Neoclassicism was a reaction to both the emotional excesses of late Romanticism and the radical dissonance of modernism. Before you review this 20th century musical movement, however, I want to explain an apparent contradiction with regard to our playlist and neoclassicism. There is no question that the most significant composer to write in a neoclassical style was Igor Stravinsky. However, I didn’t include any of his neoclassical compositions on our playlist for the simple reason that Rite of Spring, which he composed prior to his efforts in neoclassical style, is his most significant work historically. Rite of Spring just had to be on the list even though it meant that the most significant neoclassical composer would be representing primitivism instead of neoclassicism on our playlist. Because of this we will listen to a symphonic movement by Shostakovich that exhibits some elements of neoclassical style though it is not strictly speaking a neoclassical piece. Once again, the historical and musical significance of the work has trumped purity of style.
As you will soon read, Shostakovich was composing during Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia. Stalin’s Soviet establishment demanded a kind of classicism from composers as it was felt that dissonant, modernist music, known in the USSR as “formalism,” was evidence of the decadence and corruption of the West. Composers who fell out of favor with the establishment could find themselves in a labor camp or worse, so Shostakovich, in composing his 5th symphony, had to write in a more classically-influenced tonality and structure. This simplified musical language is in keeping with the principles of neoclassicism. However, those same Sovient authorities demanded music that was grand and epic in scope as a means of representing what they saw as the superiority of communist ideals. In this sense, Shostakovich’s 5th symphony does not mesh with the neoclassical focus on smaller performance focus. So my hope in making the selections that I did is that you will (a) be exposed to historically significant pieces such as Rite and Symphony No. 5; and (b) that you will be able to recognize the neoclassical elements that are a part of the Shostakovich listening example.
Neoclassicism in music was a twentieth-century trend, particularly current in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of “classicism,” namely order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late Romanticism, as well as a “call to order” after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music. In form and thematic technique, neoclassical music often drew inspiration from music of the 18th century, though the inspiring canon belonged as frequently to the Baroque and even earlier periods as to the Classical period—for this reason, music which draws inspiration specifically from the Baroque is sometimes termed Neo-Baroque music. Neoclassicism had two distinct national lines of development, French (proceeding partly from the influence of Erik Satie and represented by Igor Stravinsky), and German (proceeding from the “New Objectivity” of Ferruccio Busoni and represented by Paul Hindemith.) Neoclassicism was an aesthetic trend rather than an organized movement; even many composers not usually thought of as “neoclassicists” absorbed elements of the style.