Suprised by the Beauty of 20th-Century Music

The Catholic World Report

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of The Catholic World Report, where it first appeared.

Robert R. Reilly has written about classical music for more than 35 years, including for Crisis magazine, where he was music critic for 16 years. He has also written about music for High Fidelity, Musical America, Schwann/Opus, and the American Record Guide. He is the director of The Westminster Institute, which was established in 2009 to “promote individual dignity and freedom for people throughout the world by sponsoring high-quality research, with a particular focus on the threats from extremism and radical ideologies.” During a quarter century of government service, Reilly worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, and in the U. S. Information Agency; he was also the director of Voice of America. In addition to his writings about music, he has written widely on foreign policy, “war of ideas” issues, Islam, and culture.

Surprised by Beauty, by Robert R. Reilly
He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about a new and expanded edition, published by Ignatius Press, of his book Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.

CWR: You have been in the military, served in the White House under President Reagan, and were director of Voice of America. How did you become a music critic? And how, in particular, did you become interested in modern classical music? How did you end up writing music reviews for Crisis magazine?

Robert R. Reilly: Well, I was thunderstruck by music when I heard, quite by accident, Jan Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. By the time the recording was over, I was a changed person. I was 19 years old at the time; my music quest began. I plunged in in search of the experience and for an explanation as to why I had had it. What was it about? French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. So, some 15 years later, after I gained the right vocabulary and enough experience, I began writing about it and the other treasures I had discovered. As you pointed out, this was not my day job. My day job was fighting the Evil Empire.

So, as an avocation, I wrote for a number of musical journals like High Fidelity and Musical America. Then Deal Hudson, whom I did not know at the time, moved to Washington, DC, to take over Crisis magazine. He came to my house and, out of the blue, asked me to contribute a monthly article about classical music. He is one of those rare conservatives who are culturally literate in every sphere, including classical music, about which he is equally enthused. I did that for 16 years.

It was Deal who suggested that we publish a book of my essays. It turned out that most of what I had written was about 20th century music. That had not occurred by any design of mine or his. That book, the first edition of Surprised by Beauty, came out in 2002, with Deal as the publisher.

Lo and behold, some 14 years later, now the second edition of the book is out – this time from Ignatius Press. It is more than twice as long as the original and completely revised. There is so much more good news about the recovery of modern music in this listening guide. I hope readers will be enticed to explore some of the many CD recommendations in it. I emphasize that this is not a book with technical jargon written for music specialists. It is for the general reader who has an open mind, an open heart, and who opens his ears.

CWR: The terms “modern music” and “modern classical music” are usually not met positively by those who hold to more traditional beliefs about the arts, culture, and religion. Is it the case, however, that stereotypes and assumptions have obscured necessary distinctions between various composers, movements, and schools of music?

Reilly: Modern art strove hard to earn its bad reputation. It succeeded. People fled the concert halls because they did not want to hear what sounded like a catastrophe in a boiler factory. Likewise, many people shunned modern painting when canvases looked like someone had spilled a plate of spaghetti. Modern architecture seemed to be a contest as to who could design a building that best disguised the fact that human beings would be in it.

Unfortunately, the avant-garde gained control over the levers of the art world – by which I mean the commissions, the prizes, the positions in academe, the cultural press, etc. Unless you played ball with the avant-garde, your artistic goose was cooked. This was not true for some of the giants who continued to write in the traditional tonal manner, but it was decidedly true for the up-and-coming younger composers from the mid-20th century until about 20 years ago. They suffered a lot.

The whole point of my book is to announce that it is safe to come out of the bomb shelters now. Not only is beautiful music being written again but, it turns out, beautiful music was written all along, throughout the 20th century. It simply went underground. Some of it was suppressed (literally the case in some Communist regimes), some of it was simply neglected, but it is surfacing once again. And it is glorious. These are the composers I write about in this book, along with the recommended recordings of their works. They are the other 20th century about which most people have never heard – though there are a number of composers, like Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom they probably have heard of, who are in the book. Of course, I also include contemporary composers. The tremendously good news is that we are living at the time of a major musical renaissance.

CWR: In the Introduction, “Is Music Sacred?”, you explain how the destructive musical revolution of the 1920s, directed by Schoenberg and others, rejected tonality and melody. What were some of the deeper reasons for this revolution? In what way does that revolution relate to the cultural upheavals in Western societies?

Reilly: Yes, there were deeper reasons that were ultimately metaphysical and spiritual. Music, art, and architecture reflected a wholesale rejection of form, which is another way of saying Nature. I recall one artist saying, “If I don’t do anything else in my artistic life, I want to smash form” – which expresses, shall we say, a certain resentment of reality.

Going back to Pythagoras, the traditional understanding of music held that it was somehow an approximation of “the music of the spheres.” In fact, Pythagoras thought that music was the ordering principle of the world. The whole point of approximating the heavenly harmony was to instill inner harmony in the soul. Following Pythagoras, Plato taught that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful”. This idea of “the music of the spheres” runs through the history of Western civilization with an extraordinary consistency, even up to the 20th century. At first, it was meant literally; later, poetically.

Then it was rejected. The radical metaphysics of modernity denied the existence of Nature as a teleological order. Things no longer had inbuilt ends or purposes. In other words, there was no longer a “harmony of the spheres” to approximate. Some such understanding led Arnold Schoenberg to his chilling statement that he had been “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” Here we see the complete loss of vocation. Ugliness became a norm. If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself and deteriorates into an obsession with techniques. Music degenerated into a manipulation of sounds without discernible form. The new serial school of music, created by Schoenberg, systematized dissonance in such a way that harmony could no longer be heard. He claimed that tonality did not exist in Nature, but was simply a convention that man made up. Harmony and melody went out the window. Of course, to a large extent, I think this happened because of a spiritual crisis, a loss of faith. The most popular American classical composer today, John Adams, said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”

The impact of nihilism on the arts of the 20th century was succinctly explained by the late English conductor Colin Davis in an interview:

Have you read The Sleepwalkersby Herman Broch? In it, Broch analyzes the disintegration of Western values from the Middle Ages onward. After man abandoned the idea that is nature was in part divine, the logical mind assumed control and began to try to deduce the first principles of man’s nature through rational analysis. The arts followed a similar course: each art turned in upon itself, and reduced itself further and further by logical analysis until today they have all just about analyze themselves out of existence.

I think we should also not forget the contribution made by the horrors of World Wars I and II. I think one thing that drove artists deeper into abstraction was what they considered the ugliness of reality. The uglier the reality, the more abstract the art – as a means of escaping from it. Of course, at a certain point the art was no longer “abstract” – as it was not a discernible abstraction of anything. It was really an attempt to create an alternate reality – what turned out to be a false reality. For instance, Schoenberg said that, through habituation or conditioning, we would soon hear dissonance as consonance. Of course, this did not happen. German composer Claus Ogerman hilariously referred to many modern avant-garde compositions by saying, “It’s as if you had a factory producing things that weren’t working.”

Just as the loss of tonality, melody and harmony in music reflected a spiritual loss, composers like Adams speak of the return to tonality in today’s music as, first and foremost, a spiritual recovery.

CWR: You offer a striking quote from British composer John Tavener – a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy – about recovering “one simple memory from which all art derives.” What is that memory? And how do you think it relates to Beauty as an objective, eternal quality?

Reilly: Tavener answers your question as to what it is a memory of. He said, “The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” Most movingly, he elsewhere wrote, “The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else; that which was once perceived ‘as in a glass, darkly’ we shall see ‘face to face’.” Obviously, Tavener speaks here from Corinthians explicitly as a Christian, as it is Christ whom we shall see “face-to-face.” This is what his music is about.

Other composers make it clear in different ways that the highest vocation of art is hieratic – to make the transcendent perceptible. Sibelius said that in his struggle to compose his Fifth Symphony it was as if “God the Father had thrown down pieces of mosaic out of the heaven’s floor and asked me to solve how the picture once looked.” That is a lovely Platonic reflection. Elsewhere, he wrote that “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God. It [composition] is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.”

As to your other question, God, of course, is Beauty. So if music is going to make the transcendent perceptible, it has to be beautiful. But this beauty is not necessarily soothing. It can shake you to the core of your being, as can any encounter with the Divine.

CWR: One idea that is repeated throughout the book is that the many composers you write about reject the idea that “the past has no meaning.” Why is this stance so important? How does a composer’s view of the past affect their writing?

Reilly: The goddess Mnemosyne was mother of the arts – the nine muses – in ancient Greece. Her name means “memory”. Without memory, there is no art – or really anything else. Some modern artists developed the artistic equivalent of Alzheimer’s. Schoenberg said, “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” Indeed. Even worse, French composer Pierre Boulez proclaimed, “Once the past has been got out of the way, one need think only of oneself.”

The serial method guaranteed disorientation – so you had no means of telling where you were in a composition. British composer Nicholas Maw spoke specifically to the loss of memory that this involved: “The problem for me was that serialism rejected whole areas of musical experience. I later realized the difficulty was that it’s an invented language that deals only with the moment as it passes. There is neither long-term nor short-term memory. You could even say that the memory is suppressed.”

My late friend, American composer Steve Albert, said to me, “What was going on was the massive denial of memory. No one can remember a twelve-tone row. The very method obliterates memory’s function in art.” “There is no virtue,” declared American composer George Rochberg, “in starting all over again. The past refuses to be erased. Unlike Boulez, I will not praise amnesia.” So Rochberg strove “for authenticity linked to the longing for immortality” and against “the forgetting of being.” As he expressed it to me in a personal letter, what stands out clearly is “my insistence on memorability, remembering, remembering, remembering, without which we know not ourselves or anyone, the past, the evanescent present, [and] face only a blank future.”

The end result of the Alzheimer school of music is that the work of its adherents has itself largely been forgotten – because it contains nothing memorable. Part of the good news is that their game is up.

CWR: In your extensive study of these neo-tonal composers, who seek to bring beauty and tradition back into “classical” music, have you noticed any common threads regarding religious belief and/or practice (or even searching) among them?

Reilly: Well, the thread in common is the underlying spiritual thirst for beauty, rather than any specific religious belief or practice, though a number of the composers I cover are Christian. For instance, here is what Rochberg, the American composer who had more to do with the break from Schoenberg’s serialism than any other, told me when I read to him Schoenberg’s remark about being “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” Rochberg responded, “But I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness. Absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music. The only reason. But what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts… Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”

I think that very effectively sums it up. Beauty – transcendent beauty – is the only thing that can slake their thirst, and that is what they seek.

CWR: Some of the composers you discuss came of age after the school of Schoenberg began its damage to tonality, and reacted against this from the start. What are some reasons they give for that reaction? Others wrote atonally themselves before changing their tune, if you will. What sort of things seem to have effected their change of heart?

Reilly: Actually, almost all of the composers in the book were schooled in Schoenberg’s system; it was still de rigueur indoctrination in the music schools. And most of them initially wrote in the serial system. They turned against it for various reasons, but most of them experienced what Plato would call a turning of the soul. What sparked that turning of the soul? Some of them will talk about it; some of them will not. When Arvo Pärt turned against modernism, he retreated to a Russian Orthodox monastery for several years of silence. The Soviet authorities were not too pleased when he emerged and began composing again – because he wrote Credo.

Some composers I know of turned against it because of its inadequacy to deal with what they experienced in a death in the family. To express what they needed, they had to return to tonal music. Others, like Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, simply said, “I realized that I was not able to express myself according to the laws of Darmstadt, of serialism.” He told me he completely agreed with Sibelius’s description of a composer’s vocation.

To get some overall perspective, here is something worth quoting at length from Ken Fuchs. He wrote to me:

It is amazing to see now, from the vantage of over 25 years, what was actually happening. We really were at the beginning of a movement. The whole generation before that was so musically dry and barren and acrid and arid. Thank God people had the courage of their convictions to write music invested with feeling and emotion! . . . I remember all too well, as a student at Juilliard in the late 70s and early 80s, what that felt like. Even during those years, well after the shift had started, it was a very steep climb out of a trench… it took a LOT of courage in that heady environment to write truthful music in a style that would eventually become part of “the new Romanticism.”

CWR: Who are some composers whose change regarding atonality was particularly dramatic or surprising?

Reilly: That’s easy to answer: George Rochberg. He was the golden boy of the American avant-garde, the most accomplished American composer in Schoenberg’s serial system. Then he turned against it, and returned to tonal music. It caused an absolute scandal. Why did he do it? He said, “I could not continue writing so-called serial music. It was finished, hollow, meaningless.” In this case, his conversion was occasioned by his teenage son’s death from cancer. Rochberg said, “It was a shock of a kind that necessitated a new sense of how I had to live the rest of my life.” He told me, “I couldn’t breathe anymore. I needed air. I was tired of the same round of manipulating the pitches, vertically and horizontally… You have to work your way out of this labyrinth, this maze, so that you can be free and you can once again sing.”

This led Rochberg to issue a kind of manifesto when he published his great Third String Quartet. In part, it said:

The pursuit of art is much more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artist’s ego. In my time of turning, I have had to abandon the notion of originality in which the personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values; the pursuit of the one idea, uni-dimensional work and gesture, which seems to have dominated the aesthetics of art in the 20th century; and the received idea that it is necessary to divorce oneself from the past…. In these ways, I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with re-activated powers or structure; and, as I see it, these things are only possible with tonality.

I think that about says it all. Rochberg was a hero to me, and I was very moved by the fact that we became friends. What a privilege!

CWR: Which of these composers or compositions have had a special or personal impact upon you as a listener, critic, and lover of beautiful music?

Reilly: Well, I’ve already told you about Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, but I continue to be surprised by beauty. There really seems to be no end of it, which is a joy that I want to share. My one frustration was with the large number of composers I had to leave out of the book because it was getting too big for Ignatius Press to handle.

Wait till your readers discover John Kinsella, the octogenarian Irish composer who just finished his Eleventh Symphony. Did you know there was a major symphonist working in Ireland who has created music that is viscerally thrilling and possessed of true magnificence? It’s extremely exciting to make discoveries like this, and then have the privilege of communicating with the composer, as I have over the past several years, about his life and work.

Then there are the contemporary American composers like Ken Fuchs, Morten Lauridsen, and Jonathan Leshnoff who are writing such startlingly beautiful music. There are also amazing discoveries from the past, like the symphonies of English composer Edmund Rubbra, a Catholic convert, who wrote 11 symphonies, four Masses, and a good deal of chamber music. His music is ruminative, rhapsodic, and, finally exultant, ecstatic, entering heaven in a vision. It is not to be missed.

I could go on, but the truth is that all the composers in the book had a special impact upon me, which is why I wrote about them.

CWR: This is the second edition of Surprised By Beauty. What are some additions and changes from the previous edition? How did Jens F. Laurson contribute to this new edition?

Reilly: As I mentioned, this edition is twice as long as the original and contains many more composers. Also, what was in the original edition has been revised, expanded, and brought up to date in terms of CD recommendations.

Jens Laurson is a brilliant young German music critic. We actually met when he was in Washington studying for a master’s degree back in 2002. He read the first edition of Surprised by Beauty and that began a very lively conversation between us. He could read music before he could read German. He sang in the Regensburg Choir, conducted by Benedict XVI’s brother [Monsignor Georg Ratzinger].

Jens then began writing music criticism for the Washington Post, WETA classical music radio station in DC, and Ionarts, an arts blog. Since returning to Germany, he has become one of the foremost music critics writing in Europe. Few can equal him in style or insight. I was delighted that he agreed to be a contributing author to this new edition. He has contributed new chapters on Walter Braunfels, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eric Zeisl, and Franz Mittler, Ahmed Saygun, Othmar Schoeck, and together we wrote the chapter on Shostakovich. What’s more, Jens helped to thoroughly revise the discographies for all the composers in the book and added his own CD recommendations to mine. I think that if there is a third edition of Surprised by Beauty in 10 years, he will be the main author and I will be a contributing author. At least, I hope so.

About the Author

Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

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