SOUND PATTERNS

A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music

by PHILLIP MAGNUSON

MICROCOSMS

Chapter 43. Neo-classicism

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Chapter 41.
Impressionism
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Chapter 42.
Primitivism
.
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Chapter 44.
Expressionism
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Chapter 45.
Serialism
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Chapter 46.
Jazz
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Chapter 47.
Indeterminism
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Chapter 48.
Texturalism
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Chapter 49.
Minimalism
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Chapter 50.
Electronicism
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Chapter 51.
Neo-romanticism
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Chapter 52.
Eclecticism

NEO-CLASSICISM: an appeal to the past

ImageHenri Rousseau:
The Dream
Rousseau places clearly recognizable images, with virtually no distortion, into contexts which surprise us. 1910

43.1 BACKGROUND

NEO-CLASSICISM was a prominent part of Western music between the two world wars, a time when stability and tradition were generally more valued than experimentation and avant-garde views. It grows from Primitivism, and is a reaction to the newness of Impressionism and Expressionism and the excesses of late Romanticism, which was still active. It tends to be absolute music, consciously based upon traditions of the Common Practice Period, particularly the Baroque and Classical eras.

Characteristic features include balance, objectivity, economy, and clarity. In spite of its obvious intent of classical parody, with frequent musical quotation, Neo-classic music still sounds fresh and new, never relying on exact mimicry of older styles. Neo-classicism was once considered the pre-eminent 20th century style (prior to 1950), and there were many composers who wrote music under its influence. A related style, Neo-romanticism, likewise follows this model of "re-visiting" older musical styles.

The term Neo-classicism can apply to several other disciplines besides music.

43.2 COMPOSERS ASSOCIATED WITH NEO-CLASSICISM

43.3 MUSICAL ELEMENTS

At a glance:

Neo-classicismTonalityVocabularyTextureSonorityTime
basically maintains:x
generally modifies:xxx
completely changes:x

  1. Tonality

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential organization is around a single pitch, the tonic, which provides a home base to the ear. All other pitches work to establish the pre-eminence of tonic. Furthermore, an organization of phrases (generally made up of 4, 8, or 16 measures) expand the establishment of tonic; all phrases end with a cadence which confirms this sense of tonic.

    In Neo-classicism:

    1. Neo-classicism, like Primitivism, is tonal, and can be achieved through traditional techniques from the Common Practice Period or through assertion.
    2. Phrases and forms tend to be based on stylistic (especially Baroque and Classical) models, either by quoting specific pieces or by paraphrasing pre-existing structures such as the concerto or symphony.

  2. Vocabulary

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential vocabulary is a diatonic pattern of seven stepwise pitches called major and minor scales. Chromatic pitches, the remaining five, can be used, but only to enhance the diatonic ones.

    In Neo-classicism:

    1. Melodic sources are similar to Primitivistic models, exploring a range of scales and modes.
    2. Melodies tend to follow diatonic lines rather than chromatic.

  3. Texture

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential texture is created with counterpoint, which is two or more simultaneous individual and independent lines, each of which confirms the pre-eminence of tonic and utilizes the vocabulary of a major or minor scale.

    In Neo-classicism:

    1. Counterpoint is similar to Primitivistic models.
    2. The counterpoint is generally clear, transparent, and describes relatively sparse textures (especially in contrast to late 19th century music).

  4. Sonorities

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential sonority (chord) is consonant and is a group of three notes (a triad) arranged in thirds (tertian). Dissonance is used, which could be a group of four notes arranged in thirds (a tertian tetrad) or non-chordal embellishments (passing and neighboring tones, suspensions, and pedals, among others). All dissonances are required to resolve.

    In Neo-classicism:

    1. Harmony is similar to Primitivistic models.
    2. The harmony often demonstrates sudden tonal shifts.

  5. Time organization

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential time organization is based on a consistent and unchanging beat. These beats organize into 2, 3, or 4 essential pulses per measure, with the first beat always the strongest. Each beat can sub-divide into two parts (simple meters) or three parts (compound meters).

    In Neo-classicism:

    1. Rhythmic use is similar to Primitivistic models.
    2. Metric stress is often shifted to unexpected places.

ASSIGNMENTS:

SUGGESTED LISTENING

ANALYSIS

Analyze the pitch materials and phrase design, and locate all the musical elements that are typical, characteristic, or unique to Neo-classicism in the following pieces in Music for Analysis:

  1. Bartok: Mikrokosmos, no.79: Hommage a J.S.B. Listen to a performance
  2. Prokofiev: Classical Symphony, op.25: III [#461] Listen to a performance

SYNTHESIS

Write an Neo-classic piece for piano, one page or less, which is a complete musical thought of at least two irregular phrases of at least 5 measures. Consider the musicality of your work; Neo-classical composers usually employ thin, somewhat spare textures. While there is much dissonance, the overwhelming effect is one of consonance. Play back your work on the computer through MIDI (or better yet, have someone perform it for you on the piano) to guide you. The final result must be playable.

To prepare this writing assignment properly, use the notation guidelines appendix, located at Basic Principles of Music Notation, Semester IV.

Submit a MIDI file via email in addition to a print-out of the project. Include the following:

  1. Base the project on a theme by Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven (include copy of original)
  2. Bi-tonality and bi-modality
  3. Alter the rhythmic structure to off-set metric stresses
  4. Do not use the common time or alla breve meter signatures
  5. Tempo, indicated with a metronome marking (showing the correct beat)
  6. Mood, indicated with descriptive words (in English)
  7. Dynamics, using a variety of changes (and no "mezzo" dynamics)
  8. Articulations for each note equal to one beat or smaller (use a variety)

The grading for this project:

Click here to view a sample Neo-classicism project

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