-century musical concepts, which were largely experimental. Non-classical principles were not completely eliminated neoclassical composers because they believed they were still valuable, but they did want to show respect for older styles and set some basic boundaries for music to make it more approachable and understandable. As a result, neoclassical composers combined classical concepts with recent musical advances to create a completely new compositional philosophy.

Musical neoclassicism emphasized three elements: rhythm, counterpoint, and tonality. Neoclassical composers frequently used additive rhythm and syncopation, with jazz as a major influence. Syncopation is the placement of emphasis on a subdivision of a beat, whereas additive rhythm is where the rhythmic feel contrasts with how the music is barred or measured. Counterpoint is a term used to describe two or more voices that complement each other but are rhythmically and melodically independent. It was popular during the Baroque period and was perfected in J.S. Bach’s music. The formation of pitch relationships based on a single key or tonal center is known as tonality.

In Europe, two major lines of Neoclassicism emerged: French and German. Composers such as Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky were supporters of French neoclassicism. Composers such as Paul Hindemith and Ferruccio Busoni represented Germany. Major composers in the United States, such as Nadia Boulanger and even the “atonal” Arnold Schoenberg, passed on neoclassical ideas to musicians like Aaron Copland and Alban Berg.

Neoclassicism is a musical philosophy based on the desire to return to the work of previous composers. This means that a composer born after WWII can still be classified as neoclassical, and that composers cannot be classified solely on the basis of their birth dates. Furthermore, composers’ compositional approaches change as they learn and are exposed to new ideas, so some composers have gone through or may go through neoclassical phases in their work.