How do I find and analyse Neoclassical features in Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella Suite?’

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The meaning of ‘Neoclassical’ is the musical sense, is something ‘in the style’ of the Baroque and Classical era. Combining the words ‘neo’ meaning new, and ‘classical’ which refers back to the days of balance and clarity in musical form, this means that Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite will in some way, make compositional reference towards older forms.

However – Stravinsky was an innovator and a composer of many ideas and many styles, which means even his music that aims to recall a certain era, is no way a replication of it. He wrote it in 1920 after all, 7 years after the radical and controversial Rite of Spring! This means that this Neoclassical piece isn’t going to be as… well, Classical as one would first expect – there are still going to be many modern influences.

Therefore, to spot the features that make the piece ‘Neoclassical,’ all you have to do is find ‘old’ features that are mashed in with ‘new’ ones! We have to be very perceptive in analysing – but it is not as hard as you may think!

So, imagine you are analysing a piece that WAS composed in the time that Stravinsky is aiming to ‘copy.’ What are the features do you think you’ll see? For example, in the Gavotte and Variations, this is based on a piece by a composer called Monza in 1735, within the Baroque era – the ‘Gavotte’ being a Baroque dance form. This means that you should expect to see features of the Baroque in this piece. Try and have a think what features of tonality, harmony, texture and so forth, are prevalent in Baroque pieces.

Now, if you analyse the piece with the Baroque features in mind, and pretend that you are looking at an actual piece composed in 1735, this makes the process of spotting Neoclassical features a whole lot easier!

Let’s look at the Gavotte again: well, in a Baroque piece I’d expect to see a prominence of strings, and a defined melody in the treble part. In Stravinsky’s Gavotte – well, there are no strings in sight! The instrumentation is entirely wind instruments – and even involves instruments that were really rare in music back then – like horns, oboes, and flute. Furthermore, the melody often alternates between the oboe and the flute – and even the lower instruments take the melody every now and again, which goes against the ways of a ‘clear melody in a certain part’ in the Baroque era. Now, listen to how the instruments are played: there are some quite difficult passages, like the bassoon’s quick passages in the second variation, and the horn even has passages that would’ve been impossible on the natural horn which was around back then! From all this, it is clear that there were modern influences, and is not a direct replica of a Baroque piece: and there you have it, a Neoclassical feature!

So not everything is complicated – even something as clear as instrumentation can be indicative of a Neoclassical feature. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t ignore other features: think about all other aspects you study in class, and try to cross-compare between eras, and whenever you find a discrepancy between old and new, you’ve come across an aspect of Neoclassicism!

Heather P. A Level Music tutor, GCSE Music tutor, GCSE English Litera...

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