Orchestral Outreach to the Mexican Community

My first real job playing trumpet was in a Mexican orchestra, high up in the mountains beyond Mexico City, under the snow capped peaks in Toluca. What a blast! I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

I say it was my first real job because it offered me for the first time a great monthly salary, at least given the low cost of living down there. And it even paid everyone for a 13th month – you know, for Christmas expenses. I did not, however, get my own locker. (That would have to wait until my next job.) But then nobody did: we were expected to show up dressed in our tails – outfits that nobody remarked upon as being somehow backwards. Tails or tuxedos were simply what orchestras wore, as they do worldwide. By local standards, compared to the mariachis walking around town, we were positively trendy. The town of Toluca itself was unremarkable. I’m sure you would never see it in a travel brochure. It was notable only for having the largest flea market and best chorizo around. And an orchestra.

Our conductor was an HR department’s worst nightmare. Imagine a cross between the perversions of Harvey Weinstein and the tantrums of Buddy Rich, and then throw some matador in there for flavor. I will not attempt to give accounts of what transpired in rehearsals as the reader simply would not believe me. There was no HR department, however – just a few staffers who ran around putting out fires and setting up music stands for our fourth-generation photocopied parts.

I also taught at the conservatorio where I had a studio bursting at the seams with eager young trumpeters who still worshipped the patron saint of lightning fast staccato trumpet playing, Raphael Mendez, born just over the mountains in Michoacán. In the eco-system of that school, trumpet and guitar were at the top of the food chain, and “less useful” instruments like cello and piano had to eat our scraps. Almost all these young trompetistas came from one village, Metapec, where most worked as carpenters making furniture and the mandatory hobby was playing in the local banda, numbering 500 players. One can imagine what kind of fiestas go on in a village where everyone plays music!

Concerts were celebratory, tremendous outpourings of enthusiasm for classical music and the musicos who play it. The audience, as is customary, showered roses on the orchestra from time to time. As we were the orchestra that represented the State of Mexico, we covered that entire territory with frequent forays into the countryside.

On the Sunday afternoons when we ventured out, we would, without fail, get lost on the long bus ride out to  uncharted villages to play in their local churches, which were always large and opulent no matter how far they were off the map. During the panic to find these places, as if scripted, the bus driver would always ask an old lady selling tortillas and cactus by the roadside for directions, which she gladly provided regardless of whether or not she had any real idea where we were going or how to get there. Other times, we would go to a large outdoor venue somewhere outside the big city and there play the same heavy program we played indoors the night before.

The audiences always showed up and always cheered mightily. One year, we made it our routine, upon returning home after our Sunday concerts, to turn on the tuba player’s bulging black-and-white TV, to fiddle with the coat-hanger antennae, pull out a case of Negro Modelo cervezas, and watch the Orquesta Nacional play their televised, complete Mahler Cycle. Highly entertaining it was – a bit like going to the demolition derby. They, like the numerous other professional orchestras in Mexico City, had their own audience, loyal to only them – like White Sox fans who won’t go to Cubs games. And theirs was the first Mahler cycle in Mexico, having about it the air of what must have transpired during the weeks of rehearsals before the premier of Rite of Spring in 1913.

The only exception to filled houses were those weeks when none of the three administrators who ran things remembered to tell anyone in the public, by way of what these days we call “marketing” but in those days was basically a sign on the hall or an ad in the newspaper, that we were holding a concert that week. In cases of such oversight, practically nobody showed up.

We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.

We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.

Given my experiences in Mexico, my lingering question has been, “Who decided, or why do we feel, that we must upend our programming in order for people of targeted ethnicities to comprehend and enjoy classical music played by a live orchestra?” It strikes me as suspiciously odd that, for all our talk about the universality of classical music, administrators, and, certainly some musicians, when they think of specific ethnic groups, must suddenly condescend to them, patronizingly and awkwardly changing what we do to suit all the clichés.

There are Mexicans in Mexico and Mexicans in the US, but only individual Mexicans attend classical concerts either here or there. It may be a conceit of planners that we can put out special bait for an entire group or that any one community leader speaks for them, as if there was a hive mind we can tap into. Only individuals choose to attend classical music concerts – and for personal reasons. Entire groups do not.

I was certain, by the time I moved away from Mexico, that Mexicans enjoyed and appreciated classical music as much as anyone else in this world. Of course, many Mexicans never went to orchestra concerts. But to be certain, those who did also loved to dance in their neighborhood street parties, called pachangas, and at weddings that started solemnly in churches with Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Schubert’s Ave Maria and ended with mariachis raising the dead at the late night cena. What with the huge families they had, that meant a wedding just about every month. Today, not only do most Mexican cities have their own orchestras but every single state has a robust youth orchestra, too, as part of their far-reaching Esperanza Azteca Foundation program.

And they do this, not because they don’t have other societal problems, including true material poverty or a vast and bloody drug war spreading every which way, but because music, the best music, is self-evidently and intrinsically good by their estimation, a testament to and reminder of human flourishing and accomplishment. It is a cornerstone of a good life.

I think of those days, a lifetime and a world away, whenever I hear the intelligentsia up here talk about what our various “under-served communities” need in order to cross an imaginary chasm in order to be able “to understand” our music, which we are told must be so alien to them.

The author on a return visit to teach for a week in Metapec in 2013. Many of the students who attended are children of his students from his early years there.
The author on a return visit to teach for a week in Metapec in 2013. Many of the students who attended are the children of his students from his early years there.


Music in the Modern Age

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 (18741951), 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 (18651957), Nielsen (18651931), and Holmboe (19091996) 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 [210]).
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 [6061].
7 Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 8.


The Trouble with Goodness

Nothing Is a Matter of Course

Reports on the life and mission of orchestras and other institutions of classical music in our time make for vexed, sometimes dispiriting, reading. If you attend to them, as I have of late, you are likely to come across ledes like the following:

Orchestras Feeding America is a project that has seen over 250 orchestras from across the country collect nearly 450,000 pounds of food. The efforts of these orchestras have helped spread the word about how and why orchestras are so necessary to their communities, beyond providing amazing music.

Another press release from early this year reports on an orchestra that has received a grant in “recognition” of its “innovation and dedication to increasing its relevance to the community.” The increase in relevance specifically refers to a partnering of Music in the Mountains (an orchestra) with the Sierra Streams Institute to work with young people in order to compose “a piece of music that responds to their experience” of learning about the plight of wild salmon. Elsewhere, one hears calls for orchestras to “reinvent” themselves in the face of “diminished legitimacy and relevance in a world that has changed more in the last 30 years than at any time in the last 5,000.” We must turn “the whole edifice on its head,” by “redistribut[ing] musicians’ activity from the central concert hall to the communities where people live.” This will “democratiz[e] the art form and tak[e] it away from its elitist roots.”

Jesse Rosen, the President of the League of American Orchestras, comments on these innovations as a turning from a “self-referential, inward-facing assertion of excellence” as the mission of orchestras toward “statements of value and impact for people in orchestras’ communities.” In the League’s magazine, Symphony, Polly Kahn gives us a fuller sense of how this recalibration of mission finds concrete expression. She writes that increasing numbers of American orchestras

have transcended the traditional role of orchestras in communal life. These institutions, of course, stay true to their core purpose of sharing a great body of musical literature. But they are driven simultaneously by a growing sense of connectivity and responsibility to community, along with a desire to engage actively with an ever-more-diverse populace.

This engagement includes the deployment of musicians to hospitals and other places of care for music therapy; the mingling of the professional with the late-in-life amateur; drum circles as part of correctional programs for youth; and programs to commemorate wounds in the American political fabric, to console communities in the wake of natural disasters, and to bring about social change. Of this last role, Kahn opines,

it’s perhaps too easy to think of orchestras as solely inhabiting the world of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Stravinsky. But just as these artists responded to and challenged the cultural and political assumptions of their times, orchestral music today increasingly crosses musical genres and addresses significant social issues of our time.

Elsewhere, two scholars of music education (Carlos R. Abril and Brent M. Gault) offer advocacy strategies for the establishment or defense of music programs in schools, recommending that interested parties “highlight the transferability of skills” gained from training in music to “extramusical” contexts. Most of us are familiar with the old claims that training in the performance of musical instruments may enhance a child’s math abilities. These authors indicate other transferable skills, ranging from the “promotion of cultural understanding,” listening skills, and physical coordination, to language literacy, “sensitivity to unique individuals,” and the cultivation of creativity.

To list these revisionist accounts of orchestras’ missions and strategies for gaining a foothold in communities and schools in this manner is, I think, to invite cynicism. We hear that orchestras are amazing as they solicit food donations for the hungry, and wonder whether there are not less amazing but more efficient means of accomplishing that goal that, on balance, render musicians superfluous to the enterprise. Is it not the case that anything orchestras do “beyond producing amazing music” is an extrinsic rather than intrinsic, “core,” or essential activity? By definition no quantity of extrinsic activity, no matter how much we admire it, could tell us much of anything about the worth of the intrinsic one. We are left unsure how orchestras could be “necessary to their communities” if it is not in virtue of the main thing they do, and if “providing amazing music” is not the one thing necessary to an orchestra, then we wonder if what we call an orchestra might in fact be something else. So also, on hearing of grant dollars for an orchestra to help young composers tied to a very specific ecological project, we wonder whether the cultivation of the art of composition and the public interest in efficiently saving the salmon are not both vitiated in one fell swoop.

We sense indeed the rightness of Rosen’s, Kahn’s, and others’ observations, which imply that just as music would not be performed if there were no one to hear it, so should the communal work of an orchestra be ordered in a meaningful way to the life of the community that properly constitutes its audience. But these authors worry, as do we, when we hear musical “excellence” replaced by communal engagement, as if these were necessarily opposed missions. If that were the case, then there is something wrong either with the canons of musicianship or with the communities they are meant to serve. It does not lay this anxiety to rest to hear the president of a conservatory proposing orchestras should hire performers based on “virtuosity, of course” but also on “a whole magical package” of other skills, such as “entrepreneurship,” that might be offered to “an institution and its community.” In an orchestra’s effort to serve “as an agent of social change,” to quote Kahn again, will it also screen musicians for not just virtuosity but a commitment to the hour’s particular sense of what in society must be changed? If so, the perceived social function of music will inevitably come to determine what kind of music orchestras perform: only those with a political valence supposed to bring “change” to an “evolving” society will be played. The canons of great music will not disappear, but will simply be reconfigured to exclude whatever the imaginations of conductors cannot harness for a specific didactic or political movement.

A similar ambivalence haunts the strategy of selling schools on the “transferability” of skills first gained in musical education. If learning the violin helps one’s skills in mathematics – to return to an example with which, as we shall see, I am finally sympathetic – might we not also say, “Very true, but what also helps with a child’s math skills – even more so and more directly – is the study and practice of mathematics.” That objection admits no answer, while the notion that “sensitivity to unique individuals” is a skill acquired through music would seem to rely on a cloudy understanding of the word “skill” and a stereotyped one about both the lives of composers and musicians and the relationship of their lives to their art form.

As I have admitted, this style of listing invites cynicism, but so do, it must be said, many of the formulae used to express these accounts of the new mission and strategy for orchestras in an age supposedly characterized by “democracy,” “diversity,” and demands for “[r]elevancy and legitimacy.” The authors I cite face a daunting task in which they acquit themselves honorably: to insist upon the essential function of orchestras while casting their work in a manner that will draw needed grant dollars from philanthropic organizations unhappily settled on seeing their generosity validated by quantifiable fruits. In most cases, they do not fail to underscore or at least mention, in Kahn’s words again, that “the creation and presentation of music is, of course, the core of what orchestras are.” That phrase, “of course,” appears elsewhere in Kahn’s article and in others I have cited. It means, “goes without saying,” “a matter of course,” something that can be taken for granted by everyone.

But, and here is why such words can be dispiriting, the whole occasion of these apologetics in our time is that the intrinsic goodness of orchestras is not a matter of course. If it is something that usually passes unexamined, it is not something that carries much evidential power in our day; it is not something simply understood, but rather an assurance that crumbles in our fingers as soon as we handle it. I envy no one the task of having to articulate to the satisfaction of a granting institution why the “core” or essence of an orchestra is something worthy of its dollars. Far easier would it be to appeal in passing to residual sentiment about the “joy,” “vitality,” and “health” wrought by orchestral music, or to make half-literal, half-metaphorical appeals to music’s power to involve “the brain, body, and heart,” as one hurries on to enumerate the various assessable goals that will be realized beyond them: the violent will be pacified, the sick consoled, the salmon saved, the hungry fed, the backward reformed, the children sensitized, the elite diversified, and the stodgy made relevant. We simply have more words to describe such things and, more to the point, their goodness really does go without saying – because who among us does not value “change” or “relevance,” those empty words into which anyone can pour his dreams? Furthermore, we do not even need to say them; all we have to do is count them.

My concern this afternoon is not to deprecate these or other strategic efforts to preserve the life of orchestras in our straitened times. I have benefited from reading about them. Rather, I would like to consider the climate of opinion that has made such strategies seem necessary in the first place. Thanks to developments that have been underway not for years but centuries, persons in our time find it impossible to credit the idea of intrinsic goods. Things may be good for something, this we readily see, but we become at best uncomfortable and at worst incredulous that anything should be good in itself. If this is correct, then orchestras are in a dire condition indeed. We cannot appreciate those things that are most properly good simply because they are good in themselves. Faced with this often evasive denial of the goodness of things, we scramble to achieve the impossible: to establish what was formerly held as an intrinsic good exclusively by appealing to effects extrinsic to it. Lacking a qualitative hierarchy of goods, we multiply quantities of useful outcomes. In such an effort, we may generate many words, words that flatter our sentiments, but words that will not bear reasoned examination and so invite our cynicism.

I wish to explore the origins and reasons behind this lamentable modern incredulity and to help us understand the traditional alternative to it, which insists that those things are greatest and most worthy of our support – loving, intellectual, and financial – that are good in themselves and good in their effects. My first task is a general one then: to explain what it means for something to be good, so that goodness might cease to give us such stuttering trouble and embarrass us into hasty appeals to things outside it.

My second task will be to consider the particular goodness of orchestral music. As it happens, music has historically been thought to be one of those intrinsic goods known as the liberal arts that does indeed transform its listeners. On more than one classical account, it liberates the mind – but to what end? To effect political or social change? Sort of. For, according to the tradition on which I shall draw, music transforms the soul and liberates the mind so as to make it capable of recognizing and adoring what is most truly good in itself. If ours is an age that cannot recognize things as good in themselves, then the most radical social change in which advocates of music can engage will to be just this: to help others to see, to desire, to seek, to become adequate to, and to rest in that which is simply good. Music provides us one powerful instance in which good effects, fruits as they are called in the tradition, can be realized only because they are what I shall call a further diffusion of what is already a good sufficient unto itself.

The Three Kinds of Goodness

Let me begin by recalling the classical account of goodness, with which many of you will be familiar. According to the ancients, we generally recognize three basic kinds of goods in the following order: the pleasant, the useful, and, finally, that which is good in itself.1 The lowest and most common species of good is the pleasant; whatever gives the mind or body a pleasing sensation, insofar as it pleases, must be good. No one asks, “Why would you want to feel pleasure?” because pleasure in itself provides its own validation. We simply enjoy the taste of good food and drink, the feeling of exertion in sport and the caress of another. For all that it sounds as if the pleasant were ultimate, however, we see that pleasure is neither the only type of good nor even a sufficient denomination of goodness to allow us to understand the various competing goods among which even someone given over to a life of pleasures would have to choose.

I said a moment ago that pleasure is low and common, and for several reasons. First, and perhaps least compelling in our day, for reasons to which I shall return, pleasure is thought a low good because it can be had in common with all persons and with other animals. Aristotle complains that the life of pleasure is “completely slavish,” belonging more properly to “fatted cattle” than to free men.2 Second, we treat pleasure as “for the sake of activity and not conversely” in at least two respects.3 On the one hand, some pleasures are had only so that we can resume some activity in which we are primarily engaged; we may take, for instance, a cold drink, before returning to our labors on a hot day. On the other, those pleasures apparently enjoyed for their own sake we do not hesitate to set aside for the sake of other activities which we find to be either presently more necessary or absolutely more important. If that were not the case, our age would know only permanent weekends and would know – happily – far less about the abysmal humor regarding Mondays, when we wrench ourselves from rest back into the grind of necessity. Third, we can recognize that some things that genuinely give us pleasure, and therefore are good in that respect, are bad in another; pleasure therefore must be under- or even uninformative about the goodness of the thing that pleases. We do not purposefully drink cyanide, for instance, just because it happens to be laced with sugar and lemon, as do we forbid ourselves many other pleasant goods because they come as mere effects of things we positively identify as evils. In general, we often easily choose between two things equally pleasant based upon a perception of some other differentia of goodness.

This last point leads us to a vista where a higher form of goodness emerges. For, if pleasure is under-informative about the thing we denote as good insofar as it pleases, then it is probably the case that there is a kind of good beyond pleasure. The category of the useful comprises all those goods whose chief attribute is their pointing beyond themselves. They are not good in themselves, or not sufficiently, but are primarily desired for the sake of something else. We can recognize a purely useful good by the fact that we would not pursue it were some further good removed from view. It is hard for us, for example, to imagine anyone performing the tasks of a certified public accountant were it not that some reward, or the avoidance of some punishment, lies at the end of them. Thus, useful goods lack some of the self-evidence of the pleasant. We need to know what it is good for, before we recognize a useful good, whereas pleasures are so self-evident but incomplete in their goodness as to leave seeming inadequate our language and reason alike. We find the question, “Why pleasure?” absurd, and when we try to answer it we usually fail. “I guess you had to be there,” we conclude, throwing up our hands in frustration.

The useful, on the other hand, seems especially communicable. To demonstrate something is a useful good, we have only to propose a purpose beyond it and show how the given thing will help us attain it; this is an easily recognized and an easily explained criterion. A useful good is a means to something, and as a means it may seem to lack in goodness in itself but it is also easier to account for its character. Nearly every occupation in our day, from investment banking to the tying of balloon animals while wearing a clown costume, can be easily justified along these lines. “Why would you do something so unpleasant and humiliating?” someone asks. “It’s a living,” we reply. We have to make a living – though for what reason, I shall contend, we have trouble discerning, but nevertheless. Therefore, whatever is useful in making it is good.

If the useful always stands in reference to some other good beyond itself, it must be pointing to something or it would be neither useful nor good. As Thomas Aquinas observes, not all goods can be useful, because that would involve us in an infinite regress wherein every useful good was in fact useless. There would be no final term for which and to which all other goods are subservient.4 I shall return to this claim further on, but for the moment it will serve to indicate a third kind of good. If we can decide between different kinds of pleasant goods, because they have an element – let us call it X – that makes some of them more desirable always, some of them desirable some of the time, and others undesirable despite the pleasure they afford – we may be tempted to identify X by saying that some pleasant goods are more useful than others. But, if we then say that one pleasant good is more useful than another only for the sake of some further pleasure we are begging the question. There must be some kind of good that is comprehended by neither pleasure nor utility, but, to the contrary, stands essentially above them and comprehends them.

Whatever such a good is, it will not be as self-evident as pleasure, because we must look beyond pleasure to perceive it, and we may even find pleasure obscures it to us. So also, we may more readily understand useful goods, but if we can recognize them, we must also sense, however vaguely, some good in itself that gives them their useful and good quality in the first place. Traditionally this sort of good is referred to as a bonus honestum, a good deemed honorable or moral in itself.5 But how can this be? we ask. What is a good in itself good for? The only possible answer has to be that an honest good has the character of a term or end: it is the place where a chain of for-sake-of-whiches finds its end. Anticipating our resistance to this notion, Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.6

The sufficiently good in itself is beautiful. Just as pleas-ant goods seem at first self-evident and self-justifying, so that which is an unqualified good in itself elicits a kind of immediacy once it has been recognized for itself. On Aristotle’s account, the idea of the beautiful helps us to understand this, because nothing stands between us and our encounter with the beautiful (it is immediate in that sense), but we may not instantaneously perceive something as beautiful; we can be helped to do so by different means of instruction, and once we do it admits of rational explanation.7 Above, we considered accountancy as a useful good; we see examples of honest goods in such things as the courage of the soldier, where there would seem to be something intrinsically beautiful in the power to act in the face of real danger, when it is possible, however unlikely, that such danger can be overcome. That courage, so good in itself, by its own virtue may bear fruit in victory in war, the glory of reputation, or the immortality of remembrance. One would desire to possess courage even if one were not a soldier. So, also, in the case of the professional natural scientist, though his applications for grants may come to an end upon his retirement, he may still continue to study his subject because of the beauty perceived in the acquisition of knowledge. The study seems good in itself and in the new knowledge it breeds.

An honest or intrinsic good is something that is desired for its own sake – for the beauty of it, Aristotle tells us. From this I draw three observations. First, something may be desired primarily for itself, and yet still admit of other goods beyond itself. Thus, an honest good need not be an absolute good, but only absolute in some particular order of reality. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain coined the term “infravalent goods” to define those things that are primarily desired for themselves in one particular order, but which ultimately stand in subordinate relation to a good beyond themselves, all culminating in one absolute and transcendent good that orders all the rest.8 Second, to be an intrinsic good entails above all being the term – the final point – of a sequence. But, third, that which is sufficiently good in itself is often recognized because of a quality often described as gratuitousness, fruitfulness, or self-diffusiveness. That alone which is sufficient unto itself is also ecstatic or self-transcending. Here lies the explanation for why the good in its goodness is beautiful.

Taken together, these observations suggest what it means to talk about goodness per se, and of its specifications as pleasant, useful, or honest. When we talk about goods, we are always talking about ends and the different ways things and actions can stand in relation to ends.9 Though things and actions can be good in different ways, in every case goodness is defined in terms of final purpose: the end of pleasure, the instrumental end that leads immediately beyond itself to another end, or the end that brings to term a sequence, in a certain order or absolutely. Whenever we speak of goods, we have to have in place a conception of purpose or finality – what the ancients called the idea of final causality, where the why or for-sake-of-which of a given thing or action is understood. This holds not just for useful goods, which are good only insofar as they have a purpose beyond themselves, but also, as we have seen, for honest goods which are their own ends. An intrinsic good is not something that is useless or purposeless in the sense of being without-end, but something that is undertaken for itself and to which other things or actions may be ordered as a final cause – a final why. They are their own fruit (frui), and they are fruitful, so that what they give birth to seems to draw us at once beyond and back to their goodness.

Modernity’s Stripping of Goodness from Being

Perhaps already it becomes clear why our age has trouble with goodness. It has been a truism since the seventeenth century that rational or scientific knowledge can tell us nothing about final causes. To wit, in the eyes of our contemporaries, final causality is not even an object of knowledge. As Etienne Gilson wrote, speaking of this revolution, the modern thinker says, “Scientists never ask themselves why things happen, but [only] how they happen.”10 This constitutes a radical shrinking of the sphere of rational knowledge.

Its early advocates converged in this project often with radically opposed intentions. The early modern philosopher and naturalist René Descartes, for instance, would assert that, because our natures are “very weak and limited,” while God is “immense, incomprehensible, and infinite,” our knowledge will always be inadequate to God’s intentions. “For this reason alone,” he writes, “the entire class of causes which people customarily derive from a thing’s ‘end,’ I judge to be utterly useless in physics. It is not without rashness that I think myself capable of inquiring into the ends of God.”11

As I understand Descartes’ larger scientific project, the following ambitions led him to this claim. In his Meditations he sought primarily to establish the existence of an all-knowing and good God in order to vouchsafe the intelligibility of the world. Such a god would give the extra-mental world stability and our knowledge of it reliability. But, he sought also to divide absolutely theology, the knowledge of God made possible by revealed religion, from the knowledge of nature made possible primarily by experimental observation and mathematical analysis. In The World and elsewhere, he sought to provide an account of the natural world and its functioning based entirely on its internal mechanisms. As Blaise Pascal would write, God served as a “fillip” to put the world in being and ensure its knowability; God also must concur in the universe’s continued existence; but, for Descartes, there is no role for God interior to the universe – with one possible exception.12 Closed though it is on three sides, as it were, the Cartesian universe would seem to be open-ended. Its internal mechanisms would seem to reach out to God through their purposiveness.

By shrouding God’s purposes is infinite mystery – and not just his ultimate purposes, but any and all purposes, including even those that seem observable – Descartes is able entirely to enclose his universe. One needs only a knowledge of its mechanisms to understand fully all of its contents. In effect, Descartes excludes from the purview of human reason and physics anything but the knowledge of mechanisms understood as instrumental goods. Scientific research may thereby continue to ask how things operate without impinging on the existence, goodness, or purpose of God. In his effort to preserve these things as transcendent realities, Descartes in fact reduced them to postulates outside of knowledge per se. The first two may help establish the possibility of the knowledge of physics, but the third is not part of that knowledge, and in fact all rational knowledge (i.e. knowledge outside the innate ideas of the necessarily good God’s existence, our existence, and the world in which we may reliably believe) ultimately is reduced to the realm of physics.

Writing during the same period of early experimental-scientific enthusiasm, Thomas Hobbes would also exclude the knowledge of ends from physics, but not because the will of God was for us obscured within the abyss of its infinite mystery. Rather, to speak of ends was an act of absurdity; it was tantamount to misunderstanding the nature of reality as such. “When a body is once in motion,” Hobbes writes early in Leviathan, “it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally.”13 The “end” of a body’s movement comes not when it reaches the goal of some intension, the final cause to which it was ordered, but only when some other body reduces its motion to zero by an act of interference. Hobbes was a materialist; he posited that only bodies were real entities, and that therefore reality as such was reducible to material things and their motions. There is no place inside his universe for intentions, purposes, or final causes; and, in contrast to Descartes, there is nothing outside his universe.

What reason could know was only that immanent mode of causality we would identify with instrumental goods. Human beings can only conceive of finite, that is to say material, things, and they can understand them in two possible ways: they can see something has been effected, and so speculate as to what brought it into effect, or they can imagine some material body and speculate as to what effects it might be put.14

We might interject at this point that it is absurd to speak of a world composed exclusively of instrumental goods, because all such goods derive their identity from being good for something that is the end of a train or sequence. Descartes postpones indefinitely this conundrum by putting finality beyond our knowledge. Hobbes precludes it by setting goodness outside knowledge altogether. In Leviathan’s subsequent exploration of human nature, he undertakes to render goodness absolutely relative by making it entirely dependent on an individual body’s will or appetite. A good, he says, is “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire.”15 To pronounce something a good tells us nothing of the thing itself, but only of the interior and hidden or exterior and visible movement of a body toward it.16 All the words we use to characterize various kinds of goods operate in this way: they describe not the thing referred to but our evaluation of that thing. So, the worth of a given human being is just so much as one might give for the use of his powers.17 Honor and dignity constitute merely private and public recognitions of this price we place on a person’s capacities. None of these qualities inhere in the person valued, honored, or praised.

Hobbes’ ambition in this reduction of goods to value, and values to the human will, is to inaugurate a new science of politics, and so he ultimately leads his reader to a theory of justice that does not require the identification of anything as in itself a good. Thus, justice, for Hobbes, comes merely to the honoring of contracts: it is strictly “commutative.” To be just is to follow an agreement to which one has previously consented.18 He dismisses as absurd the notion of distributive justice, wherein certain things are owed to a person, not in virtue of a contract, but simply in virtue of who he is in himself. All goods must therefore be instrumental, because a good is always either a means to get what we want, or the thing wanted, but there is no rational reason we should want one thing rather than another.19 Our wills are opaque to reason, in fact. They have no intelligible content. And so, again, we can ask how things come to pass, but to inquire into why is to misunderstand the nature of the human person, of knowledge, and of reality in all its monstrous and mechanical clutter.

In the vision of such modern thinkers, we are shown either a world stripped of intrinsic goodness for us or per se. As the philosopher Iredell Jenkins argued many years ago, Descartes, Hobbes, and others operate from the postulate of an impoverished reality, which he defines as “the settled conviction that nature is in fact much simpler and barer than it appears to us in experience.”20 Quality vanishes; only quantity remains. Whatever cannot be counted cannot be an object of knowledge – and is at best a private appetite and at worst an absurdity. This is the world into which we have been born. As Hobbes reminds us, human beings are indeed full of appetites; we find many things good, in our experience. But we deny that any such things could be rationally defended as good in themselves and for their own sakes.

With Descartes and Hobbes, we tend to look upon the world as a self-enclosed system of mechanisms that we understand as a series of means or instrumental goods, as things we may value but which are stripped of any intrinsic worth. How do we understand the world and our appetites in such a vision? Critics of the modern vision have reached a general consensus on three basic qualities. Firstly, we tend to strip things in reality down to their quantifiable elements. What can be enumerated, subjected to mathematical analysis, counts as knowledge; what does not does not; the realm of mathematical values somehow stands above and free from the dubious valuations of taste and appetite. Thomas Aquinas, centuries ago, explains why. All number entails an abstraction from being and existence, but only being and existence are goods. Therefore “mathematicals,” as he calls them, are neither good nor evil.21 As Jenkins notes, the modern mind tends to understand reality in terms of quantity. Rather than treating number as an abstraction from what is real, we take it as the final determinant of the real. There is no place for goodness in a mathematical universe.

What becomes of our desires in such a world? This question is answered by the second and third qualities, which will at first seem incompatible. We see, secondly, that the modern mind, having lost the sense of intrinsic goods, but needing its pursuit of instrumental goods to be directed somewhere, would seem to have arrived at hedonism. We would seem to pronounce pleasure the highest good. Pleasure, as we considered earlier, has at least the quality of self-evidence about it, and, in our time, it would seem we recognize no higher authority, so that, once a thing is pronounced as desirable because it pleases us to desire it, no rational appeal can be made against this desire. As Gilson and E.F. Schumacher recognized long ago, this leads to an absolutization of desire, in which everything we want becomes an unquestionable good. It becomes in fact a little god, one of myriad idols at whose altar we worship so long as we like, and whose deity deflects the unbelieving with inane indignations along the lines of, “What gives you the right to tell me what I should like?”22

This second quality does not stand alone, but has as its obverse a third: if our desires are absolute, nonetheless their objects are not and, further, the desires themselves are understood as indefeasible by the reason because they are simply outside the reason altogether. This is what most persons mean in our day when they say that goodness is “subjective.” They do not mean that it is a reality that inheres in the intellect rather than in things themselves, but that it does not even inhere in the intellect, because all real knowledge is of quantity. They mean what Hobbes means, that our desires tell us nothing except that we desire. Our understanding of what is good is therefore locked away entirely in the opacity and the privacy of the appetite and can have no public status as something known, shared, and therefore potentially binding on the minds of others. We waste our time trying to understand what we want or what we should want. The only use of reason is to figure out how to get what we already find ourselves wanting or to ensure ourselves against future desires. We feel acutely why Hobbes reduced politics and justice to a relative contract. He saw with clarity that knowledge pertaining to means is clear and communicable, while reason knows nothing about ends, and all talk of them ends in absurdity.23

Taking these two qualities together, we see that goodness in our day is something absolutely worthless and jealously guarded. Our desires are divine and unquestionable for us, and yet empty and insignificant for the world at large. Only instrumental goods slip between this Scylla and Charybdis. They are eminently knowable as means, formulated thus, “Y is a means to attaining X. If you desire X, then you will also desire Y.” We may not know if anyone desires, or should desire, X – indeed, we lack the intellectual equipment even to ask – but we do know that Y is instrumentally ordered to it.

The Finality of Finality

My argument thus far has avoided appeal to a more conventional way of understanding the modern stripping of goodness from reality that ensued from the denial of final causality as an object of knowledge, but I would like to turn to it briefly as a means of arriving at a final understanding of goodness, before I come to consider the particular good of music. Since Aristotle, four types of causes of things have traditionally been acknowledged.

First, the material cause, which comprehends the material substrate of which a given individual thing is made. The material cause of a podium is usually wood, for instance. Second, the formal cause means the idea giving specific form to otherwise formless matter. The idea of podium in the manufacturer’s mind is the formal cause of the podium. Third, there is the efficient cause. The act of the manufacturer in joining form to matter effects, or brings into actual being, the podium itself. And, fourth, there is the final cause – again, the reason for something’s being brought into being, its why or purpose. In Gilson’s formula, the first three causes can be objects of rational knowledge, because they speak of how something comes into being. The final cause – as a why – cannot.

True in a way though it is, such a formulation conceals something from us. All inquiry into causality, all rational inquiry, though it may appear to restrict itself to material, formal, or efficient causes, is ultimately ordered as an inquiry into finality. To put a provocative point on it, all inquiry into truth is in fact a questing after goodness. This includes the inquiry of the physicist’s laboratory as much as that of the engineer, philosopher, or theologian. We would not consider a manufacturer of glass hammers, to use a classic example, to know much about hammers. In post-Darwinian biology, we do not claim to understand a genetic modification until we understand why – for what end – it is selected. As the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker has observed, in his field of inquiry, the criterion of new knowledge is whether a given experiment reveals what he calls a “Darwinian payoff.” Claims about the means of a genetic selection do not suffice; one must be able to show a causal link to some end; every phenomenon must be shown as serving an evolutionary purpose, or the claim does not meet the bar of knowledge. All rational inquiry is into the why of things – into what makes them good. The other three types of causality might best be understood as sub-species of final causality.

Thomas Aquinas reveals this identity of knowledge with value, or rather, truth with goodness, in his discussion of the goodness of things. He says everything may have a threefold perfection or goodness,

First, insofar as it is constituted in its existence. Second, insofar as the accidents necessary for its perfect operation are added to it. Third, the perfection the thing has insofar as it reaches something else as its end.24

When we call something good, we may be saying any of these three things, and here I reverse Aquinas’s order: it has reached the end beyond itself toward which it, by nature, moves; or that it has attained all the incidental qualities necessary to its acting, or moving, fully and according to its nature; or that a thing has been brought into being, that it has become what it is only as the final cause of some anterior intention. In all three cases the good is understood as a kind of end.

What we may find most remarkable is the first sort of goodness he mentions. How can the claim that something is good insofar as it exists be anything more than a postulate or a leap of faith that an incomprehensible God has some secret purpose in mind of all things? That things, of no value in themselves, may yet be harnessed for some end obscure to us? We have the answer already sealed in the concrete example of the glass hammer given above. All forms of causality – the matter of something, its form, the agent that brings it into being – have the bringing into being of something as their own final cause. A glass hammer may be a lousy hammer, given the final cause of hammers to drive iron nails into wood, but it is nevertheless the good sought, the final cause, that leads an agent to dispose the glass into the shape of a hammer. The brute fact of an existent thing is itself always the end of an operation; it is not a reality onto which we may project a value, but an intelligible good in which being and goodness are identical.

We only know as much about the cause of anything as we know the ways – and I underscore the plural here – in which it is good. Goodness is the principle that makes reality intelligible. No goodness, no truth. No truth, no knowledge. Contrary to Hobbes, then, it is absurd to say we could speak intelligently of reality without attending to causes. And, contrary to Descartes, to restrict our knowledge of things to mathematicals is in fact to restrict our knowledge to a world of shadows and abstractions and to say very little about the world in which we actually live. We may have trouble acknowledging intrinsic goods, because we have an at best shaky confidence in our capacity to know the truth about things. But, insofar as we claim to know anything, we should to that same extent be able to affirm the goodness of things and to deliberate about the relative magnitude of the various intrinsic goods that populate our world.

I have asserted that Aquinas solves this modern trouble with goodness for us, and so I shall let him answer two weighty objections to his claim. One might say, with Hobbes, that we know things are in motion, not why they move. It is a law among us now that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Aquinas would reply that, first, “body” is a genus, an abstraction from individual existing things and not a thing in itself. It may well be that bodies in principle move without end, just as numbers may be counted without being good. Such is the character of abstractions – that they are abstracted specifically from the being that exists in reality as a point within a series of causal relations, of finalities. All actually existing things do move, this we grant, and they move for a purpose, because if there were no end at which to aim, or if the aim were infinitely distant, nothing would begin to move in the first place.25 The specific difference by which we tell one thing from another is also the determinant of the ends toward which different things – bodies or otherwise – move.

To all this, one may reply, what about chance? Cannot all things move endlessly, because set in motion by some fundamental fluke in reality? Aquinas replies, we can only understand chance relative to the normative goodness of nature. We see that a given nature normally pursues a specific end; we know natures primarily by the end that they pursue “always or for the most part.” If all things moved according to chance, then we could say nothing at all about things, because all things would be absolutely different, unrepeatable in their individuality. But, if all things were unique, we could not say that they were caused by chance. We would have no basis for the assertion. We perceive chance only in its departure from a given nature’s norm characterized by its failure to pursue that nature’s end. If we admit as a hypothesis that chance rather than purpose governs all things, we must also admit that we could never know anything about it. But the problem that confronts us is not a world professedly agnostic about all things as such, but only about the goodness of things. I have tried to show that such a world is abysmal, because it is incoherent. It claims you can know the truth without even affirming the existence of goodness. I have countered that the truth of things is their goodness.

Music as Honest Good and Liberal Art

We are now in a position to draw these reflections on goodness per se into the contemporary world of apologetics for classical music and the social value of orchestras. We are accustomed to thinking of music as a fine art, and the actual performance of music is indeed a fine art. The practicing musician produces something outside of his activity, the music itself, so it is by definition an art; and the product is not immediately put to some other use, so it is a fine rather than servile art. But let us distinguish the act of the musician from the understanding of music, whether it be the creative knowledge of the composer or the receptive understanding of the auditor. These have traditionally been understood as among the liberal arts. So, if we are to understand the good of music, we shall have to understand it not primarily in terms of the musician who performs it, but in terms of the minds that come to know it; that is, what makes music one of the liberal arts?

The liberal arts, the arts of the free, are those practices of the intellect that may be learned, are an activity complete in themselves, and do not primarily serve to produce something outside of their activity. They are free from external product, and that suffices to distinguish them from the servile arts. They are also free in a positive sense that we are now prepared to appreciate: they must be good in themselves. The practice of thought of a particular liberal art must be worthy of undertaking for its own sake. One feature of liberal education is, therefore, the training of mind and desire so that we will recognize and seek things that are intrinsically good, with the liberal arts themselves being chief among those goods. Philosophy, for instance, entails the pursuit of true ideas as good in themselves, but their pursuit is itself an orientation and way of life that is also intrinsically good.

One further characteristic of the liberal arts, first intimated in the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, but systematically developed in the early medieval writings of St. Augustine, is that the practice of the liberal arts orders the mind and appetites not only to themselves but to an effect that naturally follow from their own goodness. Like all honest goods, the liberal arts bear fruit. Augustine claims that the ordering of the soul that the liberal arts enact leads not only to an knowing and loving rest in intrinsic goods, but to the soul’s journey through those goods up to the absolute and unqualified good in itself who is God.

This argument of Augustine’s often gets discussed in terms of the liberal art of mathematics. By engaging the intellect in the pursuit of “measure, number, and weight,”26 Augustine proposed, mathematics leads the mind to perceive the qualitatively distinct kinds of numbers out of which are constituted material bodies, abstract thoughts, creative acts, pleasures, memories, and rational judgments.27 This numerical hierarchy leads from bodily creatures to intellectual creatures and prepares the mind for the perception of the uncreated and unconditioned Good of all things. Mention of mathematics may lead us to a conclusion it did not lead Augustine: namely, that this would be a purely intellectual exercise at an abstract remove from reality and from the goodness for which I have been arguing. Rather, Augustine’s argument on this point appears in the De Musica, his study of music as a liberal art. In music, he suggests, we perceive that numbers subsist in form, in order, proportion, and harmony. Attention to music is attention to the manifestation of intellectual order in sensible being. It is perceived by the ear and experienced only through the cooperation of the bodily senses, the reason, and the memory. In this, it stands in contradistinction to, say, a work of sculpture, which might seem to be comprehended whole by the eye alone, and even to ravish the sight to the exclusion of the mind. Although music may sometimes threaten a similar ravishment, it manifests in an especially clear way the union of mind and sense, idea and being, more so than either pure mathematics or any plastic art form.

As is the case with nearly everything, music may first present itself as a pleasant good. But, in its drawing of the numbers that inform reality into a distinct form, it reveals itself as good in itself. This act of ordering number and idea into audible form, first, beguiles the mind and brings it to rest in the form of the musical work, but, second, it helps to order the mind, schooling it in the perception of the measurable heights and depths of reality. This fruitfulness of the good of music aids the mind in its ascent to a knowledge of the Good itself. Like every liberal art, it constitutes a practice good in itself and it initiates our minds into the contemplation of that final cause in light of which alone we can understand the meaning and destiny of ourselves and of all things.

If this classical and medieval account of music is correct, it actually answers many of the criteria implied in the apologetics for classical music and orchestras I reviewed at the outset, but bests them by restoring to its center the essential goodness of music – highlighting what has too often been only glossed over with a hasty “of course.” By considering music as a liberal rather than a fine art, we endorse the revised understanding of the mission of orchestras as centered less on virtuosity and more on engagement of the community in a practice of education and intellectual freedom that is good in itself and good in its effects. It emphasizes that classical music is a distinctive good in its capacity to unite the most abstract powers of the intellect and the experience of the senses into the contemplation of a whole ordered for beauty’s sake. It also emphasizes the “transferability” of the skills music cultivates, explaining perhaps why it is there should be an observable correlation between the understanding of classical music and the understanding of mathematics. One fruit of the intrinsic good of hearing and understanding music is its ordering of the mind to the perception of the full scope of being, to number, to form, and to the Good itself.

Finally, if the modern condition is as I have described it, our society is one that publicly recognizes only useful goods while it privately absolutizes pleasant ones. In such a society, one would expect to find a populace jealous of liberty regarding its own pleasures, while full of anxiety about maximizing utility so as to bring the “greatest good to the greatest number.” It is in concession to that anxiety that apologists for orchestras and classical music attempt to make the case for their usefulness as philanthropic entities and as agents of social change.

Let us conclude with a paradox on this point. In a society that knows only pleasant and useful goods, to insist upon the reality and self-sufficiency of intrinsic goods, to insist upon the absolute truth of such things and upon the necessity of recognizing and understanding them for the sake of human happiness – that strikes me as a profound act of social engagement. Nothing could be more counter-cultural, nothing more shocking, than for the orchestra in the concert hall to arrest the pursuit of mere pleasures and mere utility in our day by bring audiences into the dynamic stillness, the fulfilled rest, the pleasure beyond mere pleasure, and the fruit beyond mere utility, that occurs whenever we are in the presence of that which is genuinely, honestly, simply, good.


1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1156a.
2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10956.
3 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.27.
4 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.25.
5 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.6.
6 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a.
7 Cf. Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8.
8 Jacques Maritain, Collected Works of Jacques Maritain Vol. 11: Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence (Trans. Otto Bird, et al. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996),246.
9 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a; Cf. Aristole, Politics, 1252a, and Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
10 Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002): 112.
11 René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), 82.
12 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (), §76-77.
13 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994): I.ii.2.
14 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.iii.5 and 12.
15 Hobbes, Leviathan,
16 Hobbes, Leviathan,
17 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.x.16.
18 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.xv.14.
19 Hobbes, Leviathan,
20 Iredell Jenkins, “The Postulate of an Impoverished Reality” (The Journal of Philosophy 39.20 (24 September 1942)), 535.
21 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.3.
22 See, E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 59.
23 See, Schumacher, 58.
24 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.6.3.
25 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
26 Robert J. O’Connell, S.J, Art and the Christian Intelligence in St. Augustine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 55.
27 Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God (), 2.10.


The Symphony: A Moral Vision Revealed in Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in October 2015.

A few days after the première of my Fourth Symphony at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall I was given an advanced copy of Lewis Lockwood’s new book Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision (W.W. Norton, £20). My purpose here is not to review the book but to flag up just how vital it turned out to be in my ongoing obsession with the idea of the symphony, past, present and future.

Lewis Lockwood is regarded as one of the major Beethoven scholars and is presently the Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of Harvard. The bulk of his new book introduces each of the composer’s nine symphonies, all individual and different in their magisterial genius, and paints a vivid picture of the creative context of each. Lockwood recalls much of the political and social upheavals of the time, ranging from revolution and war to the development of European concert life.

Beethoven’s symphonies have come to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music. The distinguished art historian Alessandra Comini described Beethoven’s music as having “revelatory dimensions”. The composer himself described his work as a divine art, and Lockwood points out that Beethoven regarded his symphonies as “not merely products of high craftsmanship, but . . . expressions of a moral vision, a deeply rooted belief that great music can move the world”.

The composer saw his life and work as a mission and a vocation, as many artists have done in centuries and generations gone by. The fact that the modern, and now post-modern, world with all its pessimism and scepticism, has nothing convincing to contradict this assessment of the high-minded inspiration behind Beethoven’s greatness points to the unique unassailability of the composer’s achievements and eternal reputation.

The idea of the symphony has had its bar set extremely high by Beethoven and he has inspired the most ambitious composers in the two centuries since. His influence can be detected in all the major composers in the genre, from his immediate contemporaries like Schubert and then through the decades – Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Even the ones who self-consciously and deliberately turned away from prevailing traditional formal patterns towards programme music and the symphonic poem display the mark of the master – Berlioz, Liszt and Richard Strauss. Wagner’s transformation of opera into “music-drama” shows the impact of a lifetime’s study of Beethoven’s instrumental music, and in particular his Ninth Symphony. Lockwood reminds us that “Wagner grew up in the 1830s under Beethoven’s spell, as he openly confessed.”

I have been asked why composers still want to write symphonies today. Haven’t all the best ones been written already? Is the form and idea not redundant in the 21st century? Hasn’t modernism (and post-modernism) moved the “cutting-edge” agenda away from the tried and tested? Is it not just nostalgia and conservatism to fall back on an idea from the past? Every composer has considered the possibility of writing a symphony and the questions that will be asked of him or her. Some decide it is not for them, but a surprising number in recent years and in our own time have persevered with the concept.

Hans Werner Henze wrote ten. Alfred Schnittke also wrote ten, and so far Peter Maxwell Davies has also written ten. Michael Tippett wrote four. It was obviously a viable form and concept for these titans of modern music. But there are many others who would never have given the question a second thought – Boulez, Birtwistle, Lachenmann. Is it just the more “conservative” composers of our time who are interested in the symphony? No doubt there will be strident voices from the avant-garde hard-line who would maintain just that. But what makes Maxwell Davies conservative? Perhaps this leads to the impossibility of defining the word and idea. Can anything be a symphony now? Galina Ustvolskaya’s Fifth Symphony is about ten minutes long, scored for only five players and involves an actor reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. Her Fourth Symphony is for voice, piano, trumpet and tam-tam and lasts only six minutes. Concepts of musical conservatism and radicalism have a tendency to wax and wane in our own time, so who knows how the self-proclaimed radicals of our age will be viewed decades hence?

The origin of the word symphony is from the ancient Greek (symphonia) meaning “agreement or concord of sound”. It can also mean “concert of vocal or instrumental music” or just simply “harmonious”. In the middle ages there were instruments called symphonia which could be anything from a two-headed drum to a hurdy-gurdy or dulcimer. It begins to mean “sounding together” in the work of Giovanni Gabrieli in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in his Sacrae Symphoniae.

It is this meaning of symphony that is attractive to many, as it can open up possibilities unconstrained by Germanic, Romantic (or even Classical) origins. Stravinsky used the term a few times, most interestingly in his Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920. Note the plural. It comes from a very different place – there are no string instruments, and it is one movement which lasts only nine minutes. It has a solemn, almost funereal character, with a chorale seemingly evoking Russian Orthodox chant – an austere ritual, unfolding in short litanies. It must have baffled its original audiences. Indeed its world première in London was greeted by laughter and derision. I have conducted this a few times and love its episodic nature. It doesn’t develop in any expected “symphonic” way, but through a series of fragments, juxtaposed and expanded on each sounding.

An earlier challenge to or broadening of German symphonic principles was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. This is programme music, but what a programme! The music is psychedelic, hallucinatory, opium-fuelled even. It is an interesting riposte to those who see the symphony as the pinnacle of absolute abstraction. Composers can be inspired by the strangest things. Here is a weird story of poison, despair, hopeless love, nightmare, witches, devils and public execution – the composer’s own! We also see subjective impulses coming to the fore in the inspiration and explanation of the work, in particular Berlioz’s fascination with the English actress Harriet Smithson.

His work was written only three years after Beethoven’s death and Berlioz must have recognised a similar revolutionary spirit in the work of the master. My boyhood dreams were shaped by Beethoven’s symphonies and in particular his third, the Eroica. The sheer drama and romance of this work is compelling and people talk of its convulsive impact on the history of music. Lockwood reminds us of this and its astonishing effect at its first performances. Those two stabbing E flat major chords at the beginning of the first movement, which grab the listener by the scruff of the neck, are so simple and so bold. But then the melody begins in the cellos, outlining the E flat major triad, immediately veering off to a note that you least expect – C sharp – incredibly distant tonal territory in a musical world and era expecting careful modulations between closely related keys. So right from the first few seconds of the work, Beethoven is presenting us with a so-far unparalleled tension. The opposition in purely musical parameters is taking us into uncharted territory, where resolution and irresolution coexist side by side.

Most people know about the dedication story of the Eroica. Beethoven originally intended to dedicate the score to Napoleon Bonaparte but withdrew this violently, tearing the dedication page off, on hearing of Napoleon’s self-proclamation as Emperor. I have always been heartened by Beethoven’s rejection of a tyrant and his recognition of the true nature of revolutionary fervour as destructive, divisive and corrupt. It is a lesson from history to all artists not to put their trust in politicians and rabble-rousers.

The 20th century saw a procession of artists who were beguiled and seduced by evil men. There was no shortage of poets and writers ready to praise Lenin and Mussolini especially, but also Stalin, Hitler and Mao, even into our own time. In my own country our most prominent poet Hugh McDiarmid, beloved of Scottish nationalists and socialists even today, wrote not one but three hymns to Lenin. He also admired Mussolini, arguing in 1923 for a Scottish version of fascism and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a fascistic paramilitary organisation to fight for Scottish freedom. As late as June 1940 he wrote a poem expressing his indifference to the impending German bombing of London, which was not published during his lifetime:

Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.

In 2010 the Canadian academic Susan Wilson unearthed some correspondence in the National Library of Scotland between MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean, his friend, fellow poet and fellow radical political thinker. In these letters, as late as 1941, it is revealed that MacDiarmid regarded Hitler and the Nazis as potentially more benign rulers than the British government in Westminster.

He was known for his controversial views as a young man. In two articles written in 1923, “Plea for a Scottish Fascism” and “Programme for a Scottish Fascism”, he appeared to support Mussolini’s regime. But the revelation of ambivalent, even pro-Nazi sentiments during WW2 has come as a shock.

These are sobering recollections for Scots, but also for artists generally. Hugh MacDiarmid’s art and his wild, radical, “progressive” idealism can be difficult to disentangle. Artists can be agents of good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking.

I wonder what Shostakovich would have made of MacDiarmid’s shenanigans. The Russian’s Fifth Symphony came in the wake of Stalinist purges, the gulags, quotas for punishments against “anti-Soviet” dissidents, millions disappearing, murdered and imprisoned. He could have taught MacDiarmid and the Western fellow-travellers something about utopian fervour and its consequences. He wouldn’t have needed to say a word – the sometimes plangent, sometimes overwhelming blasts of his Fifth Symphony say nothing but imply everything.

There is here a particular modern genius, born in the abyss of political nihilism and despair which produces music that can be heard and understood in different ways. This skill, this facility saved Shostakovich’s skin, but delivered a sarcastic and subtle blow against Marxist totalitarianism. They say that there was a 40-minute standing ovation for this work at its première in Leningrad in 1937. The audience seemed to realise that the music spoke of their pain, tragedy and desolation. Some wept in the slow movement, some said they could feel all the disappeared: they would have known friends and family taken away and murdered by the Communists.

In various 20th-century symphonies we can detect the foreboding of the times – the fear and destruction of war and political oppression. There are some works which, in retrospect, have been regarded as barometers of their era, including a couple performed in this year’s BBC Prom concerts. Elgar’s Second Symphony was written in 1911 and some detect in it the melancholy tread of civilisational collapse. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was written a few years earlier and is known as his “Tragic” Symphony, full of loss, culminating in literal hammer blows of fate. Furtwängler described this work as “the first nihilistic work in the history of music”. This is a limited analysis of a score which certainly has its fair share of darkness and hopelessness, but also has so much more. The final movement is like a stream of consciousness, astonishingly vast and unusual, with no set sonata pattern or design, strange recapitulations or no recapitulation at all. Like the Berlioz it is hallucinogenic and nightmarish, but it is only at the very end that the music becomes truly despairing.

Perhaps the crucial and central point in Beethoven’s legacy, flagged up in Lewis Lockwood’s exploratory new book, is his moral vision – a prophetic lesson which was to grab the imagination of composers over a century later. These more modern works, like their Beethovenian models, give the impression of having to be written – a compulsion even beyond the will of their creators. I am reminded of this every time I conduct Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, for example. He saw this piece as pure music, unlike his first three. It is also more severe and angular in its language, not immediately inviting like some of his other music. It is not conventionally beautiful and seems troubled. Written in 1935, two years before Shostakovich’s Fifth, it seems to detect the coming storm in Europe. Later the composer said of it: “I’m not at all sure if I like it myself now. All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time.”

Vaughan Williams went on to write a further five symphonies. I have also reached my number four. My first three symphonies employed programmatic elements, whether exploring poetic imagery or literary references, but my fourth, premièred by the BBC Scottish on August 3 under the work’s dedicatee Donald Runnicles, is essentially abstract. I was interested in the interplay of different types of material, following upon a fascination with music as ritual that has stretched from Monteverdi through to Boulez and Birtwistle. There are four distinct archetypes in the symphony which can be viewed as rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy. These four ideas are juxtaposed in quick succession from the outset, over the first five minutes or so. As the work progresses these are sometimes individually developed in an organic way; at times they comingle, and at others they are opposed and argumentative in a dialectic manner.

The work as a whole is also a homage to Robert Carver, the most important Scottish composer of the high Renaissance, whose intricate multi-part choral music I’ve loved since performing it as a student. There are allusions to his ten-voice Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium embedded into the work, and at a number of points it emerges across the centuries in a more discernible form. The polyphony is muted and muffled, literally in the distance, as it is played delicately by the back desks of the violas, cellos and double basses.

The symphonic tradition, and Beethoven’s monumental impact on it, is an imposing legacy which looms like a giant ghost over the shoulder of any living composer foolhardy enough to consider adding to it. Some turn away in terror and even disdain, preferring to carve out a rejectionary stance. It might be the safer option. Others can’t help themselves. Perhaps not fully knowing what writing a symphony “means” any more, some of us are drawn towards it like moths flapping around a candle flame. We might get burned. I feel a fifth coming on. Dah-dah-dah-dum.


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