In previous centuries there were prevailing styles and forms of music. The Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras have their own set of conventions that composers followed. But the 20th century saw fragmentation as composers reacted and counter-reacted to the artistic expressions around them. Neoclassism is an example of such a reaction.
During the Romantic era composers had experimented with the outer boundaries of traditional harmony, pushing the rules to their limits. The dawn of the 20th century saw the next step, the rise of atonalism. The works of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School erased the rules of conventional harmony and redefined musical expression on their own terms. To call atonalism its own movement though is problematic due to the nature of the term itself. Schoenberg stated that atonality only defines what the music isn’t, not what the music is.
The works of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School challenged audiences, symphonies and composers alike. Neoclassicism in music emerged as a counter-reaction to atonalism. It is defined as a return to conventional form, genre, and practice; a deliberate imitation of earlier styles especially those of the 18th century. Neoclassicism is marked by concise expression, a return to conventional tonality, and a tendency to utilize smaller ensembles and lighter textures. Neoclassicists were attracted to traditional forms such as the symphony.
Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is an example of a vocal piece written during the composer’s neoclassical period. It is marked by its conventional form with the use of a double fugue in the second movement and sonata-rondo form in the third. The vocal melodies have a distinct chant-like quality and are sung in Latin, giving the entire piece a liturgical mood.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 is referred to as his “Classical Symphony”. It was composed as an emulation of the style and form of Franz Joseph Haydn but in contemporary context. Again, there is a return to classic form and tonality with the familiar four movements of a traditional symphony and light textures. Some scholars point to this piece as one of the first neoclassical works.
The accessibility of neoclassicism cannot be ignored. This renewed interest in form and traditional harmony was embraced by audiences and composers all around the world. These works remain some of the most popular and often programmed pieces of the 20th century.