The Moderns Find Tonality


Romantic concert music, especially on the grand scale, is my soul music. It’s impossible for me to believe that this vital strand in our species’ creative tradition will ever die out. So the preservation and promotion of this tradition becomes a mission of sorts.

I talked about the birth and decline of the romantic period in symphonic music in an earlier article. For Gaskill’s Guide to Epic Orchestral music, you go to ( for a recently updated version.

As this is really an update to my earlier article, I’ll set the stage for this continuing review with an excerpt:

What most people call “classical” music tends to include all so called “serious” music: the baroque, the classical, the romantic and the so-called modern works; most of it was composed for concert performances, typically using strings, woodwinds, brasses and percussion. Classical music in this sense is the music to be carefully listened to. It is also the music whose popularity is best measured over large time scales, rather than from last week’s sales charts. The 19th century was a period of heroic exploration, risk and revolution. Unsurprisingly, various epic and romantic visions of the human condition began breaking into in art and literature. It was only a matter of time before these grand impulses found musical expression of equal grandeur. The epic romantic symphony remained a major musical genre, becoming, in the popular mind, the archetypical “classical” music, until “modern” atonality and dissonance began to dominate. Symphonic music became increasingly less accessible in the second half of the 20th century, often devolving into a radically distorted form. Often explicitly anti-heroic and anti-romantic, it began to sound like the music of a mental disorder.

For a romantic like me, this was concert’s music’s “dark age”, a period when beautiful and stirring music gave way to the experimental and off-putting music of chaos and anxiety.

Many concert goers voted with their feet.

My earlier piece lists some of the most remarkable products of that earlier epic age of great music, a period that lasted through the first half of the 20th century As I pointed out then, ), the romantic tradition survived in the movies; and many of the great soundtrack scores have a new life on the concert stage.

To be fair, the experimental period, while driving away listeners, did enrich the musical palate, giving serous composers new sonic tools to fold into a renewed romanticism, should that kind of music ever make a serious comeback on the concert stage.

The good news is that the listeners and concert goers – who, after all, never really abandoned tonal beauty and noble emotional expression as the core convert experience – have won the day. The experimentalists still find their way into the repertoire, but their worst music no longer dominates it. And a new generation of serious romantic composers has emerged….

The Moderns Find Tonality:

The Elegiac, Dramatic & Transcendent

Suffice it to say, that representation of the romantic tradition declined in concert halls in the post WWII period, replaced by the “modern” atonal tradition. It is no surprise that concert hall attendance began to decline.

But Strident atonality was challenged from the very beginning by the small group of stubborn European romantics who found work in the US writing for the movies.

Transplanted European composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Sea Hawk, Of Human Bondage), Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon), and Nino Rota (The Godfather) continued the tradition and were joined by a number of home grown American composers of whom Elmer Bernstein and John Williams come immediately to mind.

There are dozens of others, many of whom have written great scores that deserve a concert hall audience.

Like Serge Prokofiev in Russia, America’s Aaron Copland wrote for both concert hall and film (note -“Billy the Kid” (1938), “Rodeo” (1942), and “Of Mice and Men” (1938).

Among the romantics who emerged amid the angst and disorder of the atonalists a single group has occupied front stage: these are the so called “minimalists”. When tonality first returned, it had (in the minimalist style) a radically stripped down melodic structure. Complexity and interest was maintained via clever rhythmic changes and other subtle tonal modulations.

But the door to romantic music had been reopened. And much more robust romantic music was to follow.

And something else has been happening just under the radar.

In this predominantly secular culture, religious and spiritual music has captured the imagination of the new romantics. They have created some extraordinary new music that transcends the sect, faith and even the secular divide.



Gaskill’s picks –

My personal list of the best ten modern extraordinary spiritual / religious works is set out below in alphabetical order, but the chronology is interesting.

My first pick is vintage 1938 Igor Stravinsky. His angular, rhythmically intense “Symphony of Psalms” prefigured some of the stylistic elements of the later liturgical music I‘ve also selected. The prolific Armenian-American composer, Alan Hovhaness, followed with a new musical flavor that somehow hints of Asian tonality while remaining distinctly American in flavor. Spiritual themes dominate Hovhaness’ works, even the ostensibly secular ones like his most famous orchestral work, Mysterious Mountain.

Phillip Glass, among all the post-moderns (if I dare use that term in this exalted context) has created the most hypnotically distinctive minimalist voice. His Symphony number 5 is a mesmerizing spiritual work about creation and the human condition, using sacred texts from the entire religious and spiritual palate.

John Adams is represented here by his post 9-11 masterpiece, On the Transmigration of Souls, the single most searing meditation ever done in musical form.

My personal favorite is the set of Judeo-Christian pieces by jazz composer, the immortal Dave Brubeck, whose early secular work for orchestra and jazz combo, Elementals, was deeply impressive.

An aside: That early work is a classic in my canon, though it probably will not be performed in Mr. Brubeck’s lifetime without his personal contribution at the keyboard. Meantime, Elementals enjoys a performance life as a ballet score using the 1970 recording with saxophonist, Jerry Mulligan, and the Cincinnati Symphony.

But Mr. Brubeck’s “Easter Oratorio”, “Pange Lingua Variations” and “Voices of the Holy Spirit” (so far available only on Telarc in a 2 disc set) are classics for all time. The concluding piece, Regret, is deeply personal to the composer and only nominally secular.

Ten Extraordinary Spiritual / Religious Works from the Later 20th & Early 21st Centuries

John Adams:

(1) On the Transmigration of Souls (A 9-11 Meditation 2002)

Dave Brubeck: [All from “Classical Brubeck” – Telarc]

(2) Beloved Son (Easter Oratorio with orchestra and jazz quartet – 1978)

(3) Pange Lingua Variations (for chorus and orchestra – 1983)

(4) Voices of the Holy Spirit (1985)

(5) Regret (Mediation for string orchestra and jazz piano – 2001)

Phillip Glass:

(6) Symphony Number 5 – 2000 (Only on Nonesuch 2 discs)

Before the Creation, Creation of the Cosmos, Creation of sentient Beings, Creation of human Beings, Love and Joy, Evil and Ignorance, Suffering, Compassion, Death, Judgment and Apocalypse, Dedication of Merit

Alan Hovhaness:

(7) Celestial Gate Symphony (No.6) – 1959

(8) Saint Vartan Symphony (No. 9) – 1949

(9) City of Light Symphony (no. 22) – 1970

Igor Stravinsky

(10) The Symphony of Psalms (1930)

Exaudi orationem meum; Expectans expectavi Dominum; Alleluja. Laudate Dominum



Not only do we have new music we have new media. No everyone lives within easy travel distance of a major concert venue, within the range of a good “classical music” FM station, or even close to a well stocked CD vendor (especially after the demise of Tower Records).

But the internet, the MP3 player and the “i Pod” have come to the rescue. Among the classical concert FM and HD radio broadcasts now available in streaming audio on the internet, I recommend the following links:

KDFC, San Francisco

KING, Seattle

Classical KBYU FM, Salt Lake City

Obviously there are many others. Do forward me a link to your own favorites. A short list of other resources follows:

A Quick (and incomplete)

Review of Other Music Links


CD Universe

Barnes & Noble



NY Philharmonic Weekly Broadcast

Other NYP Podcasts

WQXR New York Classical 96.3

San Francisco Symphony free Audio clips

Performance Today


Apple i Tunes Store (the classical music library is not search friendly)

e Classical Download Shop MP3 (a decent traditional selection but there are gaps)

AMClassical (a limited selection of free downloadable music in MP3)


Classical Archives (A large classical selection in MP3, subscription required).



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