Do we really want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was heard at its premiere? Do we want to listen to 50 unevenly trained musicians, give or take, playing for four hours on weak instruments that are hard to play, in an unheated concert hall conducted by a deaf man on one rehearsal?
What do amateurs – all fairly serious ones, but also people who make their living outside of the music world – glean from a week spent inundated by one piece of music?
To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.”
The present-day abundance of classical music – of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans – is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. And it is a cause for celebration that so many people still feel drawn into its web of lethal beauty, in a world so far from the one that gave it birth.
The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music: if, after Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself,” one might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”
In his generous and beautifully written book, Robert Reilly leads us through the vast, largely unknown territory of twentieth-century music. The hero of the book is beauty.
Why does today’s Western art music strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance? Why are many of our university music faculties more concerned with cultural theory than with applied music? Why have we lost confidence in historical and applied models of musicology, and moreover in the tonal tradition that forms the basis of the greatest musical heritage known to mankind?