- Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint by R. James Tobin
This book surveys a body of music that major ensembles perform rarely and that broader histories of twentieth-century music cover sparsely, if at all. Cultural gatekeepers have tended to favor a view of the twentieth century that mostly accommodates music perceived as either “innovative” or politically fraught. This means that, beyond the contributions of Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, and other imposing figures during roughly the first half of the century, there tends to be scant room for so-called neoclassical music in such narratives. Admittedly, terminology is part of the problem. If the preface to Scott Messing’s book Neoclassicism in Music is any indication, the word “neoclassical,” like “modernist,” appears more often without explication than with it, cropping up in an increasing variety of contexts.1 Terminological difficulties notwithstanding, it is easy to agree with R. James Tobin that the “traditionalist” (5) composers and works he dubs as “neoclassical” in his new book, Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint, have been on the wrong sides of historiography and programming. Together with filling this “widening gap in musical history,” Tobin aims to “stimulate interest in this music among adventurous musicians and listeners” and to provide “a resource for collectors of recordings and for concert and broadcast programmers” (1). Does he succeed? The results are mixed.
After a preface chronicling his interest in the subject, Tobin begins with two chapters addressing the definitions and history of neoclassicism, particularly the European tradition and its influence upon American practitioners. Straightaway, these chapters epitomize the volume’s mixed success. The intended audience will find his streamlined account of neoclassicism very serviceable. Tobin negotiates some of the term’s manifold associations and issues, clearly appreciative of the difficulty in satisfactorily setting limits. He finally settles upon the primary definition, alluded to in the book’s full title, of neoclassical music as having the “essential qualities” of “clarity and balanced structure, as well as formal and emotional restraint” (9). He also offers a succinct historical account, with special focus upon Stravinsky’s, Hindemith’s, and Nadia Boulanger’s influence upon the American tradition. It is difficult to think of these relatively slight chapters, and the life-and-works vignettes that follow, as “filling” the historical gap mentioned at the outset, however. Although Tobin cites some important literature on [End Page 138] the subject, he does not engage with it much. If he has undertaken an in-depth, systematic investigation of American neoclassicism, the results do not show here. (The author’s statement that he “would be embarrassed to confess how much [he] did not know about the neoclassical movement when [he] began this book” [xii] does not foster much confidence on this point.) This book resembles a large collection of CD liner notes, preceded by a modest introduction, more than it does a comprehensive study. Actually, this format is perfectly fine; there is a welcome niche for such volumes. To suggest that Neoclassical Music in America does more than offer a patchy primer, however, is to exaggerate. It does not “fill” a historical gap so much as act as a placeholder for more thorough studies to come.
None of which is to say that Neoclassical Music in America does not have its research uses. The chapters that follow, up to the conclusion, feature biographical accounts of twelve different American “neoclassical” composers, followed by descriptions of selected compositions. On the whole, these sketches offer the most rewarding reading in the book. They contain some worthwhile material on individuals who, for the most part, have not received sustained critical treatment. The content derives mostly from performance reviews, CD liner notes, and other secondary sources (focused surveys, biographies, etc.). Occasionally, however, Tobin offers original insight, and this is where his pages shine. The prime example is his lengthy chapter on Harold Shapero (who is pictured on the cover), which features information gained only through personal contact and correspondence. Inevitably...