The Romance We Never Had

Fellow critic/blogger Alex Ross (currently on book leave) offers a thoughtful reply to my post on American Romantic painting vs. music:

I think it’s a terribly important topic, actually, why there is no great 19th-century American music. Composers feel that absence to this day. At the same time, it’s a great thing. You couldn’t have had a Cage if there had been a musical Melville.

I’ll see that, and I’ll raise him: I think that absence helps account for the fact that America has produced such a stream of neoromantic composers – Barber, Hanson, Diamond, Corigliano, right up through Rochberg and Bolcom – a type virtually unknown in Europe. Because we never had Great American Romantic Music, someone’s always finding it irresistible to fill in that gap. Even the middle movement of my own Transcendental Sonnets is an attempt to figure out what an American Brahms’ Requiem might have sounded like.


  1. Gabor says

    There are plenty of 20th century European Romantics and neo-Romantics. Americans just don’t hear about them. You’re more likely to hear some British names, so here are some Germans: Henze, Killmayer, Rihm, Reimann, von Bose, Trojahn, von Schweinitz, Udo Zimmermann. These are all major composers who get played much. One difference with the American romantics, is that for Europeans it doesn’t mean only conservative tonality so much as an extreme of expression, like in “Young Werther”.
    KG replies: Well, I’ve always thought of Henze as neoclassic and Killmayer and Rihm as more “expressionist.” You may call them neoromantic, but clearly between Hanson and Rihm we’re talking about extremely different styles.

  2. Gabor says

    Between Hanson and Rihm are also at least two generations. An example of Hanson’s contemporaries would be Egk, although also an Orff student like Killmayer, his music was influenced by equal parts Richard Strauss, early Stravinsky and Milhaud. The romantic generation of middle 20th century is some what unclear (for obvious reasons), but dominated by students of Busoni and Strauss, romantics both.
    KG replies: I’m familiar with Egk, and Dietrich Erdmann, and Boris Blacher, and K.A. Hartmann, and Lovro von Matacic, and Tilo Medek, and Johann Nepomuk David, and Hermann Reutter, and Wolfgang Fortner, and other Continental conservatives, of whom I used be the designated reviewer for Fanfare magazine. As you say, there’s a lot of Stravinsky in there, and I never found a widespread strain of mid-19th-century-imitative lushness the way you do with Rorem, Piston, Menotti, Bernstein, Douglas Moore, Carlisle Floyd, Bernard Herrmann, Harbison, Van de Vate, Del Tredici, Christopher Rouse, John Adams, late Gunther Schuller, Stephen Albert, Ellen Zwilich, and occasionally Wallingford Riegger. Sure, they often used a diatonic pitch language, but that doesn’t justify putting cute, ironic La Tentation de Saint Antoine in the same camp with tear-jerking Adagio for Strings. I might grant you Ernst Pepping and Philipp Jarnach. Otherwise, I’m not convinced. Perhaps others will be.

  3. says

    Your response, Kyle, to Alex Ross brings to mind another musicological phenomenon that begs for explanation: the turn to neo-romanticism in recent years by Australia’s great post-war composers: Meale, Sculthorpe, Conyngham. Having begun as radicals, their music has become conservative, romantic tosh and, IMHO, simply unlistenable.

  4. Wayne says

    What about Britten (sometimes), but certainly V-W, Finzi, Bowen, Simpson, Martin, probably several dozen Scandinavians, Miakovsky, Vainberg, Moeran, et al. Just because they aren’t the first Europeans that come to mind doesn’t mean the type doesn’t exist. I think the premise is not very strong.
    KG replies: Yeah, but, like America, Britain and Scandinavia didn’t exactly get to participate in the great 19th-century Romantic movement either – though personally I think Franz Berwald is inexplicably underrated. And part of the point is, many of America’s most famous composers were neoromantics – in other countries, except for Britain, they’re mostly unknown, peripheral figures.