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.
Engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found.
Music, as a living presence that comes to us, offers itself to us, assures us that we are not alone: that there is something out there in the world that knows our hearts and may even teach us to know them better.
Music as symbol is the whole of all things. It is the world. That is why, as Schopenhauer says, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will.”
I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning.
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, but it is surfacing once again. And it is glorious. The tremendously good news is that we are living at the time of a major musical renaissance.
Reading the gripping chapters of Robert R. Reilly’s book, with YouTube on the screen, was both an education in itself, and a source of shame to me, who have defended tonality all these years without realising that it is a live tradition, constantly renewing itself in defiance of an academic orthodoxy that denies its right to exist.
Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. 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 connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.
Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck.
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.”