A new movement?

While working on an extension of a chapter in my book, as a preparation for its 2nd edition by Dover – it is the chapter where a number of new tonal composers are mentioned by way of examples – there appear to be many more of such composers than imagined before. One wonders who else is out there, of whom hardly anybody has heard, and whose efforts are valuable contributions to the art form in spite of not being performed. Herbert Paul’s fascinating study ‘Two Centuries in One’….


….. already revealed the richness of the field, but my impression is that not all of these composers – having been performed, having enjoyed successes – will have achieved the artistic level that can survive the erosion of time, in other words: there will have been works which do not invite repeated hearing. But that goes for all music produced in any age, the general production provides the context within which the great works can blossom.

It is heart-warming to discover so many musically-gifted people, dedicating their life to this ephemeral art form with its wicked, tricky professional field full of problems and barriers. Some of them enjoy many performances, other only very few, but this is unrelated to the qualities of their music: performance chances depend on so many different factors of which luck and circumstance are more decisive than justice and true interest. Many of the composers I have researched are Americans; in Europe, some new tonal music can be found in England and France, but the German-speaking lands are conspicuously silent on the matter, still concentrated as they are on postwar modernism which offers an ethical ‘correct’ stand:


The only exceptions I could find thus far, are the Austrian composers Wolfram Wagner (no family) and Johanna Doderer. But a more tonal and traditional touch can also be heard in German modernist composer Wolfgang Rihm’s late violin concerto Lichtes Spiel – result of reflection of old age?


Up till now I have found many musical beauties in the works of John Kinsella, Jonathan Leshnoff, Stephen Albert, Aaron Jay Kernis, Pierre Jalbert, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Fribbins, Karol Beffa, Daniel Asia, Paul Moravec, and I thought that older composers like Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhanes, Frank Martin and Vagn Holmboe should also be included: they kept the flame burning in times where music like theirs was increasingly been described as ‘outdated’ and ‘derivative’, while on careful listening one can only conclude that they differ as much from their examples as Mozart from Haydn, Brahms from Schumann, Wagner from almost all early 19C opera composers and Beethoven, Franck from Wagner and Bruckner, Ravel from Debussy, etc. etc. It is so obvious that such critique stems from an entirely distorted idea of music history…. and one can only hope that in some better-informed non-ideological future this history will be thoroughly revised.

Interestingly, what all of these composers had and have in common, is a feeling for beauty: not as their goal, but as a natural by-product of their stronger wish to make their music ‘speak’, to write with musical expression. The wish to ‘say’ something authentic and true, combines with the awareness that saying it in a well-articulated way only enhances the experience, and thus the musical language is tonal, often using triadic sound and lively instrumental colour and rhythm. All this is a convincing demonstration that the concept of tradition is being re-interpreted, in many different ways, free from dogma and orthodoxy, and bearing fruit. Could we speak of a ‘movement’, like ‘impressionism’ or ‘expressionism’, or ‘romanticism’ in the 19th century? I think so, although I would not like to stick a label on it, which is always restricting. The least one can say is that we are witnessing a Renaissance of serious music, which is astonishing as it is hopeful, given the context of our time.


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