Resonances of Neoclassicism

LIU Xiaolong:
What You Might Not Know About It

Liu Xiaolong
Professor of Musicology, Central Conservatory of Music

When occasionally seen in fashion advertisements in the elevator, the term “neoclassicism” might seem eye-catching and innovative. This is a typical marketing strategy, using academic terminology to direct the public’s attention and imagination to the product. The word “classical” has always been associated with the word “classic”, with an essential implication of the timeless and the exemplary. The prefix “neo” adds even more value to it. The term “classical music” also feeds many people’s imagination like a tagline. They consciously place it in opposition to popular music. Obsessed with the highbrow taste, they become hardcore fans of classical music, making great effort to understand it. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the most known stars of classical music. With the beauty, elegance, abstraction and profundity of their music, they have become the perfect icons of classical art. However, classicism is a cultural concept that cannot be explained in just a few words. It was closely related to the social developments in Europe in the 18th century, and led to great waves of conceptual and technical innovation in the field of music. “Neoclassical” music of the early 20th century was a ripple from the classical waves, a ray of light for modern art in the not-too-distant past. What was “new” about neoclassical music? What are the memorable figures, works and characteristics of neoclassical music? This article will start with the basics, so that readers may understand it more deeply than just by imagination. With this understanding, one can gain new inspiration and pleasure from listening to modern works.

I. What is Neoclassicism?

The term “classical” is widely used in China and the rest of the world, but in Europe it refers specifically to the culture of the classical period, which lasted from the 8th to the 7th centuries BC until the 5th century AD. From the creation of Greek writing and the Homeric Epics, to the advances in philosophy, politics, literature, theatre and pottery during the Archaic period, ancient Greek culture with its integration of elements from the east, flourished during the 5th-4th centuries BC and became the centerpiece of classical culture. The Roman Republic, which was born during the same period, and the Roman Empire, which was established in the 1st century BC, followed the example of ancient Greek culture and spread it over a wide area. The classical culture that was developed in ancient Greece established exemplary ideological and institutional principles, and made pioneering cultural achievements in philosophy, history, politics, law, ethics, education, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, music, physics, architecture, sculpture, poetry, rhetoric, and so on.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, classical culture represented by ancient Greece declined. However, it continued to influence the Byzantine Empire and became a hidden cultural thread in Christendom throughout the medieval period. In the 14th century the Renaissance was launched in cities such as Florence and Venice in central Italy. Driven by a new political trend, social and cultural elites as well as artists looked back to the distant “Golden Age” for the immortal classical spirit as their inspiration to develop new skills and ideas. The Renaissance movement did not aim to restore the temples, palaces, or social institutions of ancient Greece and Rome, but rather to inherit the spirit of scientific inquiry and Humanistic ideas nurtured by classical culture, with the help of archaeology and with an imaginary association with the past. European culture was thus given the impetus to modernize and secularize society, and the rich legacy of this cultural transformation has elevated the status of classical culture to an unprecedented position.

If we consider the Renaissance movement in Europe as a collective retrospection of classical culture, we should not be surprised by the “neoclassical” trend that emerged in the 18th century, also in Italy. The reflection on the Baroque and Rococo art styles that lasted from the 16th century to the middle of the 18th century prompted artists to pursue simplicity, elegance, rationality and balance in their work, in order to transcend the overly decorative, emotionally charged and pretentious art style. With the rising of the “Grand Tour”, people’s interest in discovering and exploring ancient Greece and Rome grew continuously. The excavation of Pompeii and other historical sites in Italy ignited the social elite’s admiration and enthusiasm for classical culture. This trend coincided with the Age of Enlightenment’s emphasis on the emancipation of the mind and the faith in science, culminating in an artistic landscape in which the classical was emulated in architecture, sculpture, painting and literature.

In the field of music, what we know as the classical style, which emerged during this historical period, actually belongs to the neoclassical branch of art. This style placed emphases on instrumental music and standardized structures, pursued dramatic and ideological musical expression, and favoured subjects from classical mythology and epics. The development of the sonata form and the sonata cycle marked the efforts to perfect the classical music system, and the classical genres structured based on this form, such as the concerto, the symphony, the instrumental ensembles, etc., established the independent status and the scope of “classical music”. The “neoclassical” art fashion that became popular in Europe around the French Revolution had a deep social and cultural background. On one hand, it was in line with the bourgeoisie’s political quest for a republic system inherited from the Roman era; on the other hand, the new rulers, such as Napoleon, wished to establish their sacred status in order to gain the necessary legitimacy for nationalism and personal worship. More importantly, the reverence for classical culture laid the foundation for the establishment of modern social beliefs. The intellectuals strove to find in classical culture the faith appropriate to the times, which the artists sought to manifest in their respective fields. The aesthetic pursuit of eternity and immortality was also one of the elements that led to the development of “neoclassicism”, which had a profound influence on romanticism and historicism in the 19th century.

II. The Dislocation of Time and Space in “Neoclassical music”

While the Pantheon designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot and the history paintings by Jacques-Louis David are marked as artistic icons of the heyday of neoclassicism in European art history, Western classical music of the same period has never been labelled as “neoclassical”. This is perhaps because the music of the period, as a highly abstract acoustic language, had greater originality. It could not directly imitate the tangible classical cultural heritage, but rather created new music based on classical concepts and artistic principles that contributed to rational inquiry and appreciation of the noble. At the height of its development, the “Viennese Classical School” surpassed the Baroque with a wealth of works and genres such as symphonies, concertos and chamber music, opening up new paths for the overall modernization of Western music. In fact, what’s called “neoclassical music” in music history is a trend of development in modern music in the 20th century, and there is a clear temporal and spatial misalignment with “neoclassicism” in art history. Although both are labelled “neoclassical”, the substance is very different and needs to be treated as such. This temporal and spatial dislocation is probably due to the way different people use the term in different scopes and in reference to different times. No specific definition or theoretical explanation has been given. People just talk about “neoclassicism” in reference to different periods in art and music history, with a clear distinction of what it means.

“Neoclassical music” was born between the two world wars, when some European composers criticized the unrestrained emotionalism and loose romanticism that had prevailed since the mid-19th century, while at the same time reflecting on the avant-garde art represented by expressionist music in the first two decades of the 20th century. In their works, these composers strove to return to the order and balance, the clarity and economy, and the restraint in emotional expression that characterized classical music. In 1919 Russian composer Igor Stravinsky started composing the music for the ballet Pulcinella. With its pre-classical style and thematic melodies believed to have been composed by the opera buffa pioneer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, this work marked the official beginning of neoclassical music. Stravinsky made an artistic manifesto of embracing the “classical” and “returning to Bach” and thus started a new trend of reviving the historical music of the 18th century Classical and Baroque periods.

Stravinsky showed a distinctly neoclassical tendency in a series of works from the middle of his creative career. He favoured 18th-century classical music and paid particular attention to rhythmic patterns and counterpoint techniques. Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpieces also include Octet for Winds, Concerto in D, Concerto in E-flat major Dumbarton Oaks, Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in Three Movements, The Oratorio Oedipus Rex, the ballets Apollo and Orpheus, as well as the opera The Rake’s Progress composed in 1951. Stravinsky’s neoclassical conception based on the reinterpretation and transformation of classical style was a major influence on French composers Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre and Bohuslav Martinů, among others. They followed the examples of Stravinsky’s works and composed many pieces in genres and styles typical of the Baroque and Classical periods. In Hungary, the composer Béla Bartók and his colleague Zoltán Kodály also became advocates of neoclassical music and incorporated classical elements into their works, under the guidance of the concept of stylistic fusion. Other composers influenced by Stravinsky include Italian composer Alfredo Casella and Austrian composer Richard Strauss, whose instrumental suites for small orchestra and piano are clearly modeled on the works of Baroque composers.

Another trend in 20th-century neoclassical music originated with Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni’s involvement in the initiation of German “New Objectivity” movement in response to Expressionist music. The artists who took this position rejected the self-involvement and romantic aspirations of expressionism. The intellectuals of the Weimar Republic called on the public to resist romantic idealism and to promote functional, practical art. In the field of music, the creative trend of the “new objectivism” was developed by German composer Paul Hindemith. His works, mostly chamber music, large-scale orchestral music and operas, are distinctively characteristic of counterpoint and chromaticism, which is most obvious in his 1935 opera Mathis der Maler. In contrast to Stravinsky’s more outwardly neoclassical style, Hindemith placed more emphasis on the inherent classical temperament and attitude in a work. His constant quest for musical objectivity and simplicity led him to direct his composition at the general public, seeking to bridge the gap between modern music and the popular taste with the concept of “Gebrauchsmusik” (practical music). In addition to the two major trends in France and Germany, neoclassical ideas were also prevalent among classical composers in Spain, Italy, and South America. Representative works include Manuel de Falla’s music for the puppet show El retablo de maese Pedro (The Puppet Show of Maestro Pedro, 1923) and the Chamber Concerto for Feather Keys, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1926); Alfredo Casella's Scarlattiana: Divertimento su musiche di Domenico Scarlatti (1926); Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Dances in the Style of Bach); and others. In the second half of the 20th century, more composers used elements of classical music to create contemporary music with an integrated style. Representative composers include Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Garryevich Schnittke, Max Richter and others, although none of them can be considered as typical representatives of “neoclassical music”.

III. Modern Musicians’ “Classical” Sentiments and New Aspirations

Neoclassical music of the 20th century was not an organized artistic movement, but an aesthetic trend and ideological tendency generally accepted by musicians. It was based on a long-standing yearn and anticipation for classical culture, and was the artistic culmination of the “classical” sentiments of modern composers. If we extend the scope of our observation to the 19th century, we will find that the “neoclassical music” stream already emerged then. First, many composers in the first half of the 19th century were directly influenced by the idea of classicism and showed their dedication to classical culture and classical paradigms of composition through their individual works. Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn and Frédéric Chopin, among others, had a lifelong passion for the classical, even though their music was more often defined as Romantic at the time and later. Second, a phenomenon of stylistic compatibility was prevalent among composers of the Romantic era. This was related to the artistic ideals that composers had in mind, as well as to their professional education and their admiration for the masters who had come before them. Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Edward Grieg, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy, Joseph Maurice Ravel, and even Richard Wagner, who was widely criticized by neoclassical musicians, all showed more or less attention to classical culture and emulation of it in their musical compositions. Thirdly, from an early age on, faithful defenders of classical music including Johannes Brahms and Max Reger among others had continued to compose music in the spirit of classicism, following the examples of George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. This phenomenon, which seems to be the opposite of late Romantic music, had in fact taken on the basic characteristics of neoclassical music.

In the 20th century, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev composed his Symphony No. 1 “Classical” in 1917; Richard Strauss revised his orchestral suite Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in the following year. These works, with their typically classical style, are seen as a “transitional stage” towards Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. Italian composers Ottorino Respighi, with his Ancient Airs and Dances, and Gian Francesco Malipiero, with his compilation of musical works by the late Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi, encouraged their contemporaries to look further back in time in order to free themselves from the formalistic genres and styles of classicism in their musical creation.

The early signs of neoclassical music clearly show that this trend did not emerge by accident, nor was it ever an isolated phenomenon. It was a natural consequence of artists’ efforts to cherish the history and to reflect on their time, as well as one of their important ways to pursue musical innovation. After all, in a modern context where relatively stable and uniform musical styles are gone, the review and revival of the classical tradition have effectively boosted the courage and self-confidence of contemporary musicians in their artistic creation, freeing them from loneliness, despair and uncertainty. On the other hand, the composers of neoclassical music have more or less distanced themselves from the real-life disasters and ideological conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century with a return to the history, giving them the opportunity to stay temporarily in the pure land of classical culture created by themselves. In addition, neoclassical music became partly an ironic and critical response to the real world. This trend persisted long after the Second World War and directly affected our aesthetic experience and value judgments of classical music. Regardless of the critical attitude of the 20th century toward neoclassicism, one cannot deny the enduring appeal of classical culture to intellectuals and artists, for it is not only the birthplace of artistic ideals and hopes, but also a source of intellectual resources and spiritual security for human cultural innovation and development. In this sense, many aspects of our lives are also oriented toward classicism, seeking cultural rebirth in the midst of the collision and balance of reality.


Heitor Villa-Lobos “Aria (Cantilena)” ( from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 )
Xuefei Yang Guitar
XU Ting Cello
Stravinsky Concerto in E-flat major (Dumbarton Oaks)
Respighi Antiche Danze ed Arie per Liuto (Ancient Airs and Dances), Suite III, P. 172
CHEN Lin Conductor
Ravel Le tombeau de Couperin
CHEN Lin Conductor
Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)
XU Zhong Conductor
Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements
Bartok Concerto for Orchestra in F minor, BB123
LI Biao Conductor
Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D major
LÜ Jia Conductor
HUANG Mengla Violin
Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Stravinsky Jeu de cartes (Game of Cards)
YUAN Ding Conductor
Li-Wei Qin Cello