Commentary Magazine

The New Tonalists

A chapter in the history of American classical music is quietly drawing to a close, and—though unknown to most music lovers—another has already opened.

For the past fifteen years, a group of American composers, collectively known as the minimalists, has dominated the new-music scene. Their works, immediately recognizable by the use of endlessly repeated melodic fragments and slow-moving harmonic sequences, have been performed by first-tier orchestras, opera companies, and chamber ensembles, recorded by major labels, fought over by critics, and imitated by students. They are the first classical composers since the 40′s to have achieved broad-based popularity, and as such, they have set the tone for contemporary classical music in America, and more recently in Europe as well.

But while these composers—the best-known of whom are Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams—remain active, they are no longer the sole source of creative vitality in American musical life. The past years have seen the emergence of a clutch of younger composers, all born since 1945, who have turned their backs on minimalism. Their music, too, is being performed, and in many cases recorded, by the symphony orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities here and abroad; it is receiving increasingly respectful critical attention; and it is drawing audiences in steadily growing numbers.

Who are these composers? How good is the music they write? What does their arrival portend? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to take a quick look backward at the musical course of our century.



History is written by the victors. Until recently, the received version of the modern movement in classical music has reflected the prejudices of those modernist composers who controlled the musical establishment from the late 1950′s until the advent of minimalism two decades later. Their ideology—an ideology of revolt against tradition—continues to distort our understanding of how modern music actually developed, and why it finally reached a dead end.

Contrary to the received wisdom, musical modernism at its inception represented a revolt not against tradition in general but against German Romanticism in particular. By the end of the 19th century, Richard Wagner, the quintessential German Romantic composer, had become the dominant, style-setting figure of the age, a fixed star by which all progressive musicians navigated. But Wagner’s example proved to be not liberating but stifling. To many ambitious young composers at the turn of the century, his operas were too long, too loud, too lavishly orchestrated, too self-absorbed, and above all—at least for the non-Germans among them—too German.

It was a Frenchman, Claude Debussy, who led the revolt against Wagnerism. Starting with Prélude à I’apràs-midi d’un faune (1892-94), Debussy moved away from Wagner’s oppressively hyperchromatic harmonic language, creating a more open and flexible form of tonal organization that served as a model for succeeding generations who wished to work within the classical tradition without slavishly aping German models.

It was largely because of Debussy, who happened to be an intense French nationalist, that no “international style” emerged during the first decades of musical modernism. Instead, composers adopted widely varied styles which, though recognizably modern in their use of the expanded language of post-Debussyan tonality, were also rooted in the melodic and rhythmic inflections of specific cultures. Virtually without exception, the key figures of the modern movement, from Hungary’s Béla Bartók to America’s Aaron Copland, wrote music that vividly reflected their diverse origins; even Igor Stravinsky, who spent much time and energy denying his heritage and claiming to be a musical cosmopolitan, was Russian to the core.

By the 30′s, the new harmonic worlds discovered by Debussy had been explored to their uttermost limits. Indeed, it seemed possible that all subsequent stylistic developments in classical music would take place within the framework of tonal modernism. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this belief was by the German modernist Paul Hindemith:

Music has now entered the phase of its life that corresponds with the natural permanent state of poetry. . . . Everybody who understands the national language of a writer knows his poetic material of construction thoroughly. Yet poetry has not come to an end, and never will, so long as there are spoken and intelligible languages. Why, then, should music have reached the final epochs of its existence after all the material of harmonic construction is equally well known?

That the essentially conservative modernism of Hindemith, Stravinsky, and their contemporaries was, in fact, an outgrowth of the classical tradition is proved by the fact that so many of the numerous works they composed between 1930 and 1945 have long since entered the standard repertoire. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony (1934), Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1935-36), Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936), Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937), Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (1938), Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939), Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments (1940), Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945)—all these masterpieces date from a time when it seemed that modernism was here to stay.



But in classical music, as in the other arts, there were really two modernisms—one conservative, the other profoundly radical—and the chief architect of the second modernism made it his life’s work to subvert the first.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was a German Romantic turned modernist who, unlike his contemporaries, refused to accept that German and Austrian composers would no longer chart the course of classical music. Initially, the young Schoenberg sought to restore German musical hegemony by extending Wagner’s hyperchromatic harmonic vocabulary. But the unexpected result of this experiment was that traditional tonality, already stretched to the breaking point in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899), Gurrelieder (1900-11), and Pelleas und Melisande (1903), dissolved altogether in the finale of the Second String Quartet (1907-08) and the song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908-09). These are the first pieces of modern classical music that can properly be called nontonal—or, to use the generally accepted term, atonal.

Schoenberg spent the next decade working out the implications of his discovery in such influential compositions as Pierrot lunaire (1912). But he eventually found atonality too unstable to serve as a basis for formally coherent musical works. What was needed was a more systematic approach to composition, one that would integrate atonal harmony with the precisely articulated formal structures of the Austro-German classical tradition. To that end, he invented in 1920 the method now known as serialism, in which the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are arranged in “rows” whose various permutations provide the material for large-scale, nontonal compositions.

For Schoenberg, serialism was not merely a source of creative renewal but also a means of reversing the trend that had toppled Central European composers from their position of absolute stylistic dominance. In serialism, he boasted, “I have discovered something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” But he attracted only two disciples of importance, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and both men, like their teacher, were Viennese. Elsewhere, serialism was dismissed as a solution to a problem that did not exist. The vast majority of concert-goers throughout Europe and America detested serial music, finding it sterile and nonsensical, and the rest of the modern movement continued to embrace tonality.



All this changed, however, after 1945. The chaos into which the West had been plunged by World War II created an opening for cultural ideologues with comprehensive, world-ordering systems, and serialism filled the bill to perfection. Young composers, most notably Pierre Boulez in France and Milton Babbitt in the United States, took up Schoenberg’s methods and applied them in an even more systematic manner than did the master. Soon it was being said that the triumph of serialism was historically inevitable, with Boulez going so far as to declare that “every musician who has not felt . . . the necessity of the serial language is USELESS.”

The Marxian echoes of such rhetoric exercised a strong appeal to intellectuals (the art critic Clement Greenberg was then explaining the rise of abstract expressionism in broadly analogous terms). Similarly attractive, at least to academic scholars of music, was the mathematical rigor of serial technique. Thanks to Boulez and Babbitt, what had once been a style soon became a discipline, and one that could be taught to students much more easily than tonal modernism with its emphasis on stylistic diversity. By the 1960′s, serialist composers had become ensconced on the faculties of America’s most prestigious schools of music. In Europe, state-subsidized radio orchestras and new-music ensembles (especially England’s BBC Symphony) adopted aggressively pro-serialist programming, to the point where younger tonal composers often found it all but impossible to get a hearing.

To revisit the postwar literature of serialism is to be struck by the smugness with which it proclaimed that the lineage of classical music descended not through the tonal modernists but through Schoenberg and his successors. Charles Wuorinen, for instance, wrote in 1979 that the tonal system “is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream,” while the pianist and critic Charles Rosen claimed that those who continued to use tonality were “retreating from the ideal of original invention that has been imposed on art since the Renaissance.”

These claims, as it happens, were no more valid two decades ago than they are today. Britten and Shostakovich continued to produce “original” tonal masterpieces well into the 70′s, and many younger American composers of note, including Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano, David Diamond, and Ned Rorem, also saw no reason to abandon tonality. At the same time, only one piece of serial music, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (in which the tone row is manipulated in such a way as to permit pseudo-tonal effects), became part of the international concert repertoire; to this day, no other fully serial composition has been programmed regularly by star performers or embraced by more than a handful of listeners.

Nevertheless, the general perception in musical circles was that serialism had triumphed; even Stravinsky and Copland finally converted in old age. As more and more composers submitted to the method’s lockstep discipline, the public, too, came to agree with this judgment—and it responded by, in effect, giving up on new music altogether.



Perhaps fittingly, it was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, the American composer John Cage, who did more than anyone else to undermine the serialist orthodoxy.

Unlike the serialists, who continued to believe in the validity of their own version of musical tradition, Cage believed in nothing. He was the first composer to transplant the anarchic credo of the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp into the rigidly ordered environment of late-modern classical music. Just as Duchamp had taken snow shovels and bicycle wheels and displayed them as “ready-made” sculptures, so did Cage tune twelve radios to different stations and call the resulting cacophony music; in 1952, he “composed” 4? 33?, a piece for any instrument or combination of instruments that consists solely of four minutes and 3 3 seconds’ worth of silence.

Though Cage and his fellow avant-gardists were no more successful than the serialists in appealing to the public, their ideas foreshadowed the emergence of a new strain of musical thinking. Starting in the late 60′s, a number of American composers became convinced that modernism, at least as it had come to be defined by the serialists, was at a dead end. Comparable conclusions were being drawn in the fields of writing and the visual arts. By the mid-70′s, the term “postmodern” was being widely invoked to describe a new style in which the high moral seriousness and technical complexity of modernism were supplanted by a playful nihilism.

In music, the chief manifestation of this development was minimalism, developed more or less simultaneously by Steve Reich and Philip Glass.1 Reich and Glass constructed their pieces out of simple melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic cells, repeated ad infinitum in gradually shifting patterns. The effect of their music was “tonal” in the limited sense that it was not atonal, but it did not constitute a genuine return to functional tonality. For the minimalists had no more use for the classical tradition than they did for modernism. Rather, they wrenched familiar devices from their traditional contexts, transplanting them into new settings for ironic effect.

The irony, however, rebounded. Hungry for new music that made sense, concertgoers took minimalism at face value, hearing in the compositions of Reich, Glass, and their younger follower John Adams not a distanced commentary on Western musical tradition but a comparatively straightforward use of tonal materials. Other young composers, having caught a glimpse of the once-forbidden delights of sold-out performances and respectable record sales, abandoned serialism for minimalism in droves.

As things inevitably turned out, minimalism, for all its surface flair, was musically too insubstantial to appeal for very long either to listeners or to most composers. Once the novelty wore off, the underlying shallowness of content became all too apparent. What did not wear off, though, was the now-widespread conviction that serialism, far from having been historically necessary, had in fact represented a drastically wrong turn. For this reason, once minimalism ran its course, there would be no revival of that particular branch of modernism.

Instead, starting in the mid-80′s, a new generation of American composers began producing scores influenced neither by serialism nor by minimalism but by the music of the long-unfashionable tonal modernists. Operating largely out of sight of the media, these “new tonalists” embarked on the task of going back to the future—of reattaching classical composition to the mainstream of musical tradition.



Among the leading exponents of the new tonalism are ten young Americans: Daniel Asia, Richard Danielpour, Michael Daugherty, Elliott Goldenthal, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Lowell Liebermann, Paul Moravec, Christopher Rouse, and George Tsontakis.2 Though their music varies widely in style, all of them speak the language of tonality, and do so without irony or self-consciousness. This is what sets them apart from the postmodern movement: they are neither embarrassed nor paralyzed by tradition. Rather, they accept it as a given.

The new tonalists are similarly united in their rejection of the hermeticism of late modernism. Rather, they seek to compose serious music intelligible to the common listener, and they therefore tend to work in conventional forms, writing symphonies, operas, chamber music, and ballet and film scores (Elliott Goldenthal, for instance, scored Batman Forever and Interview with the Vampire). Some also make use of more contemporary stylistic developments; in Jackie 0 (1997), an opera based loosely on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Michael Daugherty incorporates rock rhythms and instrumental techniques drawn from film and TV music.

Many of the characteristic features of the new tonalism can be heard in Paul Moravec’s masterly Violin Sonata (1992). This 22-minute work, cast in standard three-movement sonata form (fast-slow-fast), opens with a striking high-register passage for violin, backed by a nervously fluttering piano figure that outlines the key of D in the dissonance-tinged manner of the tonal modernists. Yet Moravec uses post-Debussyan tonality not to comment retrospectively on an older style but to make a direct statement of his own. The writing for both violin and piano is resourceful but idiomatic—there are no avant-garde “special effects”—and the thematic material, especially in the contemplative slow movement, is richly melodic.

In evaluating the work of Moravec and his contemporaries, it is important to keep in mind that the new tonalism has existed as an identifiable idiom for just over a decade; many of its practitioners have yet to develop fully original styles of their own, and some are distinctive only to the extent that they are consistent in their borrowings. Richard Danielpour, Elliott Goldenthal, and Libby Larsen, for example, have produced numerous pieces which, though attractive and well-made, often fail to transcend their easily identifiable sources (Danielpour, whose music often bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Leonard Bernstein, is especially problematic in this regard). Others—Christopher Rouse and Aaron Jay Kernis being cases in point—are so concerned with making “big statements” that their music, striving for high seriousness, occasionally stumbles instead into portentous excess.

But several of the new tonalists have turned out scores that bode well for the long term. Despite their shared penchant for overstatement, Rouse and Kernis are composers of undeniable accomplishment. In addition, Moravec’s Violin Sonata, George Tsontakis’s Fourth String Quartet (1988), Daniel Asia’s Third Symphony (1991), and Lowell Liebermann’s Second Piano Concerto (1992) are all major musical statements, fully worthy of comparison (as is much of their recent work) with the music of Copland or Barber. No less interesting in his own witty, unassuming way is Michael Daugherty, whose Jackie 0, though it suffers from Wayne Koestenbaum’s pretentious libretto, is surely the work of a born theater composer.



Paul Hindemith, it turns out, was right: classical music has not yet reached its final epoch. Now that the wreckage of serialism and the nihilist avant-garde have been cleared away, it can be seen that late modernism, together with its postmodernist coda, constituted nothing more than a hiatus in the continuity of a classical tradition that had run uninterrupted from the 17th century to the end of World War II.

The new tonalists are making it possible once again for American composers to walk in the paths blazed by the geniuses of that tradition. To be sure, we cannot yet say whether any of them is writing music that will permanently endure. But we can already say that because of their efforts, American classical music has recaptured the potential for greatness, and the masters of the future will stand on their shoulders.



The New Tonalists on CD: A Select Discography

Daniel Asia (b. 1953): The Third Symphony (1991) can be heard in a recording by James Sedares and the Phoenix Symphony (New World Records 80447-2).

Richard Danielpour (b. 1956): The Concerto for Orchestra (1996) has been recorded by David Zinman and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 62822).

Michael Daugherty (b. 1954): Houston Grand Opera’s premiere production of Jackie O (1997) was recorded live for commercial release, conducted by Christopher Larkin (Argo 455 591-2ZH). Also available is Metropolis Symphony (1988-93), performed by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony (Argo 452 103-2ZH).

Elliott Goldenthal (b. 1954): Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio (1993-95) has been recorded by Yo-Yo Ma, the Pacific Chorale, and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carl St. Clair (Sony Classical SK 68368).

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960): Colored Field (1994) has been recorded by Julie Ann Giacobassi, Alasdair Neale, and the San Francisco Symphony (Argo 448 174-2ZH).

Libby Larsen (b. 1950): The Third Symphony (1995) is available in a performance by Joel Revzen and the London Symphony (Koch International 3-7370-2H1).

Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961): Stephen Hough has recorded the Second Piano Concerto (1992) with the BBC Scottish Symphony conducted by the composer (Hyperion CDA66966).

Paul Moravec (b. 1957): The Sonata for Violin and Piano (1992) has been recorded by Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff (Catalyst/BMG 09026-61824-2). Also available is Circular Dreams (1991), performed by the Carnegie Chamber Players (CRI CD 641).

Christopher Rouse (b. 1949): The Second Symphony (1994) can be heard with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (Telarc CD-80452).

George Tsontakis (b. 1951): The Fourth String Quartet (1988) has been recorded by the American String Quartet (New World Records 80414-2). Also available are Four Symphonic Quartets (1992-96), performed by James DePreist and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (Koch International 3-7384-2-H1).



1 For a more detailed discussion of the rise of minimalism and other postmodern musical styles, see my article “Holy Minimalism” (COMMENTARY, April 1995).

2 This list does not pretend to be exhaustive. Some new tonalists—most notably Jorge Martin, composer of Beast and Superbeast, a quartet of one-act chamber operas based on the short stories of Saki—do not appear here simply because their music has not yet been commercially recorded. For currently available recordings of representative works, see the discography on p. 57.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.