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.
So, why would a research institute focused on the future of live classical music be here with you in Seaside today to talk about architecture and urbanism? The most obvious answer relates to the fact that orchestras have to have concert halls: architecture and urbanism address the questions of Where and How we build them. Those are some pretty big and important questions, and would themselves be enough to bring us together here today. But our interest in architecture and urbanism actually goes much deeper than that – and it’s what brings us specifically here and not somewhere else – like, say, New York or Atlanta.
We certainly didn’t know, when we began to study the problems of orchestras and their concert halls, that our work would lead us here. But we knew for sure that there was something wrong and that orchestras are fighting uphill because of it. And if our orchestras are struggling to keep a foothold in our communities, our communities are struggling to keep music around, too. Perhaps the fight is most visible in our schools, where music education is always either endangered or extinct. But we also see it every year in the towns across America that lose their orchestras to insolvency and neglect. Something is out of balance and all the usual answers and solutions offered to fix the problem just aren’t working.
So we began to dig deeper. We began to question not just the usual answers, but the usual questions, too. That led us to some surprising places, and we started to notice something remarkable: that the challenges facing orchestras and classical music today are not unique to them! In fact, we have a lot to learn from a lot of other fields and disciplines when we look at them in fresh new ways. Some of the lessons we find are cautionary tales, and some are important comeback stories that inspire us with hope and a real vision for the future. The stories of modern architecture and urbanism are both of these things.
If those of us in the world of classical music will look closely, we will see in the mistakes and failures of modern architecture and urban planning the reflection of our own mistakes – the ones we are still enthusiastically making every day, without any thought to the idea that they might be, in the end, mistakes. And they are significant errors because they represent our fundamental assumptions about human nature, our understanding of the ways we relate to our built and natural environments, and our attitudes towards tradition and the past. We compound our problems with every decision we base on these misunderstandings.
On the other hand, the spectacular successes of New Urbanism and the revival of classical architecture provide us with a real model of recovery. And this is perhaps the most important and deepest of lessons to be mined here: the triumph of places like Seaside teach us something very important about human nature and values, about what changes, and about what endures. And we hope that together this weekend we can all begin to hash out the place for music in our communities and how best to build them together.
But before we get to the part about Where and How we build concert halls, let’s take a moment to consider the Why. What is the “end” of the concert hall, the ultimate purpose for which it exists – the telos, if you will? As you can imagine, that’s a very important place to start. The Where and How will have to relate to the Why. And we have broken that answer into three components to present you with today.
The Telos of the Concert Hall
Firstly, the hall is a home for classical music and for the orchestra that lives there. This part is easy to understand. The concert hall is the oikos for classical music in any community. It is where the orchestra resides – where it makes its home – and the place from which it goes out to meet its neighbors. It is the physical presence of classical music that we are obliged to encounter daily, standing there, come what may, shoulder to shoulder amongst its neighbors as a member of our community. It is the place where the orchestra welcomes and entertains its guests and friends with the very best hospitality it can muster. The concert hall, in short, takes part in that cooperative effort of place-making that makes a community a “home” worth loving – that inspires in us what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia.
The concert hall also represents a physical connection to the classical tradition that calls it home. In the same way that our homes come to reflect us, our values, and our lifestyles, the concert hall should celebrate the history and the values from which the tradition and the great canon of music, constantly celebrated and performed inside it, arose. It must invite us to become familiar with, to know, to understand, to respect, and to love that tradition. And that’s more important than you might think – and certainly more important than many of today’s orchestras apparently think – because our orchestras depend not on the novelty-seekers that wander through their doors from time to time – or even in hordes if we’re lucky. Nor do they get by on the grants and funds set aside by government and civic-minded foundations to support adventurous forays in the arts. No, orchestras rely almost entirely on the donations, large and small, of the individuals in their communities who come to love them and the classical repertoire they are so highly qualified to present.
In today’s exceedingly troubled world, it can be a difficult thing to convince even those whose love of classical music is deeply rooted and unshakeable to dedicate a significant portion of their income to support their community’s orchestra. There are a myriad of other causes clamoring for their attention, many of which take direct aim at classical traditions. What happens if the concert hall itself repudiates or denounces the very thing the orchestra will then have to convince its guests to support once they’ve come inside? Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot!
So the concert hall must be a connection to the community in which it lives and a connection to the classical tradition which lives in it, but there is another important point to make about the telos of concert halls. And this one might be the most interesting of all: the concert hall is a place set apart, not unlike a church or a cathedral, for the encounter of something that transcends this world. And like it was for so many souls across so many generations who wore the paths to our cathedrals and churches and kneeled to pray inside them, the experience to be encountered inside the concert hall, if it is to be fully appreciated, must be approached in silence and with an attitude of maximum receptivity. As Sir Roger explains it,
You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.1
And in the concert hall we all sit facing, as we do the altar in church, the same point in space in which, nevertheless, the thing we ultimately encounter appears not so much as a physical presence, but as something that moves inside our very souls.
This experience – the possibility of this kind of encounter, which connects us to each other in the present by connecting us to community, to each other in the past by connecting us with tradition, and to each other in the future by connecting us to that which is beyond this world – this is what we stand to lose if we get the telos wrong. But it’s also what we stand to lose if we get the architecture and the urbanism wrong. And too often we do just that. Too many orchestras have been following modern architecture and urbanism down a dead-end street. What do we mean by that? Well, let’s look at some of the mistakes of modern architecture and urbanism. Most of these mistakes will be familiar to those of you who work, live, and play in Seaside, but it has yet to dawn on the classical music world that these even are mistakes.
The Mistakes of Modern Architecture
The first is a problem of scale. The use of machines to assemble buildings has led architects and developers to dramatically over-scale them. This is true of the office buildings, shopping malls, civic plazas, and towers full of apartments and condos that mar our cities and send our suburbs sprawling every which way. It’s also true of concert halls. And often the scaling error spills over into vast concrete plazas and parking garages that become like desert wastelands that must be traversed before the concertgoer even gets to the front door of the hall. We feel like ants crawling across the pavement to this thing looming far above us. While all this is meant to communicate that the orchestra living there is both modern and impressive, it actually leaves us with the feeling that the orchestra does not live side-by-side with us as a neighbor would, but imposes itself on us as some cold, tyrannical machine, quite probably administered by Vogons. The orchestra is left to cast desperately about for some way to convince the community that it is in fact relevant to them while all day, every day, its own home is broadcasting unmistakably and emphatically that it’s not at all.
The next mistake, in which orchestras are thoroughly caught up (and not just when it comes to their concert halls), is the mythology of “progress.” In architecture the most basic manifestation of this idea is the use of synthetic materials just because they exist – and represent “progress” – to create an architecture that we think is, therefore, “of our time.” But the use of unconventional materials (or else the unconventional use of materials) creates new problems that have to be solved – often at great cost in both resources and finances. We end up, for instance, with need for expansion joints and “permeable” pavement. And the usable life of these “progressive” buildings becomes shockingly short. According to Quinlan Terry, a
recent American report on the life of steel and glass high rise buildings put their useful life at twenty-five years. They may last a little longer, but after 40 years or so they are often demolished, the materials cannot be recycled so they are dumped in a landfill site and the laborious process of reconstruction begins again at phenomenal financial and environmental cost. So Modern construction as a means of providing a permanent home or place of work has been a failure from conception to the grave, and more seriously, it expresses a culture that has no history and no future.2
(Which of course also speaks eloquently to one of our earlier observations about the ends, or telos, of the concert hall.) The cost to maintain these “progressive halls,” to heat them and cool them, and then to tear them down and rebuild them again soars far beyond anything that should be considered responsible or acceptable – and makes the whole project incredibly and tragically wasteful. The progressive concert hall becomes another manifestation of our disposable consumer culture. And as you know, we cannot forever maintain that way of life.
If we think that technology has allowed us to circumvent the best ideas about materials and techniques handed down to us by thousands of years of craftsmen, we also think it allows us to trump localism in our building and planning. We’re no longer restricted by soil, climate, altitude, or local resources. And so what we build in the name of “progress” is not only certain to be less suited to its environment in terms of efficiency, we can also see that it begins to look the same everywhere. Faceless walls of glass, steel, and concrete wherever we go. In the vacant reflections on those enormous glass walls, we lose the particulars and the context that make a place feel like home. Architecture as a triumph of technology becomes just a display of power and reminds us only of the ever-present triumph of the global capitalist – unrooted, wasteful, and drunk on oil.
But wait, the fantastical modern concert hall is not really about any of those things. The building materials are just the medium. The architecture of the concert hall is about artistic expression! Does that sound familiar?
Misunderstanding architecture as primarily some kind of artistic/ideological expression rather than as an art of building well is another mistake. This is the affliction of many “starchitects” and the planners who employ them. And it’s the same kind of mistake that plagues modern art and modern musical composition as well: it’s not art as skill but art as concept. And it ends up being art that has to be explained in order for us to even recognize it as art. I’m going to give you an example here, which you might know because it’s quite famous – and, honestly, because it’s so absurd that once you’ve heard it, you probably won’t forget it:
An Oak Tree is a work of art created by Michael Craig-Martin in 1973, and is now exhibited with the accompanying text, originally issued as a leaflet. The text is in red print on white; the object is a French Duralex glass, which contains water to a level stipulated by the artist and which is located on a glass shelf, whose ideal height is 253 centimeters with matte grey-painted brackets screwed to the wall. The text is behind glass and is fixed to the wall with four bolts. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain a pristine appearance and in the event of deterioration, the brackets should be re-sprayed and the glass and shelf even replaced. The text contains a semiotic argument, in the form of questions and answers, which explain that it is not a glass of water, but “a full-grown oak tree,” created “without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The text defines accidents as “The colour, feel, weight, size…”. The text includes the statement “It’s not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.” and “It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”3
Really, the gimmick isn’t even clever. But, even if we grant that art as concept or gimmick might be fine for things like painting or sculptures – or whatever you’d call “An Oak Tree” – it presents us with some serious problems in the case of buildings, which must actually be used and lived in. It’s not enough for us just to call a thing a roof or a door or a lintel, it must actually be one – it must perform all the functions assigned to it as completely and perfectly as possible. Similarly, if we had to rely on this thing we’re told to call “An Oak Tree” to be an oak tree, to perform any of the functions of an oak tree – say, for shade, a windbreak, or a producer of acorns – we’d be in big trouble.
The very first function of a door, for example, is to be recognizable as one. The door is the thing we aim for on the face of any building, isn’t it? If we can’t easily find or identify the door, the rest of the building might as well be rubbish. A concert hall, too, at the very least has to be recognizable as one. We have to know where to go to find the symphony concert and then how to get into the hall once we’ve identified it. So if you build a gimmick for a concert hall and it looks for all intents and purposes like a parking deck or a giant can-opener, you’re going to have to put some effort into getting people inside – maybe you’ll have to put up one of those signs like the “Oak Tree” fellow did to explain the joke. And let’s hope that everyone appreciates the joke, because we all know the alternative is to acknowledge that one is “uncultured.” A hall like that is an ultimatum and not a good starting point for a relationship with the members of a community who actually make it a point to seek out culture.
And yet this is exactly what many orchestras are doing for the sake of architecture as “artistic expression” – and it’s compounded by the misapplication of the idea of “progress” to art. But that is a subject worthy of its own entire conference, so I’ll leave it there to be brought up another day. And I will point out only that, ultimately, this mistake is grounded in the original problem of misunderstanding the telos of the concert hall. It is not to be an artistic interpretation of a concert hall, it is to be a concert hall – which is to say it is to perform all the functions of home for the orchestra that we pointed out earlier.
The Mistakes of Modern Urbanism
How about the mistakes of modern urbanism? Again, probably something very familiar to those of you who have invested in the correction, a fine example of which we are fortunate enough to be standing in today. But let’s point these mistakes out for the sake of the classical music world who probably hasn’t even thought about them, even though the city is the orchestra’s natural habitat.
First we might point out the habit of growing by building out and up rather than by the replication of a small and entire unit – like the fractal way in which Nature grows. Quite unnaturally, our towers get higher and our cities swell in concentric circles. A new beltway encircles the old beltway and swallows up the urban sprawl between in an ever-widening blob. Then the center of the circle, the bull’s eye, growing ever more distant from its life-supply, starts to die out and becomes an empty jumble of desiccated bones leaning against the sky – those skyscrapers, or vertical cul-de-sacs as Léon Krier describes them, are abandoned for the sad strip-malls and Prozac-inducing business parks of the sprawling suburbs. I paint a depressing picture, but we all know it well.
Orchestras are making this mistake, too. Their concert halls are turning into musical mega-complexes, gobbling up multiple halls, recital spaces, and music schools into one over-scaled “machine for music,” instead of distributing smaller halls and venues and schools throughout many smaller urban centers and neighborhoods. Often they are built in the center of the city before it is abandoned, or else put there after it has emptied out in a last ditch effort to bring everyone back to the gutted downtown.
An increasingly popular idea is to put the hall in a designated Arts and Culture District. This should remind us of another great mistake of modern urban planning: the single use district or zone. Like the shopping district, the financial district, the business district, or even the wallowing housing tracts of our suburbs, the arts and culture district creates another kind of cul-de-sac. People come into them only if they’ve already made plans to consume some culture – or else entirely by accident, in which case they will probably just want to get themselves turned around and back out again. Which means that they do not encounter the concert hall as a part of the normal course of their everyday life and movements. And yet music should be a part of our normal, everyday lives. So we’re doing something wrong.
The concert hall should be there in our midst to remind us of this great thing that is always in our presence, always part of our history, our culture, and our being, and always inviting us in to partake of it. If the hall can’t do that from the corner we’ve assigned it to, then our orchestras must constantly be elbowing their way into our attentions elsewhere in our busy world. And it’s a hard task for them to remind us about the importance of music in our lives from the fringes of it. It’s a hard task to get us to focus on what’s going on in our peripheral vision and we might argue that this is a big part of the reason that music is disappearing from so many of our schools and communities. It became invisible long before it disappeared.
The Good News
Well, so far it’s been all bad news. But the real reason we’re here in Seaside with you this weekend is to talk about the good news! The good news is that architecture and urbanism are righting themselves. And both the revival of classical architecture and the tremendous successes of New Urbanism provide a model of recovery for classical music. We’re here to tell them about it.
It’s enormously encouraging, even if it’s not all that surprising, to see the impressive professional achievements and architectural accomplishments – and, indeed, the growing number – of classical architects both here and abroad. I’m thinking of men like Quinlan Terry, Allan Greenberg, Robert Adam, and John Simpson. Organizations like the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, which started out as “a small group of determined activists in New York”4 not 50 years ago, are popping up all over the country now – and thriving with actively growing and enthusiastic memberships. Architects, students, and “lay” people alike are lining up to learn how to draw the orders. Imagine that.
Three decades ago Notre Dame University began the difficult work of rebuilding an architectural education program on the principles and disciplines of classicism. That work is paying off handsomely now as their graduates are some of the most sought-after young architects to enter the field each year. And other schools are now following in the path Notre Dame bravely forged: the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC are all becoming centers for classicism and tradition, eagerly pursued by a hungry new crop of students every year. Indeed, we are seeing in classical architecture something very like the current renaissance in realist artwork that has aspiring artists flocking to ateliers to study – painstakingly and for many years – under the few painters and sculptors who kept the traditions, skills, and techniques of the masters alive while the rest of the world went cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
It’s perhaps our greatest joy at the Future Symphony Institute, however, to see the triumph of the work of David M. Schwarz and his team of architects, who are building – for the orchestras who have figured a thing or two out already – some of the most beautiful and astonishingly appropriate concert halls that we’ve seen in more than a century. From his renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Orchestra’s famed Severance Hall to the new buildings he designed for Las Vegas; Carmel, Indiana; Fort Worth; Charleston; and Nashville, Schwarz’s concert halls are masterpieces and fully worthy of the priceless tradition, represented by the canon of classical music, which will call these halls “home.” We’re honored to have Gregory Hoss, president of that team of architects, here with us this weekend; and I encourage you to check out these halls if you’re not familiar with them yet. We also have with us Cliff Gayley, of William Rawn and Associates, who did the remarkable and intimate Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood and Green Music Center in Sonoma, not to mention Strathmore Music Center, where I am lucky to perform every week.
And urbanism, too, is showing signs of recovery. But it’s clearly New Urbanism that is pointing the way. This is of course the reason why we are so excited to be here in Seaside and nowhere else this weekend. I don’t know if even the visionary founder of Seaside, Robert Davis, or his team of planners and architects really knew just how successful their experiment was going to be. I have to wonder if maybe we’re fortunate that they did not because there was no greed in their motivations – and that fact has helped to save Seaside from the sins that ravage our cities and suburbs. No, Seaside was born of an honest and modest accounting of human nature and the habits of happy human settlement. And it has become a beacon and a model for towns far and wide. Communities inspired by it and founded on New Urbanist principles are springing up everywhere from the Kentlands in Maryland – not far from where I live – to Poundbury in England and Cayalá in Guatemala. And they are all, to the extent that they understand and embody the philosophy of New Urbanism, wildly successful.
New Urbanism is making its way into the often stagnant backwaters of higher education, too, with the University of Miami and Andrews University taking the lead. And while the Congress for New Urbanism is the most visible and important of the organizations formed to promote its principles, we are seeing a vigorous blooming of grassroots efforts – by groups such as the Alliance for a Human-Scale City in New York – to save our towns, neighborhoods, and cities from the devastating effects of poor planning and bad architecture. In the professional arena, New Urbanist design firms and developers are cropping up all over the nation.
And that’s because New Urbanism has given everyone – from citizens to developers to city officials – not only a reason to believe they can build something better, but also the blueprints with which to build it. It is waking us up to the memory that our cities were not always blighted canyons and our neighborhoods were once abuzz with authentic interactions between neighbors. People are investing – more importantly than money – love in their communities. It is a sign of that oikophilia I mentioned at the outset when people insist that their community be a place that is lovable: that it be human in scale, local in context, and neighborly in manner.
Classical music must find its place in this kind of love – love of home, of community, of neighbor, and of the culture that binds all these things together. In all but the most exceptional cases, our orchestras won’t survive if they don’t get this part right. They depend on love and a connection to their communities – a recognition of their relevance and of their membership in the project of placemaking – to survive. What’s more, they depend on all the small towns across our nation – and even around the world – to provide kids with the opportunity to join the marching band and the youth orchestra, to learn to play the recorder in elementary school and the clarinet in high school, to sneak into a concert hall and be blown away by Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas (like I did as a kid) – in short, the opportunity to become our next generation of orchestral musicians who’ll go on to play some of the most astounding music ever written in some of the greatest halls ever built.
The classical music world needs to learn the lessons that Seaside has to offer – and not simply those about walkability and mixed-use, but the deeper lessons behind those, too. Because the greatest success of Seaside is what it gets right about human nature, about our relationships to each other and our built and natural environments, and about our enduring values. I believe wholeheartedly that in every community there is a place for music. And that music is a part of placemaking.
If we put the last century’s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.
The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.
Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.
Was the Italian and, in general, the European Renaissance a reactionary, backward-looking, thus conservative period, with all the associations of dullness and conventionality? As we know, the opposite is true: this incredibly rich period meant the flowering of a spirit of invention and aesthetic sensibility, which lasted until the 19th century when this broad wave of inspiration-by-antiquity found a premature death through its codification in academic institutions, in a society that was changing fast in the industrial revolution and the development of the bourgeoisie as the main territory of cultural action. The rebellion against a petrified academic culture was the cradle of modernism: the creative forces of life had left the territory of “official culture,” which had suffocated innovation, and moved towards the margins of society, where neglected artists struggled to find new and freer ways of expression. The idea of “modern art,” reflecting contemporary life instead of idealized subjects, was born from dissatisfaction with a tradition that was codified, frozen in prescriptions of outward appearances of style and form, and thus had become superficial and untrue.
Thus in the 19th century, the urge of leaving conventional ideas about art behind, got the label “modern.” Since that trend eventually ended-up in the dead-end street of establishment modernism, the word “modern” no longer fits this urge, which, incidentally, also lies behind the motivation of new classical composers: what they feel as “conventional” was called “modern” in the past century. A good example which shows that being “modern” in the period before modernism did not involve the need to destroy the fundamentals of the art form, is the work of Debussy, who created an oeuvre which was shockingly untraditional in its own time, therefore very controversial. Debussy is often described as one of the “forefathers” of modernism, who (together with Schönberg) destroyed the orthodoxies of tradition and created a new and free musical paradigm. Boulez especially tried to show that some of the roots of his own sonic art were to be found in Debussy’s explorations. But Debussy never destroyed the inner workings of tonality and the underlying dynamics of tradition with their varied ways of achieving expression. In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Boyd Pommeroy writes:
In keeping with the progressive spirit of the new century, Debussy succeeded in forging elements from the tonal practice of his predecessors into something radically new. At the same time, his tonal language, even at its least orthodox, never loses sight of the traditional principles that ultimately give it meaning. In Debussy’s music, tonal and formal processes continue to interrelate in ways not so fundamentally different from the tonal masterpieces of the preceding two centuries. To the extent that so vital an engagement with the tonal tradition went hand in hand with the creation of such strange and wonderful new sound-worlds, whose vivid modernity remains undimmed at the turn of another century, his achievement was perhaps unique.
Because Debussy never destroyed the fundamentals of music, his work proved immensely influential for composers who were looking for new paths to explore but wanted to avoid the deadlock of atonalism. As in the work of Stravinsky, it is the superb tonal sense which makes the expressive power of this music possible; it is no coincidence that the later works of Stravinsky, when he was influenced by the modernist trends of the fifties, are considerably less interesting. Like the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Debussy was inspired by a dream of another world, but in his case it was not the stimulating nostalgia for Antiquity which for him stood for academic, and thus dusty, art forms; he detested everything “classical” in music, painting, and architecture. But nonetheless, his artistic temperament was classical through and through: perfectly balanced proportions, moderation in terms of expression, precise and concise craftsmanship, aristocratic style, and avoidance of everything cheap and vulgar. And, like the Renaissance artists who did not approach the art of Antiquity academically, he never undermined the mimetic basis of the art form. In contrary, he enriched it immensely and showed that freedom from classical forms could still preserve their spirit, as is eloquently shown in pieces like Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, the symphonic La Mer, and of course the three late Sonates. In various articles and interviews, Debussy often mentioned the necessity of returning to the finesse and clarity of the French baroque which, for the French, is their Grand Siècle of classicism.
Looking backwards can easily go together with highly original creation because the process of interpretation operates on another level than the used style or materials; a really creative talent finds ways of combining elements from these two different levels in ever-changing syntheses. One could raise the question: if this is so, could then the musical modernism from the fifties and sixties from the last century not serve as material for contemporary interpretation? Could the work of Boulez and Stokhausen not play the same role as Antiquity for the Italian Renaissance artists? As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art. And indeed, there are young contemporary sound artists who, within the field of sonic art, focus upon that period, and they call their work “new complexity.” The irony is that last century’s modernism cannot turn into a thing of the past without losing its identity, because it wanted so desperately to embody the future. Like the glass and steel cubes of modernist buildings, it cannot afford to become old, to become the past, because that is totally undermining its raison d’être. When the future becomes the past, the one cancels out the other and the result is emptiness. “New complexity” is an excellent example of contemporary conservatism, since that is the only impetus that is left: the conservation of an idea.
The same landscape may reveal very different aspects, depending upon the position from which it is perceived. Also, the past can take on different meanings, changing with the perspective we choose. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the celebrated historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, was well aware of the ambiguities of historical perception. She commented in a late interview:
If we look at history closely, leaving behind the academic and ideological clichés of our time, we conclude that every period, every milieu, had its own way of interpreting life… Although the human emotions are always more or less the same, made up of a certain restricted number of basic elements, they are open to thousands of variations, thousands of possibilities. So, if you like, the immensity of musical expression can be related back to the seven notes of the scale. You see these possibilities not only taking shape from century to century, but from year to year. After all, we don’t think the same as in 1950 any longer, and it is fascinating to find at a precise date in the past, the way in which problems have presented themselves, our problems, or problems parallel to ours. In this way, history is a school of liberation. It liberates us from a number of our prejudices and teaches us to see our own problems and our own routines in a different perspective. The past does not offer us an escape route, but a series of junctions, of different exits along the same way. If it may look as a form of escapism, it is an escape in the form of a leap of faith. The study of texts from antiquity has been such a stimulating leap of faith for Renaissance man, saturated as he was with medieval scholastic thought. The study of the Middle Ages was – up to a certain point – an inspiring “escape” for the romantic generation, bringing it back to the sources of popular poetry, to the original, European phenomenon, after the clarity, but also dryness, of the 18th century.” (From: “Entretiens Radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar” by Patrick de Rosbo; Mercure de France, Paris 1980.)
In periods of change, a civilization needs to draw on the experience as embodied in its cultural and intellectual inheritance to be able to distinguish between irrelevant surface phenomena and meaningful developments: engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found. Achievements from past periods have to be preserved and to be kept alive in their function of intellectual and cultural resources so that they can be used, can be learned from, facing the challenges of the present. If the past is well understood, it will throw a light upon the world in which we live, a world which has long roots in the accumulation of life experience of numerous generations. The survival of this experience makes renewal possible, which is: the “injection” of life into inherited forms and concepts; creative innovation is only possible on the foundation of the capacity to make elementary distinctions and value judgments and this is learned by studying the achievements and problems of the past of human civilization.
How concepts of “past” and “progress” are being interpreted is dependent upon context. Artists, working at the beginning of the 21st century, may see a reflection of contemporary life experience in works of art which were made ages ago and if they find ways of artistic thinking in the last century exhausted, they may see this as a good reason for looking elsewhere for inspiration. When established forms of “contemporary art” have become a repetition of conventions and clichés – in short, a reactionary attitude – or worse, a serious decline, it is perfectly natural to inspect the achievements of artists of the past from “before the fall” and to learn from them. Nowadays many serious visual artists and composers look to a glorious past for examples to learn from, hoping to create an art which may help identify who we are, or who we want to be, and in which way we want to express and transcend ourselves. In the reality in which Western civilization finds itself today, the modernist and postmodernist chimeras of the last century are futile, unproductive, and irrelevant because they cannot contribute to solutions of problems which have surfaced quite recently and are so different in nature from the time which gave birth to modernism. As the 20th century wanted to liberate itself from a “compromised” past to create the Brave New World, the 21st century woke up to the sobering suspicion that much of that past could nonetheless be helpful in our present predicament. The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, in combination with the environmental problem and an increasing globalization of trade and information technology, have changed the world in a profound way. Europe faces the challenge of reformulating its identity in relation to the world, which is also a cultural challenge. And as far as new art is concerned, the lesson of the Renaissance could greatly help to find an effective way through the maze of conflicting notions.
Identity refers to an awareness and understanding of the past, both on the collective and individual levels. What defines the character of European civilization is its past cultural achievements and the best of the values they embody, how it deals with them, interprets them, and builds upon them, and how the inner security and conviction can be found which is the basis of all constructive action. In the 21st century, rebuilding culture – in its visual and musical forms – is a contemporary challenge with symbolic implications for the entire West. And to be able to prepare conditions for a cultural Renaissance, modernism and its puerile progeny has to be removed from their establishment position in the cultural field, and their funding channeled towards the new art which carries the creative fire which is needed to give to contemporary art the meaning and value it had before the onslaught of 20th-century barbarism.
It is obvious that the attempts of modernist ideologies in the last century to “cancel the past” is not only silly, but in the present times, dangerous. For instance, to understand and reformulate European cultural identity, knowing and understanding the past is crucial. As said, identity is the result of history. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World the authorities of a totalitarian state “cancelled” the past, knowing that an awareness of past experience would undermine the credibility and the power of the regime. Cancelling or rewriting the past, which is in fact the same thing, is the usual means of blotting out independent, and thus subversive, thinking in authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and therefore upon humanity; the inhuman nature of much modernist “music” (built upon a break with the past) is only the logical result of such an ideology.
The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition, but also gave form to what now can be called the “museum culture.” The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from past periods into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation. In this museum culture, works of art (including musical works) are seen and listened to as objects in a glass case – in this way, their direct connection with real life seems to have vanished, their makers felt as aliens from a different planet with powers no longer attainable by modern man. There is a direct link between the exaggerated veneration of the masters of the past and the deeply felt inferiority complex of the artists of modern times. And without the nonsense of concept art and sonic art, the traditional museum collections and the traditional musical repertoire would not shine so brilliantly. The break with the past seemed to make a direct inner connection with an artistic practice impossible; instead of history as a source of accessible and useful examples (as it was in pre-modern times), it became “a different country” and a cult.
Therefore, the attempts of new classical composers to recapture this country as something of our own, is a courageous change of direction with the aim to splinter the glass of the museum culture’s cases, making a direct inner connection possible, and showing that the art of the past can be seen as something also living in the present. New classicism not only brings an old tradition to life again, it also makes a more direct emotional connection with the culture of the past possible – as if it were something not far removed in “another world.” It shows the culture of the “museum” as something which also lives in the present. As there is no reason to consider the “museum culture” as something totally removed from our own time, or to see it as something negative in relation to contemporary art (it is not its own fault that a cult has been created around its products and that so much contemporary art is so bad), new classicism should be welcomed as a reassuring signal that also in the present, meaningful art can be created. The whole idea of a museum culture as isolated from real life is being challenged by the current surge of mimetic art and music.
Meanwhile, there is a very good reason to support and cherish the islands of this so-called “museum culture,” where the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of human life and civilization is expressed not in a purely scientific way but in the form of experiences which involve the entire human being and are thus accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to enter this territory and learn to understand its various artistic “languages.” Fortunately, the reality is that the past still lives in the present, and if we want to maintain Western civilization and restore it according to its best ideas, we should be warned against utopias which cancel the humanistic and spiritual/expressive qualities of art. Purely materialistic and rationalistic philosophies of art inevitably carry in them the seeds of primitivism and barbarism. In these days, a classicism which draws its understanding of civilization from the lessons of the past seems to be the best possible attitude to counter utopianism and its tendency to dehumanize society and the individual.
Is this “conservative?” The answer will be clear: no, it is progressive in the sense that the Italian Renaissance was progressive, progressive in the sense of making things better, trying to achieve a better artistic quality, by following superb examples of a glorious past. This notion of “better” is only possible in a world view where hierarchical thinking in connection with value and quality is taken for granted. However, in an egalitarian society such as our Western one, where democratization has also been understood as applicable in territories like the arts, this is often considered as “elitist,” and thus un- or anti-democratic, an attitude which cannot result otherwise than in an undermining of creative ambition and marginalization of the best of talents. It is a sign of primitivism, of erosion, not of social “progress.” There is a link between the aristocratic, “elitist” attitude towards the arts in Renaissance times (and the ages directly following this glorious period), and the formidable quality of its art production – as there is between the modern democratic world and the deplorable state of its art as exhibited in the official, established public spaces and as supported by the state. The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and contemporary music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it – how could it be otherwise?
On this point it may be enlightening to mention the anthropologist Daniel Everett’s memoirs of his thirty-year stay with a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahas (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon, 2008). This isolated community lives the way their forebears lived for thousands of years and they share a couple of remarkable characteristics: they have a simple language and speak in short sentences; they do not believe in gods, have no idea of spirituality, and do not believe in an afterlife; they are not conscious of the past or the future but live exclusively in the present; they have a strong resistance towards outsiders which they dub “crooked heads;” they don’t use numbers but words for amounts like “a little” or “much,” but nothing for ten, or five, or one hundred; their society is like a commune: an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social system which seems to be quite effective for them; they are not interested in learning agriculture and are happy with their hunter/gatherer existence; they have no interest in producing artwork. The remarkable thing is that they are, or strongly seem to be, a happy people who see nothing wrong or “restricted” in their way of living and thus want to keep things as they have always been. Not surprisingly, they resist modernization. They are traditionalists and conservatives in the reactionary, un-creative sense, clearly forced to remain as they are by the strong limitations their natural environment brings upon them. Do these characteristics not sound familiar? Are there not quite some people living in the modern West with many of these characteristics (sometimes even including the hunter/gatherer mentality)? People for whom the total absence of culture and the territory of the mind and spirit is not experienced as an absence, but as a happy state of unconsciousness? One can find these tribes everywhere in the big cities of the West, where there are no limitations like those of the Amazon jungle environment.
It must be said that, apparently, the Pirahas are perfectly adapted to their difficult life in primitive conditions where their lack of civilizational interests can be excused. But to find these typical primitive characteristics in the midst of a so-called civilized and wealthy world is – to say the least – rather disturbing. It is not the primitive tribes in the jungles who need civilization, but many areas within the civilized societies themselves, who in their educational system often seem to fail to teach the basic tenets of what it means to live in a civilized world.
The artists and composers who dedicate themselves to the task of restoration of cultural traditions, including the civilizational values they embody, feel the need to contribute to the core of what the best of European civilization has been. The need for a restoration of European and Western culture and cultural identity in the broadest sense is felt everywhere and the pioneers of this new classicism are the first artists who have rightly understood the challenge of renewal of the Western world in the 21st century, a renewal which gives the best of the past its due and sees it as a springing board for a more civilized world and more civilized contemporary art. They deserve our attention and our support because they may find the themes and subjects which will symbolize the path taken by society as a whole.
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).
Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor.* —VIRGIL
Perhaps our modern world is not so far gone as yet, but it is easy for us to imagine the painful longing in Petrarch’s heart as he stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday in 1341. Looking around him at the cultural desolation of a land and its people ravaged by war, famine, civil unrest, epidemic, and economic collapse, he was nevertheless so sure of his vision, so inspired by his love of something greater than his self or his time, that the words he spoke that day come down to us as the first manifesto of the glorious Renaissance:
Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task.†
There in the ruins of an ancient Roman Empire, Petrarch accepted his crown of laurels – the first offered a poet in over twelve long centuries. The tradition was all but dead. The age was indeed dark. The slopes of Parnassus were dauntingly steep and deserted. But from somewhere beyond the shroud of gloom that enveloped him, the Muses called to Petrarch and he followed, inspired by the love and the sweet longing of one going home.
It is easy for us to imagine because our modern age seems to be dimming before our eyes. We are reminded at every turn that the world is a new and alienating place, unfit for the traditions that evoke some past and irrelevant golden age or a society we no longer recognize. We discard or neglect the Canon’s great works when it is easier to do so than to dig for the treasures hidden therein; what is difficult or laborious to understand is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility to the modern mind. Like Petrarch we marvel that
This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….‡
We allow our great cultural institutions to fall into disrepair and disrepute because, as we strip them of their reverential traditions and their arduous canon, we also strip them of our reasons to cherish them. We call them before the tribunal of public opinion to justify their very existence, as if we can no longer see through the smog to the heights of Parnassus, lonelier than ever because we have forgotten that it is even there. We attempt to chain the Muses to the machinery of our modern malaise, as if we do not remember that they exist to show us the way to transcend that malaise, to find our way home again, by way of that steep and difficult climb, to the bosom of art and learning.
It is easy for us to imagine that someday our symphony halls will be ancient ruins and the source of a painful longing for those who remember the wasted Muses, or who sift through the rubble for what was lost. We can even hear the howls of those who proclaim that it should be so, and we mourn the actions of those who obviously believe it. Yet, there are many more of us who recognize Virgil’s description of a deep and ardent desire because it urges us, too, to persevere against all difficulties in the name of the symphony orchestra. This is the mission and the purpose of the Future Symphony Institute: to orchestrate a new renaissance for live classical music, to ensure that the dawn breaks on symphony halls that rise like polished temples in our midst rather than like ruins on abandoned hilltops.
To circumscribe this immense task, we created seven initiatives that describe and focus our efforts. The first two are of a philosophical nature. We must, firstly and perhaps most fundamentally, reframe the way we understand and communicate what is being overlooked because it is immeasurable and immaterial – namely, the principle value of the symphony orchestra to society. By doing so, we not only orient our institutions with respect to mighty Parnassus and the dawn of a new renaissance, but we also arm them with an answer for the cynical tribunals who mercilessly impugn their relevance and their mission. Our second initiative focuses on the critical role of the orchestra as an educator – not just musically and not just of children, but in the way that high culture has always been that which teaches us what it most profoundly means to be human. We must build the foundation for and design the structure of this meaningful role for the orchestra – so critical and inspiring in an age that is increasingly digital and impersonal.
Some of our goals will require extensive and scholarly research. This will certainly be the case for each of the following three initiatives. Most immediately, orchestras need a concrete system by which to understand and quantify their audiences – one that goes beyond the limits of their usual and failing marketing methods. They must learn to identify their patrons not as demographic statistics but as human beings driven by internal aspirations and motivations that do not necessarily correlate to physical characteristics. They must find the real reasons people come to love the symphony, why they feel the sweet longing that urges them to our concert halls. The field of psychographics presents us with a way to understand and measure these drives – a more meaningful way for orchestras to relate to and reach their audiences, both actual and potential. Secondly, with a proper psychographic system and the research that supports it, we can construct a bridge between casual attendance and eventual connoisseurship. Much energy today is wasted on efforts to bring the uninitiated into the audience – wasted because there is no effective plan to make the uninitiated into the convert. And this is far from the only case of mislaid efforts. We must take the time to thoroughly and critically evaluate the oft-repeated theories and measures that have neither adequately explained nor delivered orchestras from their troubles. Much of the dogma that assails our orchestral institutions – and informs their failing policies – has not been tested by scholarly research, and doing so is our next critical initiative.
Finally, if our first two initiatives are entirely theoretical, our last two are purely practical. To begin with, it is essential that we develop a new architecture for our symphony halls – specifically, one that emphasizes the relevance of the symphony orchestra to its community. The trend of late is to erect halls that, frankly, resemble something from another planet; and when we look upon them, we feel a predictable sense of estrangement – a hesitance to approach what we have difficulty recognizing as human. The new halls must remedy this error and present themselves as neighbors and friends, both outside and inside where the offering of hospitality must equal the expectations of today’s cultural consumer. But among the most challenging of our tasks is the initiative we list last here: the development of a blueprint for future union policies and relations. In today’s business climate it is becoming increasingly clear that unions must understand their stake and their opportunity in shaping change before it is forced upon them. Change is as enduring a feature of society as is our need for traditions that endure change – indeed, that transcend and transform it.
It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young. It is taken without question that the inevitability of change means and perhaps requires that we do not repeat the past, but any student of history or of its successive civilizations can prove for you otherwise. And so here we say, again, with Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance,
I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth.§
And over his shoulder we see our vision. We, too, are urged by a sweet longing that will not be deterred by the challenges or the times that face us. In our sights are the heights of Parnassus, and the dawn of a new renaissance. The fulfillment of both the youthful glory and the incandescent future of the symphony orchestra, the new renaissance is, like the one so long ago, the birth of a present more glorious than what came before it, but entirely dependent upon its rich and heroic past. And posterity will reap the bounteous and beautiful rewards.
* “But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus” (Georgics III, 291-292). Mount Parnassus, rising above Delphi in Greece, was the home of the Muses of Greek mythology, and in literary references it symbolizes the source of art, literature, and learning. It derives from the same root as the ancient Trojan word for a house.
† From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
‡ Petrarch, in a letter to Lapo da Casiglionchio, 1355, translated in Richard M Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classical reading on what it means to be an educated human being, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.
§ From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
“Music, too, is nature.”
—Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol
This lecture explores the differences between two perspectives on music: one ancient, one modern. The texts I have chosen are Plato’s Timaeus, a dialogue that freshmen will read in seminar toward the end of the year, and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, a great book not on the program. Each of these works presents an all-embracing account of the world – a cosmology – that highlights the bond between world and music. I hope that my study in contrast will lead us to a deeper understanding of music as it relates to the whole of all things, our human condition and our happiness. I also hope that it will show why music is the most comprehensive of the liberal arts, and why it is the case that to speak about music is to speak about everything.
My talk has three parts. In the first, I focus on the central role that music plays in Timaeus’ cosmological optimism. According to Timaeus, the world of Becoming is a beautiful work of art ruled by the supreme goodness of intelligent divinity. In Leibniz’s phrase, it is the best of possible worlds. In the second part, I turn to Schopenhauer’s cosmological pessimism, according to which the world is not the shining forth of intelligent purpose but the work of a blind urge that Schopenhauer calls the will. Music, for Schopenhauer, is the most potent and truthful of the arts because it is a “copy [Abbild] of the will itself.” In the third part of my talk I offer, by way of a coda, some thoughts on music and world in the context of the Bible.
Rootedness and Musicality
The Timaeus is Plato’s most overtly musical work. Music is prominent in other dialogues as well, notably in the Republic and Laws, and in the Phaedo, where Socrates calls philosophy “the greatest music” (61A); but it is so much a part of the form and substance of the Timaeus that the dialogue may be said to be all about music.
The projected drama of the Timaeus is a performance by three illustrious political men, whose task is to entertain Socrates with a feast of speech: Timaeus of Italy, Hermocrates of Sicily, and Critias of Athens. A fourth was supposed to have joined them, but he is a no-show. The men who did show up form a trio of poet-rhetoricians, who have agreed to gratify Socrates’s desire to behold his best city, which he had described on the previous day, engaged in the words and deeds of war (19B-20C). The star of the show is officially Critias, who boasts about how he will harmonize the particulars of Socrates’s city in speech with those of an ancient unsung Athens. This Athens of old, Critias claims, really existed once upon a time and nobly fought against the insolent kings of Atlantis. But Timaeus upstages Critias with his long speech about the cosmos and proves the superior poet. How can one top a magnificent, richly detailed speech about the whole of all things – the cosmology that is the unmatched model for all cosmologies to come?
Early in the Timaeus, we hear about the importance of music in human communal life, as Critias recollects what his great-grandfather and namesake experienced when he was a young boy. This Critias joined other boys in a music contest in which they sang poems recently composed by the lawgiver Solon (21B). The contest was part of the boys’ initiation into their family tribe and took place during a festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of intoxication. It depicts the very moment in which impressionable youths are officially rooted in their tribe, and by extension their city. Through the act of singing, the opinions of Solon take root in these young souls and become authoritative. They become things not merely heard and obeyed but imbibed, incorporated and cherished. A similar ritual enrooting is at work, as we shall see, in the speech of Timaeus.
We know from the Republic that music, which for the Greeks includes poetry, is dangerous. Because music has the power to shape the soul for good or ill, to make it orderly or disorderly, an account of the best regime must include a critique of music as one of its prime components. At one point Socrates tells us why:
So, Glaucon…isn’t this why nurture in music is most sovereign? Because rhythm and concord most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously, bringing gracefulness with them; and they make a man graceful if he’s nurtured correctly, if not, then the opposite.[3. 401D5-E1]1
The passage underscores the tremendous power of music and shows why music is crucial to moral-political education. It recalls the final book of Aristotle’s Politics, which treats the musical education of those who are to be free human beings and good citizens.
Plato and Aristotle realize that we are on intimate terms with music. The intimacy verges on the supernatural, since music seems to be a kind of magic that causes the listener to be held and spellbound. Music, like Orpheus, enthrals. Aristotle observes at the beginning of his Metaphysics that sight is the privileged sense, the one that we hold most dear and that most reveals the differences of things. Musical hearing can lay claim to another kind of privilege. Music has an intense personal inwardness, an immediate emotional effect and a power to form our character, opinions, and way of life. In moving our affections it moves our whole being. This is the ground of the danger that music poses. In music there is no safe distance between perceiver and perceived, as there is in sight. There is also no refuge: we cannot turn away from music as we can from a thing seen, since music is not spatially bounded but sounds everywhere. Moreover, in listening to a piece of music, we are not free to survey its parts at will, as we can with an object that is seen, but must wait for a moment to sound.2 The tones come when they want to. And yet, listening to music is more than mere passivity, for it affects us by virtue of its forms and structures. Listening, in other words, is an act, in which we not only feel but also perceive. This is the paradox that is music, which can overwhelm our reason and self-control but always through the order and precision of its tones and rhythms. To borrow terms made famous by Nietzsche, music could not be Dionysian if it were not thoroughly Apollinian, which it must be if it is to be an art at all.
As I mentioned earlier, Timaeus’ speech – or, as he famously calls it, his “likely story” (29D) – is an effort to put the world of Becoming in the best possible light. It is a defence of Becoming in response to Socrates’s indictment in the Republic. In that dialogue Socrates tells Glaucon that genuine education turns the soul away from Becoming or flux and toward the changeless realm of Being (7.518C). It leads the potential philosopher out of the cave of opinion and up into the sunlight of truth. The likely story takes us in the opposite direction – from Being down to Becoming. It tells us how a craftsman-god, who is without envy and very ingenious, and who gazed on archetypal Being, brought order to the primordial chaos through a combination of providence and the beautiful structures of mathematics. Timaeus calls his speech both a mythos or story and a logos or account. Socrates calls it a nomos, which in Greek means law and song, as well as custom and convention (29D). The word implies that Timaeus’s cosmology is a form of quasi-political music. This music establishes our right relation to the cosmic whole whose offspring we are. It makes us law-abiding citizens of the world—good cosmopolitans. By playfully re-enacting the birth of the cosmos, Timaeus is attempting to persuade his listeners, Socrates in particular, that the world of body and flux, properly understood, is worthy of our serious attention, emulation, and praise. All the mathematical constructions and stories are songs that commemorate the Great Founding. By “singing” these songs of law and order, we celebrate our cosmic roots. Moreover, since the world for Timaeus is a god (34B), physics comes on the scene as the truest act of piety.
Musical references abound in the likely story. The primordial chaos is said to be unmusical or out of tune (30A), and the movement of the stars resembles a choric dance (40C). The elusive receptacle or matrix – the cosmic “mother” who shakes the four elemental bodies into their proper places when they wander, like wayward children – gives the world a rhythmic sway (52C-53A). The sway is evident in all cyclic movement: our heartbeat, breathing and walking, in the vibrating string and pendulum, swings and cradles, and the undulating surface of the sea. The construction of the regular geometric solids is also music. Here Timaeus ingeniously harmonizes these beautiful sphere-like shapes – tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron and cube – with the observable properties and behaviour of the four elements: fire, air, water and earth (53D-E).
The greatest musical moment in the story is the construction of the musical scale out of ratios of whole numbers (35A-36B). It is based on the Pythagorean discovery that the intervals that make up melody – octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth, etc. – are produced by string-lengths that are in small whole number ratios. Much can be said about the god’s act of scale building, especially in light of the problem it solves, namely, the natural incompatibility of some intervals with others. Here I must rest content with a brief summary. Timaeus’s god builds the world soul out of musical ratios, having first mixed together forms of Being, Same, and Other. He then cuts and bends the scale-strip to form the rotation of the celestial sphere and the orbits of the planets (36B). These periodic movements, which constitute time, are not only the music in the sky but also the reflections of divine thought, whose image we carry around in our sphere-shaped heads.
For Timaeus, musicality is the sum of human virtue and the ground of happiness. By musicality I mean the adjustment of all our actions to the regular, periodic movements of the heavens. To be virtuous and happy is to conform to the cosmic law and to move in sync with the music of the whole. It is to live a life that is in every respect well timed, symmetrical, and balanced – the life of a star. We achieve balance when, for example, in devoting ourselves to study, we also make sure we get enough rest and physical exercise (88A). The most essential human musicality comes from astronomy. This is not because the beauty of the whole is most apparent in the visible heavens, but because the heavens are the home of thought in its healthiest, most regular form. To think the heavenly motions, to discern the ratios in the sky, is to be one with that condition of intellectual health and consummate musicality enjoyed perpetually by the world soul.
I have said that the likely story is a song that celebrates our cosmic roots. But it is also the story of a fall. In the book of Genesis, there is creation and fall; in the Timaeus creation is fall. As I noted earlier, world building starts at the top and goes down – just like a Greek musical scale. It goes from Being to Becoming and from the best things in the world to the worst. The lower, subhuman animals are generated by intellectual devolution. This is the process in which human beings lose their divine intelligence by having lived an acosmic, disorderly life and must re-enter Becoming in an animal form suited to their moral and intellectual degradation. The likely story begins with the heavens and ends with shellfish, creatures that contain the souls of humans who in their previous lives exhibited what Timaeus calls a “total lack of musicality” (92B).3 But even these lowest beings enhance the beauty of the whole, since without them the cosmic scale of life would lack its lowest notes and be incomplete.
According to Timaeus, our souls originated as pure intellects, each living in its own star. In being born, we become profoundly disordered. We leave off being star-lords and become mindless, inarticulate babies, beings incapable of controlling any of their movements. That is why education is necessary – because, as fallen stars, we must recover “the form of [our] first and best condition” (42D). Mathematical astronomy is the most important part of education because it is the means by which we humans, whom Timaeus calls heavenly plants, return to our roots in the sky (90A). It is also the highest form of therapy. By engaging in astronomy, the human intellect, which grew ill at birth, comes to itself and recovers its circular movement, former health, and proper functioning as the guide and navigator of daily life. We study astronomy so that by “imitating the utterly unwandering circuits of the god [Cosmos], we might stabilize the wander-stricken circuits in ourselves” (47C). Music that is heard and felt plays a similarly therapeutic role. The gods gave us music “not for the purpose of irrational pleasure…but as an ally to the circuit of the soul within us when it’s become untuned, for the purpose of bringing the soul into arrangement and concord with herself” (47D-E).
On this note of music as therapy, I conclude the first part of my talk. I next turn to a very different account of music and world.
1 I have slightly modified the translation by Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, Basic Books, 1991. 2 For a discussion of the difference between seeing and hearing, see Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966: “For the sensation of hearing to come about the percipient is entirely dependent on something happening outside his control, and in hearing he is exposed to the happening…he cannot let his ears wander, as his eyes do, over a field of possible percepts, already present as a material for his attention, and focus them on the object chosen, but he has simply to wait for a sound to strike them: he has no choice in the matter” (p. 139). 3 Translations of the Timaeus are from my edition for Focus Press, Newburyport MA, 2001.
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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of David M. Schwarz, who first published it in Parchment, an online collection of writings about architecture by the members of his firm. We encourage you to look through the firm’s portfolio, particularly to see to the most beautiful, thoughtful, and relevant concert halls being designed and built in America today.
Before pursuing the question of what it means to design contextually, we need to make sure we are on the same page about the term context. The dictionary shows it to mean “the circumstances, background or setting where a particular act or event occurs.” As far as architecture is concerned, the context is usually thought of as the site or neighborhood and the particular event is the building itself. To really get the best sense of what this means, close your eyes and think of a particular place, say the neighborhood where you live. A film strip of images likely unfolds in your mind, detailing the sights, sounds, and smells you associate with that place. By contrast, when describing a place as being without context, we mean that a particular site is lacking clearly visible and definable character. But is that all there is to context?
When seeking design inspiration, we often find ourselves facing this interesting conundrum: how can the design address the physical attributes of a context–the prevalent building types, commonly-found palates of materials, and oft-occurring architectural styles–as well as the ephemeral attributes of context, history and lore of the city or region, and the goals and aspirations of the particular community. Think again about your neighborhood and some other attributes likely enter into your film strip. Do you not also see memories, events (historical and otherwise), and even particular people? And, if you’ve lived in a place long enough, maybe you’ve taken this a step further in your mind by incorporating something aspirational, like an idea of what that place or context should or could be.
We are often asked to strike a delicate balance in our designs to improve the site while doing so in a way that fits within the already established context. Understanding context means more than delving into architectural guidebooks or looking at surveys and photographs of a site. It means that we have to go beyond the immediate boundaries of a building plot and look at the larger influences of a neighborhood, a city, or even the region in which a project is located. And when all of that study doesn’t reveal a particular feel or vibe, it likely means we haven’t dug deep enough. We need to look farther and wider to discover the context. This further study often requires talking to people in the community, looking into the history and tradition of the particular building type we find ourselves designing, studying users’ behavior, and asking users about their motivations, desires, and expectations. Above all, determining context requires a level of deference and curiosity.
Why does any of this matter? It matters when a designer wants their work to be relevant to the owners, users, and communities their buildings will serve. Context, in all the variants described here, has always been a major influence on our work. Our firm cut its teeth doing projects in Washington DC’s many historic neighborhoods and, in so doing, we had to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the physical contexts of these well-established places in order to be successful. [In the interest of full disclosure, the firm’s early body of work was all completed before I came here, but it is nonetheless what drew me here in the first place.]
Fast-forward to today and a current project I do know quite a bit about: the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina. You might readily ask, what is it about the context of Charleston that could present a problem? It is, indeed, a perfectly lovely historic city, comprised of many elegant, older single-family, detached houses set amid gracious gardens and woven together by beautiful tree-lined streets. It is, seemingly, a well-defined context. The problem is that our project, technically a renovation and expansion of an existing 1960’s-era municipal auditorium, is a huge building (over 260,000 SF) and larger than anything Charleston has seen constructed in some time.
The Gaillard, both in its original and expanded forms, is an enormous intrusion into the City fabric. The original structure was very much a product of its time–an act of urban renewal (several historic homes were torn down and parts of Charleston’s quirky street grid were changed to accommodate it) expressed as a modernist edifice intended to look ahead rather than to the City’s past. While the old Gaillard grew outdated, both aesthetically and functionally, the community’s views of itself and goals for its future evolved; with the new Gaillard the community now chooses to celebrate its past, instead of ignore it.
Faced with expanding an already-too-large building, we found an opportunity to fashion the additions using discrete and articulate massing that breaks the bulk of the building down into pavilions, hyphens, towers, and bays. The massing is then complemented with a layer of detail and ornament that is friendly, meaningful, scale-giving, and inspired by the historic forms of Charleston’s most beloved buildings. No, all of these things won’t make the new Gaillard Center disappear, but they will help this new building to fit within the community and the context of the City of Charleston.
What to do when that larger context either doesn’t exist or isn’t well-defined? Look harder. And, when you look harder and the aspirations and ephemeral context appear to be different from the physical context that is there, you may just have to build it yourself. Designing with this particular attitude towards context does not mean we will arrive at one universally perfect solution every time if we follow this formula. We will, however, most likely be assured of arriving at a building that will be relevant to, embraced and even loved by, the greatest number of people who will see it, visit it, or touch it on any given day. This result, to me, is a major benchmark of success for our projects. Remaining relevant to the communities where I work is very important to me and what keeps me interested and engaged on any given day.