It is difficult to add anything substantial to Quatremère de Quincy’s Essai sur la nature, le but et les moyens de l’imitation dans les beaux-arts (1823)1 and Dictionnaire historique de l’architect ure (1823–33)2, for Quatremère excels in precision and comprehensiveness as well as in depth. His genius proves to be universal. Let me therefore make a case for a conscientious study of his writings and encourage genuinely original architects and artists to learn from authentic sources. Abandon yourselves, dear readers, to the pleasure of the text. Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture, Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, the Abbé Laugier’s An Essay on Architecture, Alberti’s Ten Books of Architecture, Quatremère de Quincy’s On Imitation, Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Tessenow’s Handwerk und Kleinstadt, Schumacher’s Der Geist der Baukunst, Karl Gruber’s Die Gestalt der Deutschen Stadt – these are all works of great beauty, beautiful in their ideas and concepts as well as in expression, composition and style.
The first principle of imitation would thus be to study the originals – to study them as they are in their firstness, their unprecedented novelty, without regard to what follows. Nothing is more invigorating and refreshing in times of confusion than to go back to origins. Learning is always a quest for original knowledge: “The first step we have to make is to examine, if we are allowed the term, the genealogy and relation of our ideas, the causes that have given rise to them, and the characteristics that distinguish them: in a word, to return to the origin and generation of our knowledge.”3
Origin and Originals
Léon Krier writes: “Architecture (Arche-tectonike) means literally form of origin. If this definition is relevant for the architecture of any organism and structure, it is fundamental for Architecture as the Art of Building. It is not that the principles of Architecture reach into an immemorial past, but that their origin is forever present.”4 And Heidegger argues: “Origin here means that from and by which something is what it is and as it is. What something is, as it is, we call its essence or nature. The origin of something is the source of its nature.”5
The reconstruction of architecture is not concerned with pastiche of any kind but with the rehabilitation of originality. Amid debate on the aesthetics of fragments and the poetics of conceptual and constructional inconsistency and confusion, there are imperative reasons for reclaiming the Classical ideals of integrity, harmony, beauty and reason, for questioning modern architectural production and ideology and re-establishing the validity of architecture as an artistic and intellectual discipline. This means understanding and celebrating originality as a nostalgia for origins rather than the euphoria of amnesia. Origins are of course historical and geographical as well as mythic and cultural realities returned to in truly generative fashion.
The true forms of origin are reconstituted by the process of imitation, in originals; in its constant reflection of origins imitation becomes the source of originality. Establishing a creative dialogue between origin and originals, it allows for the invention of permanence and the permanence of invention. In a context of continuity, originals themselves become legitimate objects of imitation. They represent the immense patrimony of architecture, the most genial and original inventions of mankind, accumulated through millennia of imitation. It is this compendious recollection mediated by imitation that is the essence of architecture.
However, one crucial question remains unanswered: if imitation is what is at issue in architectural invention, and if origin is the object of imitation, what then is the origin? Many writers have investigated this question of beginnings and offered a theory of origin. A comparative reading of the classic authors, such as Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier and Quatremère de Quincy, is highly recommended in this context, but it is also fascinating to consult minor authors and historians to study the history of beginnings and so search, in Joseph Rykwert’s words, for “the memory of something which cannot but be lost”.6 Let me offer some comments on this question, basing most of my reflections on the authority of the ancient authors. Architecture is without a model in nature. There is no “natural house” or “natural city.” The invention of architecture is not an instinctive reaction to being in the world. Architecture is not a survival issue. In the beginning, man found shelter in the places that nature offered. Later, these different places were synthesized in the invention of architecture. Forms, spaces, materials and natural laws were all assimilated to each other in this immediate confrontation with nature. Nature thus stands at the beginning of architecture. The sky, the sun and stars, the elements, geology, the flora and fauna, elaborate structures and complex shapes, and last but not least, all those natural shelters which existed as part of the natural world long before man appeared: nests, caves, hives, shells. This enormous complexity, diversity, contrast and plurality in nature has always stirred man’s imagination and emotions, as well as his philosophical and scientific curiosity. Is it this too that lies behind the longing that informs architecture? Man must have sought very early on to materialize and symbolize his relationship with nature. Does architecture not finally achieve the reconciliation of man and the universe in conceiving of itself as perfected nature, hallowing both man’s home and the homes of his gods?7
The Imitation of Nature
Quatremère de Quincy writes: “It is nature itself in its abstract essence which is taken as a model. It is the order of nature which becomes its archetype and genius.”8 If origin means the construction of the universe, the building of the world, there will be an original model (not for architecture directly, but for imitation) in nature. “Creation means the repetition of the original creation,” writes Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane.9 This original creation is defined as the “transformation of chaos into cosmos”. To capture the essence of nature – the universal principles of cosmic order and harmony – is the goal of imitation. Imitation thus becomes the creative process that synthesizes universe and nature into temples, houses, palaces, monuments and cities. Architectural invention through the imitation of nature means then the original and imaginative synthesis of constructive, formal, harmonious, functional and ecological principles inherent in nature. “This order which in Nature is hidden and implicit, Architecture makes patent to the eye,” writes Sir Geoffrey Scott.10
The famous “primitive hut” is but a metaphor for the origin of architecture in nature. It is, however, the most radical and inspiring way of exploring the nature of architecture, emphasizing the mythical character of origin. What we reconstruct with the primitive hut is beyond archaeological memory; it itself becomes the original paradigm for architecture, the poetic evidence of archaic memories. The primitive hut is a mythical, philosophical and artistic reconstruction, an original model that can be imitated and thus illustrates the very nature of architectural invention. Quatremère de Quincy’s discussion of the little rustic hut is elaborate and complex. His model evolves from the cabane symbolique or the primitive timber construction defined as an allegorical prototype, through its refinement by analogical imitation of the human body. Architecture finally equals nature and becomes the rival of its model.
Imitation, Copy and Pastiche
This reading might be somewhat confusing to those who do not differentiate between copy, pastiche and imitation. Imitation is a truly inventive and creative process that combines the seriousness of true scholarship, the talent of true art, the intelligence of true inventiveness, the skills of true craftsmanship and the imagination of true creativity. Its object is to create something new in recreating an original model. Imitation is the reconstitution of an original, whereas a copy is merely the reproduction of a precedent. They are thus fundamentally different in intention, artistic and intellectual process, and result. Imitation is based on the critical, selective and inventive process of a living tradition, whereas the copy is concerned with the mechanical and literal replication of originals. Imitation addresses both essence and form, whereas a copy is interested only in appearance. Imitation is not concerned with similitude or dissimilarity: it has a much more profound understanding of originality, invention and what architecture is and has always been in its nature and form; its concern is to get to the essence of things and in doing so to reflect on the character, type and style of its own productions.
A pastiche is a partial and imperfect copy, a simplified reproduction of prominent stylistic and compositional elements that lacks, however, the rigor and discipline of a true copy. Although a copy is interested only in appearance, it is a reproduction requiring the seriousness and skill of the craftsman, whereas pastiche is not so much interested in appearance as in the impression of appearance. For the pasticheur, anything is good enough to recreate impressions (there are, of course, true and false impressions, good and bad pastiches). Imitation in architecture deserves more attention in contemporary discussion. Architecture is expressive of civilization and its condition, articulating memory and defining time and place. Architectural critics have been very quick to condemn authentic traditions, but if more critical interest and attention were now given to the study of traditional architecture and its practice of imitation, then its superiority in design and building, its modernity in ecological and socio-cultural terms and its success in building a beautiful, comfortable and durable world would certainly no longer go unacknowledged.
Architecture has to depend on tradition, appropriated through imitation. Neither Zeitgeist nor genius loci can be grasped by individuals or groups still immersed in them, without benefit of historical distance. Too often, these poetical concepts are used to ground narrow historical interpretations and speculations. Any project, in any historical period, necessarily deals with time and place and expresses its contemporary or modern situation. Both time and place transcend the limitations of the present and engage the complexity of history and mythology. Tradition is history with a project, not history as undifferentiated description of the past. It refers to the intelligence and creativity of past generations, as well as to memory – of the past and of the future. Imitation mediates actively between traditions and reconstruction. It contributes to the constant enrichment of architecture and urbanism with new originals. It is concerned with the nature of things, their true appearance, and it re-establishes economy, propriety and beauty as the first principles of architecture. Imitation actualizes the modernity of tradition in the context of reconstruction in which ecological, economic, humanistic and cultural concerns are intelligently integrated.
1 Translated as An Essay on the Nature, the End and the Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts, London: Smith, Elder, 1837. 2 Some chapters translated in The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy: The True, the Fictive and the Real, introd. and trans. Samir Younés, London: Papadakis 1999. 3 Jean le Rond d’Alembert, “Discours préliminaire” to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie raisonnée des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers. 4 Demetri Porphyrios, ed., “Léon Krier: Houses, Palaces, Cities”, Architectural Design Profile 54, 1984. 5 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language,Thought, 1971, trans. Albert Hofstadter, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001. 6 Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983. 7 See Alberto Perez-Gomez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983. 8The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy. 9 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959. Author’s translation from the French version, Le Sacré et le Profane, Étude Poche, 1988. 10 Sir Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism; A Study in the History of Taste, 1914, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
ANDREW BALIO: Among America’s music schools, Rice University’s Shepard School of Music is one of the standouts, up there with Curtis, Yale, and Julliard. And both Julliard’s and Yale’s areas of greatest growth are in the sphere of early and sacred music, a remarkable investment in looking back in to our distant past and traditions. It’s interesting how classical music is actually growing in this sense: we’re rediscovering all this repertoire that deserves our reconsideration. Mr. Greenberg, what sort of music do you attend?
ALLAN GREENBERG: I love music. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the different interpretations that two conductors, equally eminent, could bring to the same piece of music. I would collect six or eight versions of the same symphony or concerto or opera and just sit and compare them for hours, trying to understand the nuances, and I’d follow with a pocket score. I went through the usual changes of mind as your comprehension grows, but I always had a special preference for opera. I was taken to see Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi, who came to South Africa with some Italian company. I was nine or ten and I was mesmerized by the spectacle, by the arias and their beauty, by the characters. I just loved that world.
The first time I went to Europe – when I was nineteen – I heard Otto Klemperer conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies. At the time he was my favorite conductor, and I sat through all of them. I heard a number of them by Bruno Walter and the young Italian conductor who used to conduct the Philharmonia in London and I loved the human voice. It became my instrument of focus, particularly the female voice in Mozart. When I was in London I saw a lot of opera, but I thought, of all opera, Mozart was the beginning and in many ways the end. He encompassed the whole world. He could do comedy, he could do tragedy, he could do farce, with profundity. He made opera fun. You laugh even when you don’t understand the Italian. It was said that after the premiere of Don Giovanni the little boys who were delivering milk the next morning were whistling his tunes in Prague. Off and on, my musical interest has been opera.
My tastes have become really quite broad, but it’s still opera that I love. So when I got the job to design this opera house, it was like a dream come true. And the fact that they wanted a 600-seat opera house – the same size as in Mozart’s time – was perfect. I think there is a limit to the size of an opera house, or there should be a limit. I think the Met with 3,200 seats is stupid. The stage is so gigantic, even for Wagner – a lot of parts of The Ring have three people singing on the stage, and they’re lost. I don’t know what the correct size is for an opera house, but I think it’s around 1,500 people.
AB: That’s the optimal size for a concert hall too. That seems to be the sweet spot for acoustics, if you ask an acoustician, someone like Yasuhisa Toyota.
AG: For me, great opera – the work itself – is a miracle because you are taking two elements that are totally incompatible – the libretto (the story which takes time to evolve – drama needs time to evolve), and music – and you marry them. One note, just a change of key, and you’re in a different mood, from sad to happy, happy to sad, somber to elated. So you have this sort of thing that goes on and on. The marriage is accomplished through the genius of the composer, and the medium is the human voice. I don’t think there’s anything harder to write in music than an opera.
I have always felt a kinship with architecture because in architecture you have form, which grows in your brain, and then the function – 250-square-foot kitchen, three bedrooms of 80-square-footage or whatever – and it is very clinical. Relationships between these elements are pretty straightforward, and you can write them all down, but how do you make a great building out of that porridge? It’s like making an opera out of incompatible elements. Form has imagination, functional organization – it’s fairly rational. So, I’m a really happy camper designing this building.
AB: You also did a humanities building for Rice a decade ago, a similar type of commission. They wanted more traditional architecture. Can you talk about that a bit? Usually universities have the idea of the future that they want to be part of, and they consider architecture as a big way of being perceived to be on this cutting edge, as embodying these notions of progress. Interestingly enough, Rice is embracing traditional architecture, overall.
AG: When I did my first building at Rice – I started in about 1997 or ’98, and the building was finished in 2000 – the president was deeply involved in choosing architects and the character of the campus. The president, like the trustees, was very conservative. He loved the old campus and wanted to continue it. His point of view was very straightforward: This is a university. The order projected by its campus is in fact the best reflection of the university’s character. A campus should reflect the character of the institution, and they designed their building on the notion of continuity: that this is an institution that has operated with changes but without any breaks, without any reduced focus on scholarship, on truth and justice, and on all the other verities that are part of the study of a university.
That has changed. The university since then has tried to be more, has shown broader tastes, and has a greater interest in having modern buildings on their campus. I was excused from that because the trustees decided they wanted to have a hand in choosing the architect for this opera house. So they walked around the campus and settled on the two buildings they liked the most and interviewed two architects. I was one of them, and I got the job. But there is a lot of tension on campus about what character new buildings should have. They’ve tried very hard to keep the same materials, control the heights. It’s a very, very pretty campus although there are some not-great buildings on it, but even those are not as bad as they could be, looking around at other campuses.
AB: Before designing this opera house, you’d been attending operas and concerts as a music lover. Had you been designing opera houses in your imagination?
AG: No. Wanting something and not getting it can be really disappointing, so I never allow myself to think about a particular project until I sign a contract. You have to do that, otherwise it can be disappointing.
AB: So you came into this project prima facie. Did you give a proposal for it before being chosen?
AG: They asked me how I would go about designing this building, what did I think were the key aspects of the problem. I talked about the need: the fact that the campus serves as a mirror of the university’s self-image and of the image it wants to project to the public, and I thought continuity is really important in this. I cited Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard – the old campus at Harvard – and Yale, and I think they agreed with that. I also talked about the need to listen to your client: that an architect needs to understand that most clients come to the architect with a dream – a dream of an opera house, a dream of a home, a dream of something new where wonderful things will happen, where family will be more cohesive, where the quality of family life will improve.
This opera house will hopefully be part of a major rebirth of interest in opera in this country. We try very hard to do that because all our work comes by word of mouth. Most architecture magazines won’t publish classical buildings, so word of mouth is really important. We strive to leave a trail of happy clients behind us. I talked about that and about the need to listen because the qualities – the constituent ingredients of dreams – are not easy to formulate and understand. I need my clients to think of what it is they want and whether or not what I’m doing actually does that for them. We’ve done lots of drawings and 3D renderings, and eventually there’ll be models. So hopefully this will work for the client. I try to explain to them the fact that an opera is this miracle: between your daily life and the moment you pull up and park your car and get out and walk to the opera house you are experiencing the same thing Alice in Wonderland experienced when she fell down the rabbit hole, going from one world to another world, from a world of reality to the fantasy world of the Queen of Hearts. Jack did the same thing climbing the beanstalk – from life on earth to this miraculous realm in the sky where he had to defeat the giant. So the building has to serve as an architectural overture to the opera. It has to get your mind prepared for this.
The opera house at Rice has a certain character that both relates it to and separates it from the rest of the campus. At the far end of the campus, the east side, you have an entry gate and the oldest building on the campus, and as you go straight all the way down the main access you eventually end at the opera house. It’s a great position.
As you approach the building you realize that this is not quite the same as the other buildings at Rice, and when you open the doors you’re in this large, barrel-vaulted, top-lit space with coffers and light streaming down. It’s a big space. The university is going to use it for fund-raising dinners, small concerts, different events – someone could lecture in it while people are dining. There are many uses for this foyer. Then you go up a major staircase that splits in half – and you go up different levels through different staircases. Each level changes in character and in height and in color. When you open the first doors into the opera house you’re in a realm of unusually bright and vibrant colors, colors you don’t normally see in the world around you: bright reds, yellows, blues, et cetera. All but one balcony level has a view back into this hallway, this big entry lobby. To get from the entry lobby to the opera house itself you have to go through a sound-and-light box, which prepares you. These transitional spaces are all treated differently on each side, so the outside is always different from the inside. You always know where you are, you always come out and see the pattern – it was this way on one side, now it’s that way on the other side – so you know that’s the way out. These spaces wander a little bit. That was sort of intentional, but I wanted it a little more ordered than it is. We had to cut the budget at some point so we squeezed the spaces. They’re a little higgledy-piggledy, but it’s okay. They’re quite tight, so you go through these things and feel compressed and want to get out and then you get to the end of the sound-and-light box, you open the doors, and you’re in the opera house.
This is modeled on the little opera house in the palace at Versailles, by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, France’s greatest architect. I was interested in it because it’s made of wood, and from the time it opened, everybody who heard opera in it remarked on the quality of the acoustics. It’s a beautiful space because normally the horseshoe-shaped balconies sit one on top of another, sort of a vertical wall of balconies. Here they get bigger as they go out, so the space is expansive and opens out, so the higher you get the more air you have and the better the view of the stage. So it’s really exciting, doing this.
AB: It sounds wonderful. You mentioned that a building can either relate to what’s there or it can stand out. What do you think is the right balance for a cultural institution? Orchestra halls of the last 20 years are generally erring on the side of sticking out; they impose what you might call a spaceship type of construction and plop it down in human settlements. These institutions are hoping such venues will command great attention and generate interest because of a piece of architectural sculpture.
AG: The French philosopher Charles Péguy said Homer is new and fresh every day. Read The Odyssey or The Iliad; it’s never old. What is old is the latest newspaper. The problem of these buildings that draw attention to themselves is that nothing ever happens in them to justify that amount of attention. There’s always a dialogue between the people who use the building and what goes on in the building. There are some buildings that are quite laid back. Think of Rockefeller Center in New York. That’s a commercial building, a complex of offices, yet the space in it has been designated by generations of New Yorkers as the single major civics space in the city. That’s where the big Christmas tree goes and so on. It’s a very laid-back space. So I think it’s better to err on the side of modesty and focus on producing quality activities inside the opera house, rather than creating this strange spaceship and having mediocre performances in it.
AB: They would argue that you don’t have to make a choice between either. You can have superior performances in an outlandish concert hall. As we speak, this very week, the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonie is celebrating its opening. Have you had a chance to look at that hall?
AG: No, but I’m thinking that the one example of a concert hall that stands out and that actually works is in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry’s building. I heard Dudamel, who I think is an interesting conductor, there. The acoustics are wonderful. But downtown Los Angeles is the most barren, empty, unappealing space in the entire city, devoid of any character, until you stumble on this crazy efflorescence of human imagination in the middle of the city. It’s like the largest sculpture ever built. But the inside of the concert hall is quite laid back. It uses vineyard seating, which was invented by a German, Hans Scharoun. I’ve been inside the Elbphilharmonie, heard only a small part of a concert. I can’t say I spent enough time in that hall to form an opinion of it. The outside is a little disappointing. But Gehry’s building is his masterpiece, because it has this dialogue with this dreary city: “Guys! Life has more to offer! Look at me!” But they both are lucky, they’ve got a good orchestra and a good conductor, at least when they have him. I think it all depends on context, but I think ultimately the continuity is more important, and there are very few situations – certainly Rice is not one of them – where the spaceship would be comprehensible, would have a point.
AB: Our organization, Future Symphony Institute, is more concerned with smaller communities. We know that New York and Los Angeles will be fine; they’ll figure it out, regardless. But when you look at these smaller towns that become larger cities and can now sustain an orchestra – an opera company might be a stretch – they plan on spending $150–200 million on a new concert hall. What happens if they look to Los Angeles?
AG: A mistake, yes. I mentioned this at one of my interviews, maybe with the music school. I believe the great opportunities the little opera house offers is to the school system of Houston. I think music should be a major component of high school education because of the mind’s development that listening to music requires and that happens as you listen to music. I think that the imaginative component, the fantasy component in opera, is also desperately needed in this sad world we’re building for ourselves. I think all these little communities are a place for the rebirth of opera. The past and the present in opera can have a rebirth, but I think the key is little concert halls, little opera houses which feed the community. The high school orchestra may not be the New York Philharmonic, but it doesn’t matter.
AB: One of the things we’re most concerned with is the envy or inferiority complex that makes smaller places, when they look at what’s going on in the big cities, think they have to replicate something really large. My hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, has a 2,250-seat hall. Of course, it’s rarely full. It didn’t need to be more than 1,200 seats. That would have been plenty for our town. Then we’d have full houses.
AG: Better small and full and a long queue of people waiting to get in.
AB: Initially planners think more seats, more money, but it never works out that way. The cost of running this huge building is crushing. I’ve always felt that traditional architecture offered the possibility of a more cost-efficient home for a symphony orchestra. Ultimately they’re cheaper to run, they don’t require these giant machines. What happens is that we think people will relate to us more if we build a spaceship than if we build a Boston Symphony Hall, which would be pretty easy to build.
AG: I think you can sacrifice a lot of the electronics for a good basic hall and focus on the musicians and the music teachers and the connection to the community, because you want your audience to come from around the place, not from far away. Opera in New York is too expensive to be a local experience. New York has become a ghetto with a golden key. It does have local people going there but nobody else can afford it. There are no ordinary people left living in New York, just the very wealthy. Young people live like sardines in an expensive apartment in order to pay their rent.
AB: You’re touching on a sore spot for classical music and that is these widening gaps of economic classics. What can the role of architecture, of the concert halls, be? Your hall sounds very inviting, but what can we do in terms of architecture? Generally speaking, the concert hall’s foyer is something we’re very interesting in. What can we do in terms of design that will make people feel much more welcome and comfortable in an environment that’s meant to take them into another world, generally a world of the past?
AG: It can be a much more elementary version of that, a much simpler version. I know most little towns probably want a 500-seat auditorium. I’m a big proponent of music and art as part of a learning curriculum – art, with the imagination, and music with its connections to mathematics, to emotions, and voice. I think that’s really the key.
AB: Putting it back together. We’ve broken off into specializations so early in life. Traditional knowledge was a oneness: an architectural side, a musical side, a linguistic side, a rhetorical side, all in one body of knowledge. That’s certainly fragmented now.
AG: I lived for a while in Paris and Copenhagen, and I don’t know why we impose four years of college on students in the United States. Growing up in South Africa, I graduated at sixteen, going on seventeen, and I went straight into architecture school. When I was twenty-one and a half, I was finished with education. I got a job and earned my own living ever since.
AB: I’ll tell you why: during the Clinton years they pointed out that the outcome for people who’d gone to college was better than for people who didn’t go to college, therefore everyone ought best go to college.
AG: Outcomes in the United States where everybody goes to college, but the outcomes compared to England, Canada, Australia – I don’t know. If you go into medicine, and you specialize, you’re a student until you’re in your thirties. Why should somebody who’s going to play violin in an orchestra go to college for four years, although he or she will be studying violin?
AB: It’s vocational training, and they sweeten the deal by giving you a bachelor’s degree. We musicians criticize conservatories as trade schools, as if having a vocation is a lowlier calling than attending a university. It’s entirely fair to have vocational schools. Vocational training is highly desirable, especially since most everyone seems to want to enter a vocation when they graduate.
AG: Mozart never went to school, he didn’t study composition, had no degree from any institution.
AB: He went into the family business. His father taught him. If his father been a tailor, he’d have taught him to be a tailor.
AG: The same is true of the architects who built the ancient temples in Greece and Rome. Michelangelo was a stonemason; Andrea Palladio was a plasterer. All the greatest architects in the world started life as a tradesperson, or in the nineteenth century working in an architect’s office and learning the trade there through an apprenticeship system. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The four-year B.A. is just a question of snobbery.
I had an experience with a building project in London, which in the end never happened, but I had an office here and I wanted to open a little office in London. I could send people there and do whatever we had to do and come back, but I didn’t want to be double-taxed. So I went to a big Washington law firm, surrounded by Ivy League lawyers, specialists in international taxation, and I outlined my problem. I never heard from them. Three months later I was in England complaining to an American architect there. He said, “Allan, you’re wasting your time. Go and see this law firm in England,” and wrote down the name and address. I had an appointment the next day. And when I got there, a partner and his assistant listened to me and said, “This is easy. We’ll deliver a letter to your hotel tomorrow morning and that’ll tell you what to do.” So I got this one-page letter pushed under my hotel door at seven thirty in the morning, and it said, “All you have to do is have your people in this office space you’re renting move their desks at least an inch every twenty-nine days so you’re not permanently anywhere. They can swap desks, so they’re in a state of flux.” This worked perfectly. I called the American law firm and said, “What should I do?” and they said, “We’ve been collecting case studies and we’ll send them to you.” I got this pile of paper and I said, “Frances, I’m not a lawyer. It’s your job to read through this crap and tell me what you think and what I should do. I got your bill for $15,000 and I’m not paying it.” I wrote her a letter that said, “See the attached. This is why I’m not paying you,” and I enclosed the English law firm’s letter and the bill for 500 pounds, which was outrageous for half an hour’s work, but it didn’t have the element of craziness, for nothing, just copying. That was the end of it. I never heard from them again. Two lawyers in London, big office, went from high school to law school, and they were much better lawyers than the Americans. They could even think clearer.
AB: They were going straight for a solution rather than a process that they could bill you for.
AG: I’m a big fan of the apprenticeship, going from getting into your professional realm as soon as possible.
AB: That’s the way I did it.
AG: What instrument?
AG: You’ve got lots of rivals in the jazz world.
AB: They’re welcome to it. I love playing symphonic music. I’m playing Beethoven’s Seventh tonight at Strathmore. That’s heaven for me.
AG: There are trumpet concertos.
AB: It all started with the Second Brandenburg Concerto, which is treacherously high. Bach’s Christmas oratorio and the B minor Mass have tremendous trumpet parts. Other composers shortly after Bach were writing these clarino parts, very high. All the harmonics at the top of the register were close together so you could play scales. There were hundreds of these Baroque concerti. They were always up and down the scale, so there were limits, but there were some that were quite beautiful. Haydn wrote a tremendous concerto for the very first chromatic trumpet, a very clumsy keyed bugel. Hummel wrote one right after that. Then we had a long drought through the Romantic era. Composers had us play fantastic parts in the orchestra but nothing in front of the orchestra as a soloist. We only developed because of the cornet playing in bandstands of America. That tradition is tremendously vast but it’s always a very simple theme, with increasingly more complicated variations. The cornetists were among the higher-paid musicians of the nineteenth century. They were like prize fighters. You’d go to see dueling cornetists in the park.
AG: Like black college bands where they have dueling drummers.
AB: Right, it was more of an athletic event. And there was often an athletic aspect to opera where performances were treated more like a sports competition. I like that part of music too: trying to outdo each other. That’s a big part of jazz, but jazz is nearly dead. It’s largely thanks to the efforts of Saint Wynton Marsalis that it’s not. He deserves to be canonized. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if the rest of them could have held on. It’s been utterly abandoned by the population that birthed it. The only stable job there is to be had is at Lincoln Center and state-funded European big bands such as Runfunk houses. Jazz at Lincoln Center has that beautiful Rose Auditorium. Musicians do very well there, or well enough, but I don’t know any other place, except France for example, which will pay jazz musicians just to exist. If they have a lean month, they’ll get a stipend.
AG: Honky jazz has never been much. I don’t think jazz is white man’s fodder. African rhythms you get in your mother’s milk. I think of people like Dave Brubeck. But if you listen to white rock ’n’ roll, the beat is like a metronome, whereas black music, the rhythm is never stable. That’s why it’s alive. Its demise is beyond belief.
AB: It speaks of many things. There are tremendous lessons to be mined from such a great art form that was born here and should have kept going but somehow didn’t.
AG: It’s not much different from classical architecture. In the 1930s, when a lot of German refugees came here and brought the idea of a socialist architecture with them, Harvard appointed Walter Gropius as dean of the architecture school. Harvard started propagating modern architecture. It’s odd that this architecture, which was the vehicle of the trade unions in Europe – it was the driving force to create decent housing for workers – was adopted by the millionaire class in the United States, by the Rockefellers at MOMA. The course of architecture was totally changed.
AB: I feel strongly that classical music as a performance culture, when we know that most of what we do is play old music, will be better off playing within the walls of traditional architecture.
AG: Are there any great or really interesting and good classical composers today?
AB: Yes, there are. The problem is that we’re in the midst of a cold war between performers and composers. We don’t trust composers, and audiences definitely don’t trust new music. There are very small audiences for something new. Most experienced concert goers are afraid they’re going to be tortured, on principle. We taught them they would be tortured by torturing them. It’s not that people can’t compose, and the few good composers there are write beautiful music for the sake of itself. Some of them found employment in Hollywood. Great composition lives on in films. That’s where the money is right now. Erich Korngold came from Europe and did great film scores. But many of the others who are writing nice tonal music, which is the analog to traditional architecture, are quite beaten down – beaten with the “originality” or “innovation” stick. They’re told their music is derivative, not innovative or original. It gives them nervous tics because they’re just writing from their hearts. Nobody pays them for it. We don’t have a good royalty system in place.
AG: My son-in-law is a musician. He used to teach at USC in Los Angeles; now he teaches part-time at San Francisco Conservatory. He plays just about any instrument. He makes his living writing music for video games. They don’t pay that well. He works really hard and gets small music jobs for movies. He used to do a fair amount of work for George Lucas, so I know how hard it is to find an outlet for your energy.
AB: That’s where classical music is now. It’s doing very well, but it could do better. I think getting the architecture right would go a long way to build support for our art form. Certainly during that forty-year period after the war they built too many horrible concert halls – even Avery Fisher Hall is a wreck. Los Angeles, before they got their masterpiece, had Dorothy Chandler auditorium, which was awful. The list goes on, and this is a weight that holds down the art form.
AG: I know this business of torture. I was invited by a friend to Lincoln Center to the Chamber Music Society. We went and had a really nice time, but after the intermission, they have to insert some new piece of music that they had just commissioned which was unlistenable. It was really an insult to this audience. However long it was, it was too long. I sat through it and tried to find what this piece of music was supposed to be about. I have a high tolerance for discomfort. I sit listening to public radio in the afternoon to these musicians who repeat the same tone again and again – repetitive – and all of this other music, but this I couldn’t deal with and I never went back. The fact that the musicians or the organizers of this concert felt that they had a moral duty to give new music an audience without asking whether it’s worth finding an audience for this music in the first place I took as a major insult. It’s as if they didn’t think very much of their audience. They didn’t think the audience had the capacity to choose so they chose for them. Mozart wrote a concerto for French horn. I heard a French hornist at Rice University play it. It was astounding. It’s not an easy instrument, not a lovable instrument, but it was beautiful, just extraordinary. But you’ve got to respect your audience, and the Chamber Music Society doesn’t. They think their job is not to provide musical enjoyment for the audiences but to educate them, and that’s guaranteed to lose your audience.
AB: Do you find that’s true in the architecture community?
AG: Yes. They’re always coming out with new buildings, and it’s always the stupidity of the public that is to blame for the fact that nobody loves them.
AB: That’s my point about concert halls, that it’s life or death for orchestras when we go so far out on a limb for a concert hall that’s meant to be the capstone for the career of a particular architect, really just a huge statement. The hall isn’t meant for people. It’s a conceptual work of art meant to be talked about in magazines or garner industry awards.
AG: Same in architecture. I have a question. What is the difference between a good eighteenth-century opera and a musical, like Porgy and Bess or Oklahoma!, which has a story – it’s an opera really. What’s the difference? Quality of music?
AB: It’s the line between beauty and kitsch.
AG: Is Oklahoma! kitsch?
AB: That’s a very good question. For some people it could be kitsch. It gets close to kitsch, it runs along the fence to kitsch, it reaches over the fence. I like Oklahoma! and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone liking Oklahoma! but it’s not Lehar’s Merry Widow, to compare to something light. Merry Widow is arguably superior to it. You’ll discover the difference in the craft, in the orchestra parts, in the quality of melodies, even when plots are comical. It’s the phenomenon of McMansions. They’re using the same language as traditional architecture except the proportions are all off. Crappy renderings, sort of grotesque, most definitely kitsch. It strikes your eye immediately as kitsch. I go bike riding a lot through the Maryland countryside and see beautiful old estates; some are just beautiful, simple farmhouses. These were not highfalutin people, but they built a nice home. Then there’ll be a similar home built ten years ago by a developer, and it just hurts the eyes. Even though I’m an armchair architect, it’ll be so kitschy and abhorrent to me, I have to ask myself, why? It has columns, windows, shutters, a gabled roof. Why doesn’t it work? That’s the same problem with Broadway. It mimics the real thing but it takes so many shortcuts and often pushes things too far in terms of what it’s asking of the listener. It says, you have to feel this now. They tend to overstate their cases. Also, in opera the message is, these feelings really matter. In Broadway musicals, it’s more like none of this matters. It’s sort of nihilistic. We’re laughing at drama itself, pain itself. It’s important to learn to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves and laugh at life, but these things do matter.
AG: I think you make a lot of sense, but I think there’s a place for light opera.
AB: You think of Franz Lehar, or Fledermaus, which is hysterical. The craftsmanship of Fledermaus is incredible. Or look at Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which is very funny.
AG: What about Rosenkavalier? That does verge on farce. Is that an operetta or an opera?
AB: Comic opera!
AG: Movies bridge that gap better than music. There’s a series of fabulous comedies, remarriage comedies. Marriage of Figaro is really a remarriage, because the count reconciles with the contessa. I’m thinking of movies like Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business. There’s a professor of philosophy at Harvard who’s written a book about these movies. If I can remember it I’ll send it to you. I think you’d really like it.
AB: Do you know Roger Scruton? He’s a Senior Fellow for our organization.
AG: Yes. He’s a really smart man.
AG: What do you think of this? My daughter and I are always sending each other pieces of music. (plays Susannah McCorkle singing “The Waters of March”) The lady who’s singing it died quite young. Her name is Susannah McCorkle. The guitarist is Brazilian.
AB: Notice how she’s using her voice. She’s on the edge of talking, then falls into a bit of a song.
AG: The rhythm is a samba. She somehow uses her voice to pick up that rhythm.
AB: It’s wonderful to be able to explore these things, discover all the feelings. That’s the wonderful thing about music. We discover ourselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This book review is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age where it first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2004 issue,
and in anticipation of the book’s new and expanded edition.
Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Robert R. Reilly, Washington, DC: Morley Books, 2002.
In his generous and beautifully written book, Robert Reilly leads us through the vast, largely unknown territory of twentieth-century music. The title recalls C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and the poem of the same name by William Wordsworth. The hero of the book is beauty. We are surprised by beauty – surprised because beauty in all its forms surpasses expectation and provokes wonder, and because the beautiful in music somehow managed not just to exist, but even to thrive in a century marked by brutal political ideologies and perverse intellectualism.
If the book has a hero, it also has its villain. This is serialism or the twelve-tone theory of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), who exerted a tremendous influence over the minds and works of many modern composers. Schoenberg advocated the emancipation of the dissonance. In a defining document from 1941, he wrote: “A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal center.”1 Instead of using the traditional diatonic order of whole steps and half steps (the source of the ancient Greek and medieval modes, and of the modern major scale), the serial composer takes as his governing principle a row or series comprising all twelve chromatic tones within the octave.
Schoenberg believed that the resources of tonality had been exhausted and that the times demanded a “New Music” – by which he meant “My Music.”2 He also said that he had been “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” How wrong he was about the presumed exhaustion of tonality is overwhelmingly shown in the many and varied tonal composers we meet in Reilly’s book. As for the supposed disease from which Schoenberg had recovered – the pursuit of the beautiful – these same composers show us that beauty in the twentieth century was alive and well, no thanks to the Dr. Kevorkian of music. As the book’s subtitle indicates, Western classical music is enjoying a period of genuine recovery. It is rebounding from the “imposition of a totalitarian atonality.”3
The general reader need not fear that the topics in this book are too technical for him, or that he lacks sufficient musical knowledge, or familiarity with the works under discussion, to follow the author’s lead. Reilly brings his impressive knowledge of music to bear on the most human of our human experiences with a refreshing clarity and personal directness. He speaks from the fullness of his great love of music and infects the reader with the surprise he himself felt in the discovery of modern beauties.
The book has a simple, humane design. Its various chapters can be profitably read in any order. A series of essays in the truest sense of the word, it is a book that begs for browsing. The main part is a series of short chapters devoted to twentieth-century composers, thirty-nine in all, arranged in alphabetical order. It begins with the American John Adams and ends with the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Each chapter has a memorable title that aptly sums up the composer. Samuel Barber is part of a chapter entitled “American Beauty”; Edmund Rubbra is “On the Road to Emmaus”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams is an example of “Cheerful Agnosticism.” The alphabetical ordering makes for a wild ride across Europe and the Americas. Or, to use what is perhaps a more fitting image, reading through the chapters is like walking along a beach and picking up one exotic shell after another. We are amazed to discover just how much beautiful music from so many countries washed up on the shore of the last century.
Without making music a mere product of its time, place, and circumstance, Reilly nevertheless also reminds us of the living human soil, the soil of suffering and affirmation, out of which great music grows. He relates deeply moving events in the personal lives of modern composers, events that shaped their compositions. We also get to hear their own often astonishing revelations about music as a response to life. If you have never heard a single work by any of these composers, be assured that you will want to hear them all by the time you finish reading this book.
The chapters have a twofold purpose: they are both contemplative and practical. In his contemplative mode, Reilly puts forth crisp, thought-provoking reflections on the power of music, and on the relation music has to God, nature, and the human spirit. As a practical guide, he offers knowledgeable advice about what to listen to and in what order. Every chapter contains a list of recommended works, including valuable information on recommended performances and recordings. I have followed Reilly’s guidance and have listened to many of the pieces he discusses. As a relative newcomer to modern music, I was grateful for whatever help I could get, and can report that this book, in its practical purpose, works. Readers of all musical backgrounds and tastes will profit from the accuracy of the descriptions and judgments, and the reliability of the musical advice. One does not merely read this book, or even re-read it: one lives with it and shares it with music-loving friends. One reads, then listens, then reads again, and again listens, each time listening with more acuity and pleasure, each time falling under the spell of a beauty that surprises.
In his Preface, Reilly reminds us that more than music is at stake in the debate over Schoenberg’s theories and compositions – much more. The clearest crisis of the twentieth century, we are told, is the loss of faith and spirituality. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony and the rejection of tonal hierarchies were the musical outgrowth of this deeper pathology. The connection between atheism and atonality was summed up by the American composer John Adams, who said, “I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”
The metaphysical implications of atonality are at the center of two concise essays that frame the journey through modern composers: “Is Music Sacred?” and “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In the first essay, after a pointed discussion of the Pythagorean discovery that linked music with reason and nature, and the resultant idea of a “music of the spheres,” Reilly points to Saint Clement of Alexandria’s view of Christ as the “New Song,” and of the harmonious bond between “this great world” and “the little world of man.” Reilly then describes the falling away from these inspired ideas. He shows us not only what Schoenberg’s theory asserted, or rather denied, but also the cultivation of chaos (in the music of John Cage) that inevitably followed the denial of natural order.
The second essay depicts Schoenberg as a false Moses, who “led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert.” Speaking from the perspective of his deeply held Roman Catholic faith, Reilly offers an interpretation of how Schoenberg’s lack of faith rendered him incapable of finishing his opera, Moses and Aron. We also hear a moving account of three modern composers of demanding sacred music: Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener. Their most urgent message – the antidote to modern noise and restlessness – is Be still. Here Reilly defends the works of these composers against the charge that they wrote nothing more than “feel good mysticism.” The story of Górecki, whose music was a response to what Poland suffered under the Nazi and the Communist regimes, is harrowing and sublime. It shows us that modern man, with eyes wide open to the horrors of his age, need not yield his creative spirit to the mere expression of those horrors.
As a sort of appendix, there is a concluding section called “Talking with the Composers.” Here, Reilly relates fascinating conversations he has had with the writer and conductor Robert Craft (who conducted music by both Stravinsky and Schoenberg), and with the composers David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti.
Especially revealing is the conversation with Rochberg, “the dean of the twelve-tone school of composition in the United States and the first to turn against it.” Rochberg gives an extraordinary insider’s perspective on the fatal limits of serialism. He complains of the loss of musical punctuation, by which the composer tries to capture meaning and expressivity: “What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you couldn’t come to a natural pause, that you couldn’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.” Even more striking, he notes how the series of twelve-tones, once selected, kills off the possibility for openness and freedom: “Everything is constantly looping back on itself.” This is extremely interesting because, in the classical tradition, circularity was the hallmark of the divine, the sign of perfection and even of freedom.
The very diatonic order that Schoenberg rejected is itself circular or periodic – a fact most obviously present in the major scale. But the major scale has a natural directedness, while the twelve-tone row does not. Diatonic music is only apparently restrictive in its circularity: in fact, it promotes infinite tonal adventure. That is because, as most people can hear, it has a natural sounding flow, a freedom most evident in Gregorian chant. Schoenberg’s circles are, then, the perversion of natural circles. They do not liberate but imprison. They are like the circles of Dante’s Hell – where, we recall, there is no music but only noise. In Rochberg’s exposé, we come to realize the unmitigated tyranny of twelve-tone composition. We see how the creator of musical value is ultimately the slave of his tone-row creations. Serialism thus becomes a parable for modern times, a cautionary tale about the rage for autonomy.
Schoenberg did not just reject tonality: he denied that tonality existed “in Nature.” His desire was “to demote the metaphysical status of Nature.” The rage for autonomy must always be at odds with nature. Nature sets a permanent, insuperable limit to the human will. One cannot change what is. And if, in addition, what is is hierarchical and normative, as the classical tradition asserted, then nature is not just insuperable but authoritative: it is not only the thing you cannot change but also the thing you ought not change, the good. It is Schoenberg’s metaphysical negativity, the denial not of the mere use but of the naturalness of tonality, that makes his ideological transformation of music so devastating and, to the proponents of radical autonomy, so attractive.
As we see from the opening essay, nature is the beautifully ordered whole of all things, what the ancient Greeks called a cosmos.4 Before Nietzsche’s death of God there was the death of cosmos – death in the sense that, with very few exceptions (Kepler and Leibniz), cosmos came to be what C. S. Lewis called a discarded image, an idea that had ceased to govern and inspire the European mind. Many busy hands contributed to this death, and it is important to identify the executioners if we are to appreciate the full force of the recovery of nature in its traditional sense.
The first step was the nominalism of William of Ockham. This reductionist theory effectively paved the way for modern skepticism regarding essences and universals, that is, natures. Then there was the formidable new science of Bacon and Descartes, which rejected final causes and natural placement in favor of mastery and possession: nature was something to be engineered rather than imitated. But it was Pascal who administered the coup de grace in the death of cosmos. With Blaise Pascal, man was no longer “placed” within an ordered whole. Instead, he was trapped between the infinitely little and the infinitely big. Nature was not a cosmos but an infinite universe inspiring fear, not love: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fill me with dread.”5 Pascal’s emotive imagery did what Cartesian science could not: make the denial of cosmos seem profound.
One of the biggest surprises in Reilly’s book is the sheer number of modern composers who have devoted themselves to nature in the older, classical sense. Most striking in this respect are the Scandinavian composers. When Sibelius (1865–1957), Nielsen (1865–1931), and Holmboe (1909–1996) respond to nature, they are not filled with terror. Nor do they hear eternal silences. For them the natural world is just as spacious and awesome as it was for Pascal, but it is filled with music rather than silence. The music of Sibelius is “a revelation of nature in all of its solitary majesty and portentousness.” Nielsen defies the moribund expression of angst and ennui with music that “can exactly express the concept of Life from its most elementary form of utterance to the highest spiritual ecstasy.” And Holmboe, the most overtly cosmic of them all, affirms that music enriches us only when it is “a cosmos of coordinated powers, when it speaks to both feeling and thought, when chaos does exist but [is] always overcome.”6
Nature, for Reilly, is not the highest point of our journey, either through music or through life. As we read in the book’s opening essay, “With Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible.” The transcendent is that which goes beyond nature and human reason. It is the supernatural realm of grace. This higher realm of grace, as Aquinas so beautifully puts it, “does not destroy nature but brings it to perfection.”7 The beautiful in music, far from being cancelled in the move from nature to spirit, now finds its highest vocation. Like Dante’s Beatrice, it is the grace-like shining forth of the transcendent within the natural, the eternal within the temporal. In this transition from beauteous nature to transcendent grace, the reader’s odyssey through modern music becomes a pilgrimage. We hear the most astounding claim about music and transcendence from Welsh composer William Mathias. Defying the usual view that music as the temporal art par excellence is delimited by temporality, Mathias is reported to have said, “Music is the art most completely placed to express the triumph of Christ’s victory over death – since it is concerned in essence with the destruction of time.”
Some of the greatest beauties we discover in our musical journey through the last century are works by Christian composers. Reilly is eager, however, to acknowledge the inspired products of agnostics like Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi. Indeed, the agnostic lovers of beauty are interesting precisely because they offer an example of man’s continual hunger for spiritual food. The most memorable entry in the lists of the faithful is Frank Martin. This is the Calvinist composer whose religious works offer a “Guide to the Liturgical Year.” Martin is the exact opposite of Schoenberg. One reason is that this highly sophisticated Swiss composer dared to write simple, even childlike music “that goes directly to the heart.” Another is that he pursued anonymity to an amazing degree: “While listening to his religious music, one never thinks of Martin.” This is a composer you cannot imagine talking about “My Music.”
More than anything else, Surprised by Beauty makes us glad. We rejoice that there are still those for whom music has a spiritual meaning, that a ferocious love of beauty is still alive in the great works of modern composers, and that this love, to quote from the title of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, seems to be inextinguishable.
1 “Composition with Twelve Tones,” in Style and Idea, Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Berkeley, 1975 [Reilly, 217]. Whereas tonal music is hierarchical, twelve-tone music is egalitarian: all the tones in the twelve-tone row must be given equal emphasis, “thus depriving one single tone of the privilege of supremacy.” (Reilly, 246)
2 Schoenberg’s preoccupation with himself is revealed in the titles to some of his writings: “The Young and I” (1923), “My Blind Alley” (1926), “My Public” (1930), “New Music: My Music” (c. 1930).
3 Schoenberg disapproved of the term atonal. He said that calling his music atonal was like calling flying the art of not falling, or swimming the art of not drowning. In the end, however, he resigns himself to the term, saying: “in a short while linguistic conscience will have so dulled to this expression that it will provide a pillow, soft as paradise, on which to rest” (Style and Idea ).
4 An essential feature of cosmos is the differentiation of things according to kind. The diatonic order, as opposed to the twelve-tone bag of elements, preserves the kind-character of the different intervals generated from the order. Experience informs us that the perfect fifth, for example, is different in kind from the major third. Twelve-tone music renders this difference in kind meaningless. It would have us live in a world without character.
5 The thought of Pascal and his eternal silences brings to mind the amazing poem by Baudelaire, Rêve Parisien, in which the poet fantasizes about a purely visual world : Tout pour l’oeil, rien pour les oreilles! It must be noted that for Pascal and Baudelaire, a world without sound or music, while terrifying, is also strangely attractive.
6 Jacques Maritain helps us steer clear of thinking that the composer’s love of nature is a slavish act of imitation. He writes: “Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it …. Nature is essentially of concern to the artist only because it is a derivation of the divine art in things, ratio artis divinae indita rebus. The artist, whether he knows it or not, consults God in looking at things” (Art and Scholasticism, New York, 1962 [60–61].
7 Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 8.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Watson-Guptill Publications in New York, who originally published it as the Introduction to the author’s book Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice in 2008. We highly recommend this inspiring and visually stunning book.
Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.
—Albert Camus (from “Notebooks, 1935-1951”)
About fifteen years ago, I was a passenger on a road trip. It was raining and I passed the time by watching the water bead up and stream down the window. The combination of the gray sky, the warm car, and the long trip made me drowsy. Just as I was falling asleep, I noted that this was just one of innumerable moments in my life that I would never remember.
Over the course of my life, most of the daily experiences – countless meals, great conversations, and long walks – have been erased by the passing of time. They are gone. And while I failed to realize it in the car that day, it is not only the daily business of most of our lives that slips by unremembered; given enough time, we ourselves will slip away into the vastness of history.
Joseph Conrad wrote that part of the aim of art is to snatch a moment from the remorseless rush of time and to reveal that rescued fragment to others. Capturing and holding up a sliver of life’s truth and emotion creates solidarity among all who share it. That nondescript moment right before I fell asleep in the car became a distinct memory because I distilled it through examination. Likewise, isolating and transcribing an occurrence or thought along with its emotional tenor can transform an indistinguishable fragment of human life into a powerful conveyer of the human experience.
Human life is not made up of neutral moments simply waiting to be interpreted or transformed into art. Rather, each moment is a slice or microcosm of the worldview of the artist. The larger context of an individual’s life, beliefs, environment, temperament, and upbringing form the base from which he approaches every encounter and formulates every artistic expression. These worldviews, moreover, are not just private beliefs; they are inherently tied to the beliefs of the greater or larger culture. Like fractal geometry, the smaller shapes are unavoidably imprinted with the shape of the whole.
In previous eras, artistic production was colored by the subtext that human beings, as children of God, have divine origins and that our existence is not transitory but eternal. This belief provided not only hope for the future, but a deep assurance of the significance and value of a human life. Artists reflected this vision of reality in their artwork, which enabled them to glimpse beauty in the face of tragedy and to portray monumental views of human life. That is why Sandro Botticelli could paint his ethereal goddesses, revealing a reality only hinted at in the world as the black plague ravaged Europe.
The postmodern skeptic, faced with an unflinglingly pragmatic and scientific worldview, has no hope of an eternal future. Humanity, crawling out of the primordial soup, living briefly, and, returning to the mud, wrestles with a cosmic insignificance that is reflected in the art of our time. Beautiful figure paintings look hopelessly naïve and outmoded in many art circles precisely because they no longer represent the predominating beliefs of the artistic and intellectual elite – the end of man is not glory but dust. Thus the art of the modern epoch has been largely nonrepresentational, characterized by a marred, earthbound, fragmented view of the human being. Beauty, eternity, and truth seem to have faded into a bygone era.
While people share much with other living creatures, the desire for beauty, the capacity for self-reflection, and the longing for eternity are distinctively human qualities. On some subconscious level we need beauty, despite its perceived lack of function. If we were to give a horse a diamond ring, it would assess it only on the basis of its utility, essentially asking the question, “Can I eat it?” In contrast, the human being has the elevated option to ask not only “Is it useful” but “Is it beautiful?” The enormity of human suffering in the world does not render this question, or the desire to ask it, trivial. Rather, it affirms an appreciation of aesthetics as fundamental to our nature.
Artists help us see the surprising beauty that breaks into our daily lives by celebrating that which might otherwise pass by unnoticed. Artists are in a unique position to leave an intimate record of human life, as they give us the opportunity to see not only through their eyes but also through their thoughts and emotions. One could say that the greater the art, the more clearly we experience this communion of souls. Artists remind us that despite the pain and ugliness in the world, something deeper exists – a beauty that peeks through the drudgery of life, whispering that there is more just beneath the surface. We see a landscape filled with longing and loss or a figure filled with love and empathy. These images enable us to long and love with the creators.
Nature shows us one kind of beauty, such as the way the light falls through the tree canopy, speckling the forest floor where I now sit and write. Occasionally, an unusually insightful individual is able to capture this kind of beauty in art. This is why Mozart’s Requiem Mass still moves people to tears in packed orchestra halls or why people are willing to wait in line for hours to see an exhibition of works by Vermeer. Despite all appearances and talk to the contrary, we crave art that captures truth and remains powerfully and beautifully relevant long past the time of its creation. This sort of art is not just pretty or made up of the hollow aesthetic beauty that changes with the eye of the beholder. It is not sentimental, for sentiment is fleeting. The sort of art that lives eternally is that which captures astonishing, spine-chilling, breathtaking beauty that heightens our senses and floods us with transforming thought and emotion. In this work, we hear a whisper from another world saying, “It’s all real.” The ache to last means you were meant to last; the longing for beauty calls to you because beauty marks a reality that actually exists.
The contemporary artists in this book lived parallel to the rages of modern and postmodern art; they saw the same grimy buses pass by, the same soggy newspapers and cigarette butts in the gutter, the same horrors on the news, but they saw in these things an alternate reality of meaning – one that they communicate in their work. The topics they choose to express are not always comfortable to look at, but, through the artists’ vision, they are infused with pity, compassion, and insight that express a kind of beauty that transcends even the thorniest subject matter. The art portrayed in this book shows the courageous path followed by visionaries who are strangers in their own times, looking ahead to a land not yet found to capture a hope that, through beauty, can fight its way back into our world.
There was a time in America when virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party… resulting in a disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life, in which the character of American liberalism and radicalism was decisively – and perhaps permanently – corrupted.*
—Robert Warshow (1947)
Several years ago, I was having lunch with Henry Hope Reed, the author of The Golden City, one of the most important books of twentieth-century architecture criticism. At some point, he exploded with frustration, asking “Where did all this awful modernism come from?” Frankly, I was surprised. It never occurred to me that a scholar of Reed’s capabilities and knowledge would confess ignorance about such an important topic, but he was serious. The rest of our conversation focused on a vain attempt on my part to identify the course of events that led to the destruction of the academy and the classical tradition, the rise of modernism and its spawn, postmodernism. It was too long and complex a topic to explain over lunch, especially to a scholar afflicted with a hearing impairment.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, the question lost its relevancy. But postmodernism, with its ironic, anti-American, anti-religious ideology, continued to shape Western culture. In the twenty-five years since that collapse, with two dozen emerging nations subsequently freed, little serious discussion has been devoted to communism and its liberal off-shoots. However, the tsunami of postmodern culture has not only undermined the quality of the fine arts, but deconstructed the last redoubt of American creativity, popular culture – movies, comic books, theater, music, photography, fashion, interior design. The twenty-foot puppy atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a plastic Christ submerged in a vial of artist’s urine, inane poetry, the decline of education, and the rejection of timeless standards of aesthetics and beauty have opened a vast chasm in American civilization. The elimination of right and wrong, beauty and craft, and the criterion of excellence have effectively dumbed down popular appreciation of values that contributed to making this nation great. In hindsight, it was American popular culture – not high culture – that more truly preserved aesthetic standards during the 1950s. Unfortunately, it was mostly teenagers who recognized the creative value of that culture. Adults, mostly parents and the critical establishment, deplored “low culture,” referring to it as trash. One exception was Robert Warshow (1918–55), a much-admired critic for the Partisan Review and Commentary.
As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education. During the same period, loyal Americans responded similarly with their own political agendas.
To understand the infiltration of political ideology into American high culture, one must recall that it was the height of the Cold War. It was the period of the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Revolution, Russia’s stealing of atomic bomb secrets, the Rosenbergs, Whitaker Chambers’s Witness, the Hollywood Ten, and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities hearings, the banning of comic books, rock-n-roll and “salacious” movies, and the stifling of students’ expressive behavior in schools. During this time, Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, testified before a congressional sub-committee chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver about comic books’ subversive effect on children. Wertham and other “experts” singled out the burgeoning publisher EC Comics, a small publisher that employed highly talented, creative artists and writers – many of them teenagers just out of art school, particularly Cartoonists & Illustrators in New York City. It was an unfortunate setback for American popular culture. Similar attacks were pressed against pop music, particularly rock-n-roll. Wertham and the subcommittee did not criticize the big publishers, including Dell, DC Comics and National. Unfortunately, even astute critics such as Hilton Kramer regarded comics and most movies as “trash.”
In the beginning, it was hard to separate the politics of patriotism from the Marxist propaganda that seeped into every aspect of American life, undermining the pillars of society, mores, religion, and patriotism. Those who opposed the infiltration of propaganda, especially in the arts, mass media, movies, newspapers, television, and radio, included stalwarts such as Hilton Kramer, T.S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Dector. It seemed to me, even as a student, that the issue was not solely a political matter, but also aesthetic. Later, postmodernism would leave a gaping hole in American cultural and civic life with its unrelenting attack on aesthetics, beauty, and sacred iconography.
It was no coincidence that, during the subsequent fifty years of the Cold War, it was not possible to create a successful memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the National Mall. One proposal for four towering, white-concrete, monolithic slabs drew the outrage of the Roosevelt family. Plans for the memorial were put on hold for decades. The installation of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 restored interest in projects for the Mall. The controversy over appropriate styles has yet to be resolved, however. In 1997, President Bill Clinton dedicated the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, created by American sculptor George Segal. The artist’s approach was to literally pour wet concrete over living models, let it harden to the point that it could be removed and made into casts. So grotesque was the outcome that many websites devoted to the memorial avoid reproductions of the statues, focusing instead on the memorable words uttered by Roosevelt during his administration, carved into blocks of stone framed by small waterfalls. Half a dozen modernist-style memorials, some even worse, have since been installed on the National Mall.
The problem is not limited to the memorials’ ugliness, but includes the mundane, meaningless themes and iconography used in honoring the great people and heroic events we mean to celebrate. In contrast, the success of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is based on the themes of honor and respect to those who served. The beauty and gravitas of these works derive from their intent. The FDR Memorial resembles a cartoon park designed by Jeff Koons. No doubt someone at this moment plans to contract Koons to create a future memorial. Recent doubts about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial call into question whether postmodern artists can create fitting memorials.
During the 1950s, neither Russian dictators nor patriotic Americans were all that interested in aesthetics or civic beauty. The City Beautiful Movement of the nineteenth century was over, and their primary focus was political and ideological. The Cold War – occasionally hot in places such as Korea, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa – was a distraction from cultural events. The communists promoted narrative realist paintings, which gave an unrealistic picture of the revolution of Lenin and Stalin. Americans, to the degree that they paid attention to the arts, accepted modernism, if only to prove to the world that American art was more progressive than fascism, Nazism, and communism. An old joke shared among artists at the Russian Academy (who were well trained in traditional academic skills): if you painted dour Soviet life as you saw and experienced it, you were sure to be sent to a slave camp in Siberia. Modernist abstraction was dealt with more harshly. The abstract, Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich was sent to the Gulag prison to be “re-educated.” When he emerged, tortured and disheartened, this great artist was ordered to paint scenes of smiling peasants with brand new (nonexistent) harvesters, while millions of farmers in the Ukraine starved. During Glasnost, under Mikhail Gorbachev, abstract artists were tolerated as long as all the money derived from sales to the West were turned over to the government. For a while, they did a thriving business with Western collectors, even though modernism in the West was dead by the 1970s. The corruption of the art market continued, fueled by the rapacious business market and hundreds of modern art museums, galleries and art departments at U.S. universities.
American Arts Quarterly(AAQ) has long followed the decline of Western modernism and the need for a new vision to spark a renaissance in all the arts. Ironically, Russia – or what is left of the Soviet Union – finds itself in a similar bind. In June, Radio Free Europe broadcast that the Russian government had created a major new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects. Its first national conference was held in the city of Krasnadar, on the Ukrainian-Russian border, near Crimea, which Russian military forces had just invaded.
According to the Russian website, monitored by Radio Free Europe, the directorate will be controlled by the Russian President. Its mission is to strengthen “the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society” and to improve “government policies in the field of patriotic upbringing.”† The ministry will be under the direct control of the Russian President. Interestingly, the core of this proposed revival of Russian culture, which is especially focused on youth, does not include communist propaganda, but pre-revolutionary values. Its purpose is nationalistic: the reclaiming of ancient Russia’s spiritually and aesthetically rich heritage and culture. Commentators on Radio Free Europe said the new agency could prove instrumental in filling the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet collapse, to correcting mistakes made under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin. Sadly, the present regime, socially oppressive and aggressively militaristic, seems ill-suited to the task.
In the years after World War II and the Cold War, we ignored the task of revitalizing American culture and education. During the 1990s, I served on the President’s Committee for National Standards for American Education K-12. Its members were composed primarily of business people and professional educators who had never heard of the word “renewal.” Traditional visual-art education and skills were shunned. The report, National Standards for Arts Education (1994), was prepared and published under a grant from the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and authorized by Congress.
Today, we find ourselves in another race with Russia and the Eastern nations, most obviously economic but, more crucially, cultural. We face two obstacles: much of American cultural history in the twentieth century was shaped by left-wing and liberal values; and the cognoscenti, the business community and government have been indifferent to the great decline in American standards and values, especially in education. Too many young people are falling into functional illiteracy. As Weird Al Yankovic sings in his brilliant pop music parody “Word Crimes”: “Your grammar’s errant … you’re incoherent.” Does anyone appreciate the irony that it is the inheritor of the communist empire, a former KGB officer of the Cold War, who seeks to “restore national pride, promote patriotism and strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society”?
Our nation was founded on the ideals and rights promoted by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and those principles evolved through the growth of American culture. The primitive tiny group of independent states and territories – not yet a nation – gave birth to the architecture that distinguishes our nation’s capital. The painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) and Thomas Jefferson, as architect, initiated the patriotic, neoclassical style that not only inspired American art, but influenced the evolution of the French Royal Academy – from the eighteenth-century Rococo style to the neoclassical spartanism of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), which prevailed until World War I. President George Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris that he believed virtue, the arts and humanities were permanently interconnected, and that Americans should act accordingly.
AAQ has devoted so much time to the failures of postmodern art that clutter museums, universities, and our public and civic spaces, that I will spare the reader further jeremiads on my part, except to note one important issue: the future of the National Mall. The monuments of the last sixty years (with the exception of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers, both part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) have been artistic and thematic failures, detracting from the gravitas and sacredness of this hallowed ground. On a brighter note, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House in July. BAM is noted for eclectic film series, including classic American movies that highlight the twentieth century’s most important art form, which grew out of the American popular culture. As he handed the award to the academy’s president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president remarked: “The moments you help create – moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow – they add texture to our lives, they are not incidental to the American experience – they are central to it. They are essential to it.”‡
Throughout our history, American culture has been fueled by creative anti-establishment energy. But that spirit of rebellion found a counterbalance in deeply rooted respect for traditional values, in a taste for direct storytelling and humor, and in community and civic pride. We have a healthy skepticism of officialdom, and any attempt to engineer much-needed changes in the arts through dogma and censorship will fail. But cultural institutions and the government can support and foster the individuals and groups that, for the last few decades, have worked to reclaim skills, communicate with an aesthetically engaged public, and promote beautiful and meaningful public spaces. In the best American tradition, that enterprise should encompass both the fine arts and pop culture – a powerful antidote to totalitarian agendas.
*Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Popular Culture (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962), p. 33.
† Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, “Putin Creates Agency to Restore Russia’s National Pride” (June, 2014).
Music transcends the classroom, the concert stage, and professional recordings. It pervades life. Mankind has long used music in all sorts of ways, to celebrate, to lament, to dance, to pray, to soothe or arouse, to woo, to infuse courage and terrify an enemy, to commemorate, to unite a community. Even the most primitive societies are keenly aware of the power of music, and various myths from cultures throughout the world confer on music and musicians a lofty, even divine significance. In some myths, notably in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, the world springs from the composing power of a musician-god.
That music is a vibrant part of life is especially clear in the case of the young. Most young people cherish their favorite music as their most intimate friend and their absolute refuge from care and stress. When we get older, music is inevitably bound up with nostalgia. We older folk have only to hear a song from our youth in order to be magically transported, as if by a familiar scent, to a former time, place, self, or love. Music does not merely sound: It casts a spell and conjures worlds. Music is no mere addendum to human life, no historical accident that might just as well have never been, but an essential part of who we are as human beings.
Why should young people study music? One answer presents itself on the basis of what I have said so far: Music has a central place in the lives of young people. For many, music is their life. Teaching music to the young is therefore much more than conveying historical information and technical facts, or helping students develop their musical talent. It is more than the effort to make them competent and aesthetically refined. In getting young people to engage in a serious study of music, we are giving them an opportunity to know themselves better by becoming more precisely aware of the amazing power that music has over them. Also, as we shall see, we are giving them an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the natural world – and of our connection to it – by becoming more aware of the mathematical order that underlies music.
Listening and Singing
In my three decades at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where all students are required to study music for two years, I have learned that students cannot engage in substantive musical learning without actual musical experience. Such experience takes two forms: listening to and making music.
Listening is an obvious requirement, but it is harder than it might seem. What should students listen to in their music classes, and what should they listen for? We should, first and foremost, expose our students to great music in the classical tradition (e.g., works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) and then to other examples of great music (e.g., folk songs, blues, and jazz) – broaden their horizons, as the saying goes. But how to do this is difficult. It makes sense to start with classical works that are appealing and fairly short. For instrumental music, single movements from symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets work well. Perhaps the best “first thing” to listen for is simply that musical works have a beginning, middle, and end. Students can listen to a given piece several times, each time listening for some particular aspect of the work: a recurring theme, a rhythm, a moment of heightened tension, etc.
But listening by itself is not enough. Students, by singing or playing an instrument, must be made to realize that music is not the symbols on the page any more than a poem is the written word. Music and poem come to be what they are only in the act of sounding. The object of musical study is not the written symbol but the musical event – the living phenomenon, for which the score is but the recipe. More than anything else, singing brings music to life and overcomes the passivity that often attends the act of listening. In singing, students are the instrument and the music. Most important here is not that students sing well, but that they make their best effort. In singing great choral works, however imperfectly, students get to experience one of life’s most humanizing pleasures: that of cooperating with others in the attempt to form a beautiful whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Students thus attain in sound the ideal of a perfected human community – a perfected friendship that preserves differences but renders them harmonious. To sing is to transcend the isolation and vagary of selfhood. Such transcendence is one of the greatest gifts of a genuine liberal education.
Music’s Connection to Math and Nature
Music, amazing in its power over our emotions and character, is even more amazing because it is eminently capable of being studied. Traditionally, music is one of the seven so-called “liberal arts.” Liberal, here, has nothing to do with its current, political usage. It is not a synonym for progressive. Rather, it is derived from the Latin liber, meaning free, and is best associated with words like liberate. The liberal arts constitute the knowledge that free people need to guide them in their decision-making at home, at work, as neighbors, and as citizens. The system of seven liberal arts was first developed and taught in the Middle Ages and has continued to strongly influence education down to the present day. The liberal arts are divided into a trivium (which is Latin for the three ways or roads) and a quadrivium (meaning four ways or roads). The trivium consists of the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium consists of the arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The former develops the arts of language, the latter the arts of measurement. Together they provide a template for a so-called “liberal education,” whose end is not a technically trained professional, but an educated human being.
As a quadrivial art, music has an exalted placement that points to the long acknowledged bond that music has with number and nature, and sharply distinguishes it from the visual arts. The connection between music and mathematics was established by the legendary Greek, Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that the most commonly used (and most singable) musical intervals had intelligible mathematical counterparts.
Let’s use the octave as an example. To the musician, notes that are one octave apart sound alike—the only difference is that one is higher, or lower, than the other. Modern science tells us that an octave is a musical interval in which one note has either double or half the frequency of another note—if one note has a frequency of 400 Hz (hertz or cycles per second), the note an octave above it has a frequency of 800 Hz and the note an octave below has a frequency of 200 Hz. So, the ratio for an octave is 2:1.
Pythagoras discovered this connection without the knowledge of frequencies: He simply divided a string in half and, to his utter amazement, heard that this division produced the octave. Likewise, he discovered that when one string is two-thirds the length of another, it will produce a higher note that fits another common musical interval, a perfect fifth (the first melodic interval in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). This discovery – that notes that sound good together can be represented mathematically with ratios of small whole numbers – was far-reaching; it suggested that great music was not just a matter of taste and convention, but was grounded in the very nature of the physical universe – which could explain why humans respond to it. Our sensuous experience of music might, in fact, be a deep if unconscious response to an intelligible order: The most common and singable musical intervals might be ratios that we automatically sense. Moreover, it suggested the possibility of a mathematical physics. If precise, discoverable, numerical ratios were at work in the relationships between notes separated by common musical intervals, then wouldn’t they also be at work in, say, the relationship between distance and the time it takes for an object to fall to the ground?
It is easy, and fun, to recreate the Pythagorean discovery by experimenting with different divisions of a string on a device known as a sonometer or “measurer of sound.” Sometimes it is called a monochord because you need only one string to do Pythagorean experiments. But the device works best when it has two strings: one that is divided and another that is not, so that it can serve as a reference pitch. A sonometer is very easy to make, as I discovered when my son and I constructed one for his high school science project. All you need is a thick board, metal strings, a few screws, two small bridges to anchor the strings at both ends, a small moveable “bridge” that is used to divide the string at various points, and a meter stick to take measurements. High school students can use this simple musical instrument to verify that the most common musical intervals do indeed correspond to ratios of small whole numbers. They can do this in two ways. One way is to measure off a length of the string that corresponds to a given ratio (say, 3:2, or two-thirds the length of the undivided string), move the bridge into place, and then pluck the resulting partial length (the two-thirds length) to hear if the predicted interval sounds (the perfect fifth). The other way is for the students to move the bridge around under the string, plucking and listening at each point, until they reach what sounds like a given interval and then use a meter stick to determine the ratio into which the string has been divided. The octave is especially interesting because of its simplicity and familiarity. Knowing that its ratio is 2:1, students can divide a string exactly in half without ever using a visual measuring device. All they have to do is listen for the division that sings the octave.
This simple Pythagorean experiment is a real treat for students, who invariably experience amazement at the mathematical grounding of music in nature. The experience helps their learning in a number of ways. It makes them realize that the musical intervals and the scale acquire a precise definition only through the power of mathematics (ratios); that the practical problem of tuning a stringed instrument like a guitar or a piano is a mathematical problem of getting different ratios to fit with one another in a consistent scale; and that the tuning they have inherited (the 12-toned equal temperament in which an octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps) is the product of a rich, complex history marked by incredible ingenuity and laborious effort.
Music Shapes Us
Even apart from this profound connection with mathematics, music is pre-eminent among the arts for the order and clarity, the sharply defined character, of its elements. Music moves us, sometimes to overpowering emotion. It does so through well-defined structures, through an order of tones and rhythms. It is not the mere sound of drums but their rhythmic beating that stirs us. Here we come upon the central paradox of music, the paradox that defines music as a worthy object of sustained intellectual wonder: Music is the union of the rational and irrational, of order and feeling.
Ultimately, by shaping feeling, music shapes the whole human being. For a proper understanding of this, we turn to the ancient Greeks, for whom music, far from being morally neutral, played a decisive role in moral education. Aristotle’s Politics ends with an extensive discussion of the proper moral and political uses of music and the effect of music on the souls of citizens. In the Republic, Plato draws our attention to the power music has over the young. He places special emphasis on the danger of music. The severity of his critique underscores what we, in our effort to excuse or defend music, often fail to acknowledge: that music is a great power and, like any great power, can be used for great good or great evil. Why is music so emotionally powerful, far more powerful than the visual arts? Plato provides a possible answer. In the Republic, he calls upbringing in music “most sovereign” because rhythm and concord “most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously.” In experiencing music, we do not behold from a distance but drink in and incorporate. Some forms of music, so Plato claims, are conducive to orderliness of soul and the love of grace and beauty; others indulge the baser passions and feed the lust for disorder and self-indulgence. Studying music as a liberal art gives students the opportunity to consider the possibility that Plato is right – that music is not limited to taste and enjoyment, but has a powerful influence on who we are and whether we are ennobled or debased.*
This leads me to the observation that we are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions—and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.
Cultivating Musical Taste
By studying music, we want to cultivate our students’ taste, encourage their appreciation of beauty. But what is this beauty? Why do we say that an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute or a movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful? Although a complete definition of beauty is beyond the scope of this essay, I will venture a few remarks on this topic.
I begin with the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or the ear of the listener). This saying is both obviously true and obviously false. True because beauty exists only in relation to a responsive subject: It must appear beautiful to someone. False because merely thinking that something is beautiful does not make it so – judgments of beauty are not relative. Thinking that they are confuses judgments of mere subjective liking with judgments of aesthetic taste, which always claim to be objective and universal. After all, beauty is not the same as pleasure. Just as beautiful things do not always immediately please, pleasures are not always beautiful. We can take pleasure in something ugly and base. Beauty is not a feeling in a human subject but a quality we perceive in an object. The perception comes first, then the emotional response. Beauty can take us by surprise. It strikes, pierces, even transforms us. This would not be possible if beauty came from us. Beauty educates us by taking us outside ourselves. It compels us to transcend self-interest and self-feeling. We do not merely behold beauty, but look up to it. In appreciating beauty, we admire that which deserves to be admired. To cultivate taste is therefore to cultivate judgment. Beauty, in short, is in the eye of the educated beholder.
Moreover, the beauty of a great musical work is not always immediately evident. Sometimes it takes time, and training, to realize that it is beautiful. Students often say that a piece they did not like at first became one of their favorites with repeated experience of it. Their taste changed, not because they got used to something they didn’t like, but because an inherent quality eventually became apparent to them. There is an ancient Greek saying: “Beautiful things are difficult.” This is true to our experience of beauty, which sometimes comes to us only if we make an effort to go to it.
In order for beauty to be admired, it must first be recognized. As discussed in the previous section, there is a long tradition that connects beauty and order, especially mathematical order. The musician and mathematician Edward Rothstein, in his book Emblems of the Mind, shows how mathematical relations underlie the beautiful in music. He writes: “A composition is a construction of patterns and proportions, resembling an argument in mathematics.” Relations like symmetry and various sorts of proportion are, in fact, evident in the works of the great composers.
But mathematics, though beautiful in its own right, cannot fully explain the beauty of music. By itself, it cannot explain our response to a Mozart aria or a Beethoven symphony. Why do these pieces continue to attract listeners who become familiar with them all around the world, not just in the West? These pieces seem not to have been written for one country, people, or time. They are universal and belong to everyone. They strike us with their amazing wholeness and perfection. Everything seems to fit and cohere in a carefully worked out scheme. The orderliness is not merely correct but inspired. With time and effort, most of us can detect the layers of order and the balance of forces at work in these pieces: the architecture of the whole. We can detect how tensions build and are sustained, and how they are satisfyingly resolved. We can even learn to identify the technical means by which these effects are produced. We hear how a theme is announced and then developed, how it seems to take on a life of its own, occasionally even seeming to spin out of control only to be brought back into the economy of the musical whole.
Beautiful music pleases and sometimes challenges us with its intelligence, depth, and complexity. It does not please for the moment, but invites endless re-experience and return. The more we listen, the more we hear. And the more we study the music, the more reason we have to find it beautiful. Music unfolds in time and exhibits a delightful play of forces or tensions. In music, the question of beauty comes down largely to this perception of how musical forces conspire to form a whole.† These forces or tensions are at work in the familiar major and minor scales, and in the chords of harmony. Great musical works exploit these tensions to the fullest. That is why they are both maximally ordered and emotionally potent, why, as we say, they are beautiful.
Learning from a Simple Melody: Scarborough Fair
Music education that aims at real knowledge requires careful attention to the elements of music: tones, time-values, intervals, etc. Students must learn to read music and correctly identify notes on a staff. Soon after this “basic training,” they should look closely at how the elements conspire to form significant musical wholes. These wholes need not be impressive compositions by well-known composers like Bach and Mozart – they demand way too much all at once. A better way to begin is with a folk song.
Scarborough Fair, the very old folk song made popular by Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s, is a good example of a beautiful, simple melody that lends itself to close analysis. With the right guidance and materials, even the most musically naive students can begin to engage in a deep and thorough analysis of this haunting melody.
One of the problems in getting students to think about music is that it comes to us too easily. It seems to be right there for our immediate pleasure. Music does not, by itself, raise questions. One way to generate questions is with a series of “experiments.” Play the melody on the piano several times and have the students sing along. Then change one note and get the students to state, to the best of their ability, how they think the melody has changed in sound and “feel.” Do this with different notes in the melody and examine each change in turn. At each point, ask, “What happened? What was the effect of the change?” Changing a note in a melody – in effect, disrupting a familiar whole – is also a good way to get students to become aware that there is a whole. What is right sounding about a melody comes to light when we cause it to stray from its intended path and sound “wrong.” Students then begin to realize that the melody consists of carefully made choices, and that a change in one part is a change in the whole. Such experiments become even more revealing when we alter the melody’s rhythm.
Next, students should explore the connection between the notes of the melody and the words. To do this thoroughly, they should have access to the complete text (whose story is very sad). Does the sound of the melody fit the meaning of the words? What do the words gain in being sung? Does the melody make certain words stand out? How does the rhythm affect the mood of the song, the meaning of the words, and the story they tell?
Finally, students can compose a variation of Scarborough Fair, perhaps with their own lyrics. In this exercise (which I have found works beautifully in class), students learn, through direct experience, that composition involves revision: that certain musical choices don’t work, that some work better than others, and, more generally, that a piece of music (like a piece of writing) can be improved.
A simple, familiar folk song is a musical education in itself. The examination of simple melodies encourages students to give reasons for what they feel. This liberates them from the erroneous and stultifying opinion that a response to beauty is based solely on subjective feeling (that beauty is “relative”) or habit (that we hear musical events as we do only because we’ve heard them repeatedly). It reveals, in highly specific ways, that human feeling is complex, that our emotional response to beautiful sound is grounded in a remarkably precise, if usually unconscious, perception of order. Similarly, examination of simple melodies reinforces the trust that analysis, however abstract it may seem at first, can lead us back to our musical experience with renewed wonder, a keener sense for the details of a beautiful whole, and a more intense and discerning pleasure. By analyzing Scarborough Fair, we get a better idea of what to listen for in this melody. We also come to understand it better and, as a result, appreciate it even more. To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, it is like being able to “count the ways” in which we love someone.
Music as a Liberating Art
The study of music has several goals. One of them is to improve, through education, students’ aesthetic taste: to introduce them to truly great music in an effort to beget a love for all things graceful and well formed. As a music teacher, I hope that the study of music begets in my students a habit of searching for the causes and details of beautiful things, and that the love of beauty will nourish the love of knowledge and truth. As students’ intellects are opened to the power of music, I hope they will strive to imitate in their day-to-day lives the musical virtues of harmoniousness, proportion, good timing, appropriate flexibility or grace, and “striking the right note” in thought, speech, feeling, and action.
Music, as I noted earlier, is one of the traditional liberal arts. It liberates us from vulgarity, intellectual rigidity, and the tyranny of unexamined, popular opinions about music and beauty. Music does this by encouraging human fellowship (in singing), by inspiring a love of beauty that transcends the mere gratification of desire, by making us more attentive to the elements and causes of our emotional response to beauty, and by compelling us to test conventional opinions against the standard of our own experience.
Music, alas, is the neglected Muse of educational programs across the board, from kindergarten to college. One reason for this is a failure to perceive the importance of music in the education of the young and in human life generally. Another is the tendency to regard music as a “soft” subject– there for the sake of amusement or a vague sort of “music appreciation.” Yet another is the opinion that music is not basic to our human nature, but is the prerogative of a trained or gifted elite – something that only those with the potential to be professional musicians need study. I have endeavored to show that none of these is true.
If studied as a liberal art (i.e., in order for the student to become more inquisitive and reflective and more aware of music’s power) rather than as a fine art (i.e., in order for the student to become a musician), music gets students to look beyond surface distinctions in order to seek out deep, underlying harmonies or bonds between things apparently remote. In the breadth of its domain, in its union of the mathematical and the poetic, and in its involvement of the whole human being (body, heart, and mind), music is an essential liberating art.
*It is interesting to note that the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) also means noble just as the word for ugly (aischros) also means base.
†For discussion of the treatment of tones as forces, see the Sense of Music by Victor Zuckerkandl, Princeton University Press, 1959.
This one-day conference that includes FSI scholar Sir Roger Scruton and friends Heather Mac Donald and Daniel Asia explores the immediate future of the arts within the dynamic and controversial political environment that has emerged in the wake of the 2016 elections. How does the recent strand of populism affect the arts and humanities moving forward? Are the high arts insulated from the vicissitudes of quotidian life? Or does a populist surge speak directly to the arts in a post-Enlightenment era? Conference participants are uniquely suited to address these questions. And FSI founder Andrew Balio will also be contributing as a respondent to these talks.
Heather Mac Donald
The Manhattan Institute
“Vandals at the Opera House: Identity Politics Comes to the Opera Stage”
Wall Street Journal
“Headwinds on the Road to a Democratic Culture”
Sir Roger Scruton
The University of Buckingham and the Future Symphony Institute
“Why Taste Matters”
Daniel Asia and Bruce Cole
University of Arizona and the Ethics & Public Policy Center, respectively
“Consonance and Dissonance in the Music and Art World”
Robert E. Gordon and Aaron D. Mobley
University of Arizona and Berkeley City College, respectively
“The Value of Art and Music in a Popular Culture”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Architect magazine, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, where it first appeared.
I first became aware of the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo because of a chair. I was researching Eero Saarinen’s furniture for my book Now I Sit Me Down (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), and I came across one of his earliest chairs, designed in the late 1930s in collaboration with Charles Eames. The two young men – Saarinen was 28, Eames was 31 – were working together in the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., office of Saarinen & Saarinen, a partnership recently formed by Eliel Saarinen and his son. The chair was intended for a new concert hall that the firm was designing in Buffalo.
I was recently in Buffalo and had a chance to visit the hall. Not surprisingly, the chair was no longer in use – few public seats last 75 years. Nevertheless, I found several survivors in the musicians’ lounge. The striking design, which uses one piece of lightly padded, molded plywood for the seat and back, was obviously influenced by Alvar Aalto’s molded wood furniture of that period, yet for two novices it remains an impressive accomplishment.
I came to Kleinhans for the chair, but I stayed for the architecture. Not widely known, this building, which opened in 1940, is remarkable in several ways. To begin with, unlike most urban concert halls, it is not downtown but in a leafy residential neighborhood, surrounded by large, freestanding homes on Buffalo’s West Side. The hall faces a 500-foot-diameter, landscaped circle that is the prominent termination of one of the parkways that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux laid out when they re-planned the city in the 1860s; the other end of the parkway is anchored by H. H. Richardson’s monumental Buffalo State Hospital.
Olmsted and Vaux’s circle is the key to the Kleinhans partis: a drumlike curved chamber music hall echoes the circular shape; the main hall, a larger curved volume, extends to the rear; the lobby, serving both halls, is situated between. Nothing could be simpler.
An Understated Throwback
We have become used to concert halls that make big bold statements: the looming sculptural forms of the Philharmonie in Paris, the metallic sails of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the giant glass barrel vault of the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The Kleinhans is curiously elusive. Approaching from the circle, one catches glimpses between the trees of a small drum embraced by a curved walkway and a reflecting pool. No windows and no entrances – there are two in this axially symmetrical building – are visible, just the drum and the pool. The main entrance is on the side, and it is a bit of a surprise since it is dominated by a long concrete canopy that, while structurally elegant, resembles a bus shelter. Mundane but useful; it was raining hard the day I visited, and I thankfully ducked under its protective cover.
The exterior of the Kleinhans is brick. No structural high jinks, no fancy coursework, just multicolored Ohio Wyandotte brick, a rather rustic material that Eliel Saarinen had used extensively at the Cranbrook School in Michigan. A bulky, windowless, brick building sounds like an awkward fit in a residential setting, yet fit it does. The scale of the large hall is reduced by stepping-down emergency stairs that anticipate the exterior stair in Aalto’s Baker House; the walls of the chamber music hall – the drum – are enlivened by large panels of buff Mankato limestone. The regular spaces between the panels resemble pilasters and, combined with the reflecting pool, suggest a classical rotunda. Think Pope’s Jefferson Memorial.
Inside, the lobby is a 50-foot-wide arced space with curved walls, rounded details, and sinuous stairs leading down to a restaurant and bar in the basement, and up to the second-level lobby. This upper gallery is suspended by steel hangers from the ceiling, leaving the lower lobby column-free. My guide, Ted Lownie, of the local firm HHL Architects, has served as Kleinhans’s house architect for two decades, and he speculates that while the exterior shows Eliel’s hand, the lobby seems to be Eero’s work. Just before joining his father, the younger Saarinen worked for Norman Bel Geddes, the industrial designer responsible for tear-drop-shaped cars, swooshy desk lamps, and curvaceous exhibition pavilions. Bel Geddes is considered to be one of the fathers of streamlining, and his influence on the Kleinhans lobby is unmistakable. It’s even apparent in the rounded upholstery of the lobby seating, designed by Eero and Charles.
On one side of the lobby, five full-height wooden doors swing open to reveal the chamber music hall. The walls of the hall, like the doors, are zebrawood, and curved rosewood screens flank the raised stage; the floor is oak and the molded ceiling is white plaster. The decor, as in the lobby, is modernist, but unlike so many buildings today, it is neither over-detailed nor merely celebrates precision. Lighting fixtures are mostly hidden, and the space is illuminated by recessed wall spots that reflect light off the rippled ceiling. Technology is kept in the background; you could call this Low Tech.
“A Joy to Play In”
The ultimate test of a concert hall is the main auditorium. The acoustics of Kleinhans are somewhat controversial, because the reverberation time is relatively short, which today is considered suboptimal by many acousticians. On the other hand, musicians have generally praised the hall. Sergei Rachmaninoff, who performed in Kleinhans shortly after it opened, considered it “one of the best acoustical arrangements in this country.” The violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz called it “a joy to play in.” I attended a Joshua Bell concert during my visit and to me the music sounded clear and precise.
But perhaps I was influenced by the architecture. It’s rare that a room takes one’s breath away – this one does. There is none of the distracting techno-clutter that you find in so many modern concert halls; no suspended sound reflectors and chandeliers, no banks of spotlights, no sculptural wall treatment. The softly modeled plaster ceiling and the subtly shaped wooden walls lead the eye to the stage. There is no proscenium to separate the audience from the musicians. We are all together in this serene space.
Eliel Saarinen was close to music – and to musicians. In Finland he had known Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, and he was friends with Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky, who recommended Saarinen for the Kleinhans job, had commissioned him in 1937 to plan the orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. As he did in the Tanglewood “Shed,” Saarinen used a fan-shape for Kleinhans, which is a very large hall – the original capacity was 2,800, recently reduced to 2,400 to provide more comfortable seating. But because of its shape all the seats in the steeply raked auditorium, and on the large balcony, are close to the stage. Significantly, new seating and carpeting – both matching the original – are the only notable changes to the hall in 75 years.
An impression of warm intimacy is heightened by the light-colored wood paneling – primavera, the same wood that Mies would use in the Farnsworth House. The paneling is better described as wallpaper, because it is actually a paper-thin wood veneer on a linen backing that is glued to the plaster wall. Randomly spaced sound-absorbing panels are faced with perforated sheets of asbestos-cement, painted to look like primavera. Not form follows function, but form follows the demands of the human eye.
Because Eero Saarinen went on to become famous and is today better remembered than his father, there is a tendency to emphasize his involvement and, indeed, the streamlined lobby does anticipate his TWA terminal. But Kleinhans shows all the marks of a mature and seasoned designer, and while Eero was undoubtedly precocious, he was only four years out of school when he started on the building. At Kleinhans, Saarinen père took the lead. “Until his death, I worked in the form of my father,” Eero later explained in an interview.
Kleinhans was Eliel Saarinen’s first major American commission outside Cranbrook. By the time that the concert hall was designed he had moved away from the decorative Modernism of his earlier buildings, but the textured brick, the tapestry-like stone panels, the “quilted” wood paneling, even the use of symmetry, mark Kleinhans as a outlier to the then-recently christened International Style. (Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had pointedly left Eliel Saarinen out of their International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1930s.) During the following postwar years, as architecture moved in a determinedly functionalist direction, Eliel Saarinen’s brand of Modernism would come to seem passé. More’s the pity.
While Klienhans includes some Art Moderne touches, and its lobby shows the influence of the then-current fashion for streamlining, its privileging of the tactile and the visual reflects Eliel’s considered humanism. In his book Search for Form (Reinhold, 1948), he wrote, “the reasons for strength and weakness of form cannot be found in the turmoil of life, but in man himself.” Not that Kleinhans ignores the “turmoil of life” – this is a technically advanced building. The spaces are fully air-conditioned; deep steel trusses span the concert hall; hidden I-beams support the hovering cantilever of the balcony; a large portion of the stage acts as an elevator and lowers to accommodate extra seating or an orchestra pit. Yet Saarinen never allows his technological legerdemain to intrude on the musical experience of the hall. That’s part of his humanism, too.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sir Roger Scruton was invited to the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival, at the very heart of music’s avant-garde movement, where he delivered this lecture in October 2016. We think it may be of interest to the many people who have been following our sometimes controversial series on the Darmstadt School’s role in undermining contemporary composition and diminishing our audiences. It is printed here with the gracious permission of the author.
Important composers, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Ligeti and Stockhausen, have been premiered in this place and before this audience. Along with Darmstadt, Donaueschingen has helped to restore Germany to the central place in European musical culture that it has occupied in the past and will always deserve. Now, in its latest and securest phase as the Musiktage, the Donaueschingen festival has become a symbol of musical modernism, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak from this podium to one of the most educated musical audiences in the world today. But in this short talk I will try to outline why I question the prominence in our musical culture of the experimental avant-garde.
In 1860 Wagner published a now famous pamphlet entitled The Music of the Future – Zukunftmusik. In it he expressed his view that it was not enough for music to be merely contemporary – zeitgenössisch; it had to be ahead of itself, summoning from the future the forms that already lay there in embryo. And of course Wagner was entitled to write in this way, given what he had achieved in Tristan und Isolde, which was finished the year before his essay appeared, and which introduced the chromatic syntax that was to change the course of musical history.
We should not forget, however, the wider context of Wagner’s argument. The obsession with the future comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, and ultimately from Hegel’s philosophy of history, which represents human events as motivated by the always-advancing logic of the dialectic. For Hegel history has a direction, and this direction is revealed in laws, institutions, and sciences, as well as in literature, art, and music. Each period is characterised by its Zeitgeist, shared among all the products of the culture.
In Feuerbach the Zeitgeist idea is allied to the belief in progress, understood in terms of the life and energy of human communities. The future, Feuerbach believed, is not merely a development of the past; it is better than the past. It marks an increase in knowledge and therefore in power over our own destiny and therefore in freedom. It is not easy now, after the communist and fascist experiments, to endorse the belief in progress that they both so vehemently shared. But somehow, in the arts, the belief survives. We spontaneously incline to the view that each artistic form and style must be superseded as soon as it appears, and that the true values of art require constant vigilance against the diseases of nostalgia and pastiche. Each composer faces the challenge: why should I listen to you? And each claims originality, authenticity, the plain fact of being me, as a vindication. Hence each tries to avoid repeating what has been done already or relying on formulae that, by dint of over-use, have become clichés. In everyday life clichés may be useful, since they evoke stock reactions and settled beliefs. In art, however, clichés are inherently meaningless, since they place mechanical reactions where real inspiration should be.
Wagner’s emphasis on the future of music was influenced by the Hegelian theory of history and Feuerbach’s use of it. But it was also rooted in a real sense of tradition and what tradition means. His innovations grew organically from the flow of Western music, and his harmonic discoveries were discoveries only because they also affirmed the basic chord-grammar of diatonic tonality. They were discoveries within the extended tonal language. Wagner was aware of this, and indeed dramatized the predicament of the modern composer in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is his own striking reflection on ‘tradition and the individual talent.’ In that opera the plodding C major tonality of the Mastersingers is brought to life, not by remaking it entirely, but by moving it onwards, through the use of chromatic voice-leading, altered chords and a new kind of melody in which boundaries are fluid and phrases can be repeated and varied at liberty within them. In the course of the opera the chorus brings the new melody and the old harmony into creative relation, and the work ends jubilantly, with the new incorporated and the old renewed. This is nothing like the radical avant-garde departures that have dominated music in more recent times.
Right up until Schoenberg’s experiments with serialism, musical innovation in the realm of ‘classical’ music proceeded in Wagner’s way. New harmonies, scales, and melodic ensembles were imported into the traditional musical grammar, new rhythms and time-signatures were adopted, and with Stravinsky and Bartók organisation was inspired more by dance than by the classical forms. Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s introduction of the octatonic scale led to music in which, while there was melodic and harmonic progression, there was often no clear tonic, or two competing tonics, as in much of the Rite of Spring. Schoenberg wrote of ‘floating tonality,’ others of atonality, meaning the loss of the sense of key, and the use of harmonies which, even if tied to each other by voice-leading, seemed to be unrelated and, by the old standards, ungrammatical.
None of that involved any rejection of the classical tradition: composers like Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky were renewing that tradition, and what they wrote was not merely recognizable to the ordinary educated listener, but also interesting and challenging on account of its new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmical devices. Both the continuous development of the romantic symphony in Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, and the incorporation of modernist devices into the tonal language, lay within the scope of the existing language: these were developments that issued naturally from the pattern of musical discovery that has characterised Western classical music from the Renaissance.
As things stand now, however, there is absolutely no guarantee that a new work of music will be recognized as such by the educated musical ear, or that it will be possible to hear it as an addition to the great tradition of symphonic sound. A radical break seems to have occurred, with two consequences that the listening public find difficult to absorb: first, modern works of music tend to be self-consciously part of an avant-garde, never content to belong to the tradition but always overtly and ostentatiously defying it; second, these works seem to be melodically impoverished, and even without melody entirely, relying on sound effects and acoustical experiments to fill the void where melody should be. I don’t say the emphasis on acoustics is necessarily a fault from the artistic point of view. I draw your attention to the example we heard yesterday, when Nathan Davies used live filtering to give the effect of resonators, extracting tones from white noise, and turning those tones towards music. The effect was undeniably striking, at times entrancing: as though the tones were being purified so that they can be used as though new. But until those tones are used, and used in melodic and harmonic structures, the result will remain at a distance from the audience, outside the reach of our musical affections. It is only the loved and repeated repertoire that will ensure the survival of music, and to be loved and repeated music requires a dedicated audience. Music exists in the ear of the listener, not on the page of the score, nor in the world of pure sound effects. And listeners, deterred by the avant-garde, are in ever-shorter supply: not in Donaueschingen, of course, but in the wider culture of our cities, where music will survive or die.
I identify four developments that have led to the place where we now are. Thanks to these developments a new kind of music has emerged which is less music than a reflection upon music, or perhaps even a reflection on the lack of music, or on the impossibility of music in the age in which we live.
The first development is, in many ways, the most interesting from the philosophical point of view, and this is the radical attack on tonality by Theodor Adorno and his immediate followers. Although Adorno linked his argument to his advocacy of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism, the force of the argument is largely negative. It concerned what he was against, rather than what he was for. And Adorno’s argument carried weight in the post-war period because he was an ardent critic of the culture of capitalism, one who had attempted to adapt the Marxist critique of bourgeois society to the new social and political realities. Adorno’s critique of tonality was part of a systematic theory of the death of bourgeois culture. Tonality had to die because the bourgeois order had to die. And the desire nevertheless to cling to tonality, in the manner of Sibelius or Copland, even in the manner of the neo-classical Stravinsky, is bound to lead, Adorno thought, to empty clichés or sterile kitsch. Such is the inevitable result of attempting to make use of an idiom that has died.
This argument of Adorno’s, which is an application of the Hegelian Zeitgeist theory, is not easily answered, even if it is easily doubted. All artistic people are aware that styles, idioms and forms are living things that can also die, and that there is a need, integral to the artistic enterprise as such, to ‘make it new.’ This does not mean being iconoclastic or radical in the manner of the modernist avant-garde. It means conveying a message and an inspiration of one’s own. The true work of art says something new, and is never a patchwork of things already said. This is the case even when the work employs an idiom already perfected by others, as when Mozart, in his string quartets, writes in the language of Haydn.
Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to ‘take back the Ninth Symphony.’ Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.
This brings me to the second development that has fed into the obsession with the avant-garde, and that is the invention of serialism. I call this an invention, rather than a discovery, in order to record the wholly a priori nature of the serial system. The new harmonies and chromatic melodies of Tristan were discoveries: musical events that came into being by experiment, and were adopted because they sounded right. In retrospect you can give quasi-mathematical accounts of what Wagner was doing in the first bars of Tristan. But you can be sure that you will not thereby be identifying Wagner’s own creative process, which was one of trying out new combinations and seeing where they lead.
By contrast, serial organisation was an invention – a set of a priori rules laid down by Schoenberg and adapted and varied by his successors. These rules were to provide a non-tonal grammar for music, determining what comes next independently of whether its coming next sounds right or wrong to the normal musical ear. It is not the tone or the scale but the maths that matters. There is no reason, of course, to think that serial organization should not also lead to sequences that do sound right, or come to sound right in time. But their sounding right is quite independent of the serial organisation.
One of the advantages of working with a framework of a priori rules is that you can say just why this note occurs in just this place: the series requires it. But in another sense you lack such an answer, since the series requires the note regardless of the heard relation to its predecessor. Moreover the grammar of serialism is not based on the scale or any other way of grouping tones dynamically, in terms of what leads to what. A series is the basis for permutations, not linear movements. In listening to music, however, we listen out for progression, prolongation, question and answer – all the many ways in which one tone summons another as its natural successor. Serialism asks us to hear in another way, with the brain rather than the ear in charge.
The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that ‘next’ sounds ‘right.’ We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.
The third development, associated particularly with Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono, is the move towards total serialisation. Composers decided to serialise time values, unpitched sounds, and timbres, hoping thereby to exert total control over everything. Interestingly enough this development went hand in hand with the emergence of aleatoric scores, in which instrumentalists are handed bundles of notes that they could choose to assemble in any order, or scores which ask for indeterminate sounds. Randomisation had the same effect as serialisation, which was to deprive musical elements of their intrinsic ways of relating to each other. Whether we impose a dictatorial serial order, or present notes in unordered bundles, we undo the demands of melody, harmony and rhythm, which are inherent in the traditional grammar, and replace them with systematic requirements that can be explained intellectually but not, as a rule, heard musically.
In 1970 Stockhausen composed a two-piano piece, Mantra, for this festival. In a subsequent lecture delivered in Britain, which can be seen on YouTube, he sets out the twelve-tone series on which the piece is based. He plays the notes one after another, assigning an equal time-value to each, and tells us that this melody occurred to him at a certain point, and that he decided to work on it, composing flights of new notes around each of its elements, arranging the series in conjunction with its own retrograde, and so on. What was most striking to me about Stockhausen’s description of what he was doing was the word ‘melody,’ used of this sequence that is not a melody at all. Of course there are twelve-tone melodies – for example the beautiful melody that Berg assigns to his destructive heroine Lulu in the opera of that name. But all that makes sequences into melodies is absent from Stockhausen’s theme: it has no beginning, no end, no up-beat, no tension or release, no real contour apart from its pure geometrical outline. It is a musical object, but not a musical subject. And as he explains what is done with it you understand that it is treated as an object too – a piece of dead tissue to be cut up beneath the microscope. We understand the distinction between subject and object because we ourselves exemplify it. The true musical theme is a subject in something like the sense that I am a subject: it has a consciousness of itself, a meaning and a point of view. This is simply not true of the helpless dead sequence that Stockhausen presents us in his lecture.
The effect of such innovations was to replace the experience of music by the concept of music. The typical avant-garde work is designed as the concept of itself, and often given some portentous title by way of illustrating the point, like Stockhausen’s Gruppen: a work for three orchestras in which notes are amalgamated into groups according to their acoustical properties, and tempos are defined logarithmically. Much can be said, and has been said, about this momentous, not to say megalomaniac, composition, and indeed its great success, like that of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, is not independent of the fact that there is so much to say about it, some of which Stockhausen himself had anticipated in his article ‘wie die Zeit vergeht..’, published in the third issue of Die Reihe. The score is not a notation of musically organized sounds, but a mathematical proof, from which the sounds can be deduced as theorems.
The eclipse of art by the concept of art occurred at around the same time in the visual arts, and for a while the game was amusing and intriguing. However, this particular bid for originality has dated much more rapidly than any of the harmonic discoveries of the late romantics. Do it once, and you have done it for all time. This is certainly what we have seen in the realm of conceptual art in our museums and galleries. And it is what we have heard in the concert hall too. In conceptual music the creative act is always, from the musical point of view, the same, namely the act of putting an idea about music in the place where music should be.
This leads me to the fourth development, which is in many ways the most interesting, namely the replacement of tones by sounds, and musical by acoustical hearing. Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.
Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it. (Someone might be an expert at hearing pitched sounds, and may even be gifted with absolute pitch, but still be ‘tone deaf,’ since unable to hear the musical organisation. Sequences don’t sound right to such a person, because they never sound wrong.)
The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom.
When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.
Of course there are sound effects too: sounds from the real world intrude into music, like the unpitched sounds of the percussion section, or the recorded bird-song that intrudes into Respighi’s Pines of Rome. But when we hear these sounds as part of the music they change character. They are no long noises, no longer events in the ambient soundscape, like the coughs from the audience on a cold winter’s day. They are caught up in the musical movement, becoming one with it, and dependent on the forward propulsion of which they are now a part. Thus a single piece of music, with no repeats, may nevertheless contain multiply repeated sequences of sounds. As objects in the material world sounds are identified and counted in another way from the way in which melodies, which are intentional and not material objects, are counted.
The intrusion of acoustical ways of thinking into the practice and teaching of music is something we owe to Boulez and Stockhausen, and to the educational practises that they established. In Stockhausen sounds from everyday life are accorded exactly the same value as sounds within music – they are, as it were, invited in from the surrounding world, as in the work Momente, in which all kinds of sounds and speech-forms are brought together in a potpourri of fragments. As Stockhausen himself says, this work has no real beginning and no end: like all his works it starts without beginning and finishes without ending. For it lacks those elements of musical grammar that make beginnings and endings perceivable. It starts nowhere and stays at nowhere until ending nowhere. The same is true of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, in which the exotic instrumentation and serial organisation do not conceal the fact that no moment in this work has any intrinsic connection to the moment that comes next. The experience of ‘next,’ and the inevitability of the next, has been chased away. In a concert devoted to music of this kind the audience can know that the piece is ended only because the performers are putting down their instruments.
Music (music of our classical tradition included) has until now consisted of events that grow organically from each other, over a repeated measure and according to recognizable harmonic sequences. The ‘moving forward’ of melodic lines through musical space is the true origin of musical unity and of the dramatic power of traditional music. And it is this ‘moving forward’ that is the first casualty when pitches and tempi are organised serially, and when sounds are invited in from outside the music. Add the acoustical laboratory and the result is all too often heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.
This is not to say that acoustical processing may not have a part, and an important part, to play in bringing sounds into a musical structure. Joanna Bailie, to take just one example, has used the recorded and digitally processed sounds culled in public spaces as inputs into music for which instrumentalists and singers create the musical frame. The atmospheric effect of this was heard here in Donaueschingen a day ago. However, in the work of such composers we see the reassertion of the musical against the acoustical ear, and perhaps even a path back to the place where music reigns in a space of its own.
All those four developments are of the greatest musicological interest, and I do not deny that they can be used effectively, to produce works of real musical power. But it is also clear to my way of thinking that they are responsible for a growing gap between serious music and the audience on which it depends, not necessarily financially (since after all there is a massive machinery of subsidy that keeps the avant-garde in business), but at least spiritually. If avant-garde music is ever to step down from the world of concepts into the world of tones, then it will be because the audience exists in whose ears this transition can occur. Take away the audience and you take away the concrete reality of music as an art. You turn music into an arcane exercise in the acoustical laboratory, in which groups of patient instrumentalists pump out sounds according to formulae which mean nothing, since meaning lies in the ears that have fled from the scene. Of course, not here in Donaueschingen, where the distinctive physiognomy of the avant-garde ear is very apparent all around us.
It is not enough to say that, of course. Adorno may have been right that the old grammar was exhausted, that post-romantic harmony had taken tonality as far as it could go, and that music must therefore find another way into the future, whether or not led by the avant-garde. The great question that we must still confront is whether rhythm, melody, and harmony are still available to us, in whatever modified forms, as we endeavour to write music that will be not only interesting, as so much avant-garde music undeniably is, but also enjoyable and calling out for repetition. We all know Schoenberg’s remark, that there is plenty of music still to be written in C major. But where is that music? Or rather, where is that way of writing, downstream from C major, that will restore to C major its undeniable authority for all of us, as it was restored by the final chords of Die Meistersinger?
Two aspects of modern culture place obstacles in front of us, as we search for the new idiom that will renew our musical tradition. One is the insistent presence of easy music; the other is the dictatorship exerted on behalf of difficult music. By easy music I mean the ubiquitous products of pop and rock, which influence the ears and the attention-span of young people long before they can be captured by a teacher. The audience for new music must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord-grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues, and sarabands – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body, and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.
Americans tend to accept popular music and the culture around it, as providing the raw material on which the serious composer gets to work. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen. There is a lesson to be taken from this, which is that music is tested in the ear of the listener and not in the laboratory, and the ear of the listener is plastic, moulded both by the surrounding culture and by the everyday sounds of life as it is now. In a way Stockhausen acknowledged this, with his works that snatch sounds from the surrounding world, and work them into his quasi-mathematical textures. But the textures are feeble, with no musical propulsion, no intrinsic ‘next’ to bind one event to its neighbours. Adams wished to provide that propulsion, into which the sounds of the modern world could be dropped and immediately reshaped as music. But maybe there is something mechanical here too – an ostinato that uses rhythmic pulse to carry us through whatever harmonic and melodic weaknesses we might otherwise hear in the score.
The contrary obstacle also lies before us: the dictatorship of the difficult. Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.
It is surely in this way that Boulez rose to such an eminence in France. In a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde, Benoît Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, and their way of establishing a dictatorship of the difficult at the heart of the subsidy machine. At the same time as vilifying his opponents and anathematising tonal music and its late offshoots in Duruflé and Dutilleux, Boulez achieved a cultural coup d’état, which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for him at the request of President Pompidou in 1970 reveals in its name – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique – that it does not distinguish between sound and tone, between Klangkunst and Tonkunst, and sees both as matters for ‘research.’ Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, and absorbing a substantial proportion of a budget that might have been used to sustain the provincial orchestras of France, IRCAM has produced a stream of works without survival value. Despite all Boulez’s efforts, musical people still believe, and rightly, that the test of a work of music is how it sounds, not how it is theorized. But only if it sounds difficult, disturbing, ‘challenging,’ ‘transgressive’ could a bureaucrat dare to provide it with a subsidy.
And this is why it is good that this festival exists. Even if it depends on the support of state institutions, it is also addressed to the musical public: it is an invitation to people to make their feelings known, and to make judgments for themselves – which is what I have been doing. It has played a part in exposing the avant-garde to judgment, and also in giving opportunities to young musicians to wrestle with difficult music and to find what inspired it. This place is testimony to the crucial relation between the work of music and its audience. It is proof that there can be an avant-garde in music only if there is an avant-garde audience to listen to it. Whatever the results, you are that audience and far more practised at stretching your ears in new directions than I am. 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, with a beginning, a middle and an end, sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that even if they never hear the piece again, they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning. It seems to me that, if there is, now, to be a music of the future it will, in that way, belong with the music of the past.
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.
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.