The difficulty in writing about musical neoclassicism lies largely in the fact that the term has be applied rather loosely to a range of styles of music and little has been done to specifically define it. The current popular view of neoclassicism rests largely on the facet of appropriation which, while a relevant factor in the consideration of works such as Stravinsky’s Pulcinellaand Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique, is in fact only relevant to a fraction of the body of neoclassical music. For example, the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks called herself a neoclassicist, yet the appropriation of other works as the basis for her own compositions is not a feature of her style.
What, then, is intended by the term ‘neoclassicism’?
To answer this question, it becomes necessary to set out the origins of the style and to look at what the artists of the time had to say about the music they were writing.
In France, the roots of neoclassicism can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when an upsurge of interest in the works of the French clavecinistes, such as Couperin and Rameau, saw the publication of editions of this music. A number of prominent composers of the day, including Saint-Saëns, d’Indy and Debussy, were involved in the compilation and editing of these editions, the result of which was the appearance of new works bearing the titles of eighteenth-century dance forms – Sarabandes, Gavottes and suchlike – and of suites “dans le style ancien“. Often the music to which such a title was attached would show little or no influence of eighteenth-century music, and this trend correspondingly may be seen as being indicative of a type of nostalgia, rather than of the discovery of a new area for creative inspiration.
Relevant and parallel to the development of neoclassicism in France was the gradual distancing of French musicians from the Wagnerian musical model. This can be seen to result in part from political tensions between France and Germany, manifest in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which resulted in the establishment of the Third Republic in France – and in which France suffered a humiliating defeat – and in the First World War (1914-18).
The period between the former and latter conflicts was marked musically by a love-hate relationship with the music of Richard Wagner. The influence of his music and philosophies was widespread, but a resistance to this influence was also apparent, even by composers whose music clearly bears the mark of it. César Franck, for example, wrote “poison” on his score of Tristan und Iseult, and Debussy, who had been an ardent admirer of Wagner for many years, tried for many years to distance himself from that influence and to assert his own (national) style, an indication of which is his habit of signing his scores “Claude Debussy, musicien français“.
Given this historical context, it is not surprising that following the 1871 military defeat, French musicians should seek out models from their own musical heritage. Hence the interest in the clavecinistes.
Following the early anachronistic period described above, the music of French composers began to be affected by the study of this early music. The models gave them the opportunity to begin to release themselves from the thrall of German romanticism. Gradually, textures became more refined and the horizontal, rather than the vertical, aspect of music began to take precedence. This was the key to the development of the neoclassical style. The slimming-down of textures enabled composers to approximate the mood and style of the earlier compositions, or to incorporate that music into new works, but the extended harmonic language inherited from Wagner and Debussy (chromaticism, modality, the emancipation of dissonance, etc.) ensured that new works were not total pastiche, that they sounded modern.
The final ‘liberation’ of French music from the bounds of German romanticism, significantly, seems to have occurred after the defeat of Germany in the First World War.
While the label ‘neoclassicism’ may seem to refer exclusively to the eighteenth century, known as the ‘classical period’ in music, neoclassical works in fact are free-ranging in their influences (Stravinsky’s Baiser de la fée uses Tchaikovsky as its starting-point). The classical period itself has a referential name – its ideals of clarity, balance and line were drawn from views held of the art of the ancient (Greco-Roman) Classical Age (fifth century B.C.). Correspondingly, many neoclassical works take their inspiration from Greco-Roman classical subject matter (e.g. Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, Oedipus Rex, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ Nausicaa, Satie’s Socrate). Again, this cannot be viewed as the decisive factor of whether or not a piece of music may be neoclassical, but it is a significant trend. The identifying feature remains the purely musical aspects of the work.
Probably the best summation of the musical aims and characteristics of neoclassicism is in Ferruccio Busoni’s manifesto of ‘Young Classicism’ (1920), in which he defines three main points:1
How these ideas have been applied in Erik Satie’s music will be demonstrated over the course of the following chapters.
© 2022 Caitlin Rowley
This page last modified on 5 September 2019