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.


Music and the Quest to Rediscover the Sacred

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in July 2016.

There are certain words associated in the public mind with modernism in the arts and modernism in music in particular. Modern music can sound wild and even savage. Like much  else in the modern arts, contemporary music can open a door to the dark side of human nature and our thoughts, our fears and our experiences. Yet it is modern music that sparkles and bedazzles as generations of composers fell in love with new bright instrumental colours and experimental orchestrational vividness. And in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred. From Elgar to Messiaen, from Stravinsky to Schnittke, from Schoenberg to Jonathan Harvey, one constantly hears talk of transcendence, mystery and vision.

Visionary mysticism is much in vogue in discussion about the arts these days. “Spirituality” is held to be a positive factor by many, especially among the non-religious, or those who pride themselves on their non-conventional unorthodoxy in religious matters. Music can be described as the most spiritual of the arts by those who proclaim their atheism and agnosticism. In an age of crystals, vapours and fashionable New Age chic, the word spirituality can be used by many, covering everything from yoga and meditation to dabbling in religious exotica.

For example, William Blake’s visionary mysticism has become popular in our own time. Its private mythology, its narcissistic religion and its gesture politics chime with the mishmash of sexual libertarianism and virtue-signalling at the heart of contemporary liberal culture. It presaged our New Age, and his work is greatly admired and has genuine popular appeal. Jung described him as having “compiled a lot of half or undigested knowledge in his fantasies”. In the face of his unassailable popularity in our own times it might be this very flaw which has alerted the wariness of others. It is worth exploring the scepticism that exists about him and his influence, among perhaps more clearheaded and analytical artists, going right back to G.K. Chesterton in 1910 and T.S. Eliot in 1921.

Chesterton regarded Blake as a mystic, but in his book William Blake, he gives an account of why he thinks mystics go off-base, as he would put it, especially mystics of the modern world who deliberately seek to put clear blue water between themselves and any traditional experience of visionary mysticism springing from Judeo-Christianity. Chesterton suggests that it is this rudderlessness that lacks some of the fundamental values of genuine mysticism, as he would see it. Because Blake trusted and followed no tradition he invented his own unseen world, leading in timeless gnostic fashion to obscurity and mystification. Blake’s mysteriousness, in the negative sense, prompted Chesterton to define a true hallmark of visionary mysticism – that it illuminates rather than obscures:

A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague – a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic: and Blake did . . . often fail in this way.

To widen the context, poets have very interesting things to say on these and related matters, and their wider implications. Seamus Heaney has referred to “the big lightening, the emptying out” of our religious language, and David Jones saw the English language littered with dying signs and symbols, especially those associated with our Judaeo-Christian past. Michael Symmons Roberts says that “the resultant impoverishment hasn’t just affected poets, but readers too, and this has been borne out by the now common struggles of English teachers in schools and universities to provide the biblical and historical literacy necessary to make sense of Milton, Donne, Herbert, Eliot, etc.” This, one might say, was the unintended or perhaps intended result of what might be described as “the enlightenment project”, which was meant to see off religion. Except that hasn’t happened. Many sociologists now claim that it is secularism that is in retreat, and a recent report placed the number of atheists worldwide at three per cent and falling – a powerful and well-heeled three per cent though, almost completely based in the rich West, wielding great clout over matters political, economic and cultural.

In his book of essays, Post-Secular Philosophy, Phillip Blond suggests that “secular minds are only now beginning to perceive that all is not as it should be, that what was promised to them – self-liberation through the limitation of the world to human faculties – might after all be a form of self-mutilation.” To which Michael Symmons Roberts adds,

The romantic myth of the uncommitted artist (free-spirited and unshackled from the burdens of political, religious or personal commitment) was always an empty one. To be alive in the world is to have beliefs and commitments, and these extend at some level to politics and theology. But this myth has left us with a terror of the imagination in thrall to a belief. Surely this could limit the scope of the work, may even reduce it to a thin preconceived outworking of doctrine or argument? But this fear was always unfounded. The counter examples are obvious, including great 20th-century innovators like Eliot, Jones, Auden, Moore, Berryman, Bunting. And there’s an equivalent list in the other arts too (music’s list would include Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Poulenc, Gubaidulina, Schnittke). The relationship between creative freedom and religious belief is far from limiting. Most of these writers and composers would argue on the contrary that their religious faith was an imaginative liberation.

Some, like David Jones, have said that this withering of religious faith and the resulting negative reduction of imaginative liberation represents a parching of our culture – a parching of truth and meaning, a drying up of historical associations and resonances leading to an inability for our culture to hold up “valid signs” (as Jones put it). The opposite of Jones’s “valid signs” would have to be invalid signs, and there is evidence that T.S. Eliot saw manifestations of these in what he saw as the faulty, incoherent vision of Blake and his gnostic, romanticised heritage and legacy. Eliot disapproved of Blake’s rejection of tradition. He thought that his obsession with inventing a religious worldview, self-consciously at odds with Judaeo-Christian roots, was a distraction from the vocation of writing original poetry. Eliot saw a strong framework as the means of avoiding the parching of the poetic flow, and as a structural conduit to a fuller and truer vision:

. . . about Blake’s supernatural territories . . . we cannot help commenting on a certain meanness of culture. They illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside of the Latin traditions . . . and they are not essential to Blake’s inspiration.

Blake was endowed with a capacity for considerable understanding of human nature, with a remarkable and original sense of language and the music of language, and a gift of hallucinated vision. Had these been controlled by a respect for impersonal reason, for common sense, for the objectivity of science, it would have been better for him. What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet. Confusion of thought, emotion, and vision is what we find in such a work as Also Sprach Zarathustra. The concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius. The fault is perhaps not with Blake himself, but with the environment which failed to provide what such a poet needed.

And it is to this question of environment that we should now turn, because the very things disparaged by Eliot are the very things held in highest regard by our own culture. And the very framework of theology and tradition held to be an essential grounding for Eliot are the very focus of disdain and rejection in our contemporary prejudices.

The musicologist, conductor and professor of music at Glasgow University John Butt wrote: “Elgar’s Catholic upbringing tends to be underplayed in most writings on the composer, but it may nevertheless be one of the most significant sources of his compositional character.”

Since the composition of The Dream of Gerontius commentators have fallen over themselves in an attempt to paint Elgar’s Catholic faith as weak or insignificant. Even his biographer Jerrold Northrop Moore says this: “It is therefore perhaps inevitable that, when he produced The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of a poem by a Roman Catholic Cardinal which explores various tenets of the Catholic faith, people should jump to the conclusion that his Catholicism underlay his whole life. But his faith was never that strong.”

This anxiety on the part of some has nevertheless been explained recently by the Princeton scholar Charles Edward McGuire: “The popular negating of Elgar’s Catholicism both at his death and today serves an obvious end: it makes Elgar’s music safer, more palatable for a British audience. In essence, it creates an avatar for Elgar as the ‘essentially English composer’ beyond the reach of any of the complicating factors of partisan religion.”

In a Radio 3 Essay on “Elgar and Religion” the pianist Stephen Hough said: “When he decided in 1899 to set Cardinal Newman’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music, he was taking an enormous risk. It was his first major commission, and his career was all set to take off. So to choose this deeply Catholic text in a country where ‘Papists’ were a suspicious, despised, and even ridiculed minority was to court disaster. Yet he went ahead, with total disregard for any possible censure or disfavour. So it’s hard to believe that the words had no religious meaning for him at the time, especially as he was aware that his faith was an impediment to his career.”

If it is true that The Dream of Gerontius is the composer’s masterwork, and a work of extraordinary vision, then it was a vision burnished with courage, foolhardiness even, and gained singularly through a particularly defined religious tradition and sensibility. This was the kind of framework regarded as vital and necessary by T.S. Eliot when he outlined the conditions required for outstanding visionary art and which had so eluded, or had been so self-consciously rejected by, as he would no doubt put it, lesser seers such as Blake and his romantic self-delusionists.

Elgar was to suffer for his courageous vision as performances of The Dream were banned as “inappropriate” in Gloucester Cathedral for a decade after the premiere, and performances in places like Hereford and Worcester were only permitted with large sections bowdlerised, with much of the objectionable Catholic dimension removed. It is thought by some that the vehemence of the reaction impacted greatly on the composer, even to the extent of him gradually losing his faith over the rest of his life. He may also have been seduced by the fame and praise which came his way in the wake of his more secular instrumental works which turned him into a national treasure. Indeed, he was to become Britain’s official composer, being made a baronet, awarded the Order of Merit and appointed as Master of the King’s Music. Proclaimed as “quintessentially English” he became a totem of nationalism. Enjoying all that, why go back to the depredations of Catholic martyrdom?

But it was from this religion of martyrs and saints that Elgar drew his most unfettered freedom to visualise a work of greatness. The etymology of the word religio is interesting as it implies a kind of binding. David Jones wrote: “The same root is in ‘ligament’, a binding which supports an organ and assures that organ its freedom of use as part of a body. And it is in this sense that I here use the word ‘religious’. It refers to a binding, a securing. Like the ligament, it secures a freedom to function. The binding makes possible the freedom. Cut the ligament and there is atrophy — corpse rather than corpus. If this is true, then the word religion makes no sense unless we presuppose a freedom of some sort.” This implies that supreme visionariness requires religion and theology. Now there is an interesting and challenging idea! How would that go down in today’s fashionable citadels of metropolitan bien pensant culture? Michael Symmons Roberts explains: “There’s a popular view, influenced by Romanticism, that only the pure, unfettered imagination can produce the great work. Poets should not be religious, or overtly political, or committed to anything much outside the poetry. Poets should be freewheeling, free-thinking free spirits. As if that meant anything.” David Jones’s implication is that the idea of the free-spirited artist is a myth and a delusion. The binding makes possible the freedom and opens the eyes to the vision.

Major modernist composers of the last 100 years were, in different ways, profoundly religious men and women. Stravinsky was as conservative in his religion as he was revolutionary in his musical imagination, with a deep love of his Orthodox roots as well as the Catholicism he encountered in the West. He set the psalms, he set the Mass; he was a man of faith.

Schoenberg, that other great polar figure of early 20th-century modernism, was a mystic who reconverted to Judaism after he left Germany in the 1930s. His later work is infused with Jewish culture and theology, and he pondered deeply on the spiritual connections between music and silence. It is no surprise that John Cage chose to study with him. Cage found his own route to the sacred through the ideas, and indeed the religions, of the Far East. It is intriguing that his famous, or indeed notorious 4’33” (that is four minutes, 33 seconds of silence), a profound provocation to our listening culture and sensibilities or lack of them, was originally entitled Silent Prayer.

The great French innovator and individualist Olivier Messiaen was famously Catholic, and every note of his unique contribution to music was shaped by a deep religious conviction and liturgical practice. There are two composers in history who are described as theologians. One is J.S. Bach, the other is Olivier Messiaen. He was a powerful influence on Boulez and Stockhausen and therefore can be counted as one of the most impactful composers of modern times. His Catholicism, far from being an impediment to this, was the major, indeed singular factor behind it.

He wrote one opera – St Francis of Assisi – but the most important French Catholic opera of the 20th century was written by Francis Poulenc. His Dialogue des Carmélites appeared in 1956. No other opera combines 20th-century musical sensibilities with such profound theological themes on Catholic mysticism, martyrdom, and redemption. There is no comfortable, airy-fairy, pick’n’mix spirituality here. It is based on a true story from the beginnings of modern revolutionary violence – of 16 Carmelite nuns guillotined in the terror of the French Revolution. It was an act of defiance on the part of the composer against the secular terror of that time and the secular orthodoxies of the modern world. For a culture that was meant to have put these old things behind it, Dialogue des Carmélites is probably the most successful modern opera of the last 60 years. It is not just another avenue on the search for the sacred but a bold rebuttal of secular arrogances and certainties, and a beautiful proclamation of Catholic truths.

Here traditional Catholicism becomes intellectually compatible with all that was modern and progressive in recent French culture. Poulenc’s opera is at once a Catholic story of heroism and faith and yet speaks to the modern world, an opera for postwar Europe.

The list of composers in recent times radiating a high degree of religious resonance is substantial, covering a whole generation of post-Shostakovich modernists from behind the old Iron Curtain – Gorecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, Kancheli from Georgia, Silvestrov from Ukraine, and Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and Ustvolskaya, all from Russia – again, courageous figures who stood out and against the prevailing dead-hand orthodoxy of the day, state atheism. And, in this country, after Benjamin Britten have come Jonathan Harvey, John Tavener and many others. Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modernity’s mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief and practice at work in composers’ minds.

But with these “spats” between the outlooks of Eliot and Blake, between Chesterton and the New Age, between orthodoxy and majoritarian scepticism, are we looking at different types of transcendence? The search for spirituality seems ubiquitous these days. But in what sense can we call a spirituality made in our own image, to suit our own comforts, to fit our own schedules and agendas, transcendent of anything? Sometimes transcendence has to be fought for, as when Messiaen’s music encounters the baffled sneers of its secular, super-rationalist modernist audience and critics, who are eventually won round and see the full glory of the composer’s genius, and realise the music is the way it is, precisely because of its theology. As when Elgar composes a huge work that he knows will meet with immediate hostility and animosity. But in this work he seems to be preparing for the inevitable; he had to face up to an unavoidable spiritual challenge which for him involved rejection and ridicule. The cleansing flames of public disapprobation, he would no doubt maintain, was the navigation of a path towards the cleansing flames of Purgatory itself, the very subject of the Newman poem he set.

When people say they are baffled by what The Dream of Gerontius is all about but are profoundly moved by the music, the transcendence, the revelation, and the understanding has already begun in their souls.

The search for the sacred seems as strong today in music as it ever was. Perhaps that search now, as it was with The Dream of Gerontius, as it was with the theological rootedness of Messiaen’s masterworks, as it is in Poulenc’s glorious celebration of the mercy, sacrifice, and redemption at the heart of Catholic teaching, as it is for any artist who stands out and against the transient fashions and banalities of the cultural bien pensant, is the bravest, most radical and counter-cultural vision a creative person can have, in the attempt to re-sacralise the world around us.


Recovering the Sacred in Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This chapter from Robert R. Reilly’s remarkable book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Ignatius Press.

The attempted suicide of Western classical music has failed. The patient is recovering, no thanks to the efforts of music’s Dr. Kevorkian, Arnold Schoenberg, whose cure, the imposition of a totalitarian atonality, was worse than the disease – the supposed exhaustion of the tonal resources of music. Schoenberg’s vaunted mission to “emancipate dissonance” by denying that tonality exists in Nature led to the successive losses of tonality, melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand or ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound. Not surprisingly, these systems, including Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of mandatory atonality, broke down. The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition.

Sound familiar? All the symptoms of the 20th century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as a “loss of reality.” By the 1950s Schoeberg’s doctrines were so entrenched in the academy, the concert hall, and the awards system, that any composer who chose to write tonal music was consigned to oblivion by the musical establishment. One such composer, Robert Muczynski, referred to this period as the “long-term tyranny which has brought contemporary music to its current state of constipation and paralysis.”

The tyranny is now gone and tonality is back. But the restoration of reality has not taken place all at once. What began emerging from under the rubble of 12-tone music back in the 1960s was minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. The traumatized patient slowly comes out of a coma, only gradually recovering motor skills, coordination, movement, and coherent speech. The musical movement known as minimalism is the sometimes painfully slow rediscovery of the basic vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. During this convalescence, such minimalists as American composer John Adams have spoken of the crisis through which they passed in explicitly spiritual terms. He said, “I learned in college that tonality died, somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died. And, I believed it.” His recovery involved a shock: “When you make a dogmatic decision like that early in your life, it takes some kind of powerful experience to undo it.” That experience, for Adams and others, has proven to be a spiritual, and sometimes religious, one. In fact, the early excitement over minimalism has been eclipsed by the attention now being paid to the new spirituality in music, sometimes referred to as “mystical minimalism.”

If you have heard of the “new spirituality” in music, it is most likely on account of one of these three somewhat unlikely composers who have met with astonishing success over the past several decades: the late Henryk Górecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, and the late John Tavener from England. Though their styles are very unlike, they do share some striking similarities: they, like John Adams, all once composed under the spell of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and were considered in the avant-garde; all subsequently renounced it (as Pärt said, “The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling”); and all are, or were, devout Christians, two of them having converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, the other having adhered to his Catholic faith throughout his life.

Anyone who has tracked the self-destruction of music over the past half century has to be astonished at the outpouring of such explicitly religious music and at its enormously popular reception. Can the recovery of music be, at least partially, a product of faith, in fact of Christian faith? A short time ago, such a question would have produced snickers in the concert hall, howls in the academy, and guffaws among the critics. In fact, it still might. In a New York Times review, a critic condescended to call the works of the three composers nothing but “Feel-Good Mysticism.” However, the possibility gains some plausibility when one looks back at the source of the problem in Schoenberg himself and to a mysterious episode that brought what he thought would be his greatest achievement to a creative halt.

Though one of the greatest compositional talents of the 20th century, Schoenberg fell silent before he could finish the opera Moses und Aron. It is not as if he ran out of time. The first two acts were finished in the early 1930s. Before he died in 1951 at the age of 76, he had close to 20 years to write the third and final act. He tried four different times to no avail. His failure is particularly ironic because Schoenberg saw himself as the musical Moses of the 20th century. Moses und Aron was to be the tablets on which he wrote the new commandments of music. He was saving music with his new system of serialism. But, like the Moses he portrays at the end of the second act, he despaired of ever being able to explain his salvific mission to his people. As Moses falls to the ground, he exclaims: “O word, thou word that I lack.”

Schoenberg wandered in and out of his Jewish faith, with a side trip through Lutheranism. He saw no need to be scripturally faithful in his libretto for the opera, so it is all the more curious that he was stymied by what he called “some almost incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible.” More specifically, he said, “It is difficult to get over the divergence between ‘and thou shalt smite the rock’ and ‘speak ye unto the rock.’ …It does go on haunting me.” Schoenberg was troubled by the question: Why was Moses, when leading the Jews through the Sinai, punished for striking the rock a second time? The first time Moses struck the rock, water poured forth. The second time, God said to Moses, “Speak to the rock.” But Moses impetuously struck it instead. For that, he was banned from ever entering the Promised Land. Why? That unanswered question left Schoenberg with an unfinished opera.

As it turned out, Schoenberg was not the Moses of music. He led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert. However, the silence into which Schoenberg fell before the end of Moses und Aron has now been filled. And the music filling it is written by Christian composers who have found the answer to the question that so tortured him. The answer is in the New Testament. The rock could not be struck a second time because, as St. Paul tells us, “The rock was Christ,” and Christ can be struck down only once, “once and for all,” a sole act sufficient for the salvation of mankind.

Pärt completely believes, and Górecki and Tavener believed, in the salvific act of Christ, centered their lives upon it, and expressed it in their music. They also shared a preliminary disposition necessary for the reception of this belief. During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, “Let’s be quiet.” Perhaps that is the most urgent message of all three composers, “Be quiet.” Or perhaps more biblically, “Be still.” This stillness is not the empty silence at the end of the second act of Moses und Aron. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: “And know that I am God.”

This profound sense of silence permeates the works of the three composers. Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it, conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless is employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence.

Another shared feature of the music of these composers is its sense of stasis. Every critic has noted this feature and some complain about it: “Nothing happens!” Pärt, Górecki, and Tavener do not employ the traditional Western means of musical development. They have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose. Their purpose is contemplation, specifically the contemplation of religious truths. Their music is hieratic. As such, it aims for the intersection of time and timelessness, at which point the transcendent becomes perceptible. As Pärt states, “That is my goal. Time and timelessness are connected.” This sense of stasis is conveyed through the use of silence; consistently slow tempos (that make any temporary quickening particularly dramatic); the use of repetition and through the intensification this repetition implies; and a simplicity of means that includes medieval plainsong and organum. (As Pärt says, “It is enough when a single note is beautifully played.”)

Repetition can be used as an adornment or a means of meditation, as it was in medieval and Renaissance music. Some of the hymns to Mary that endlessly repeat her name are a form of musical caress. They create a musical cradle in which to hold her name. With these composers, repetition of musical phrases, words, or both is also used as a means of recovery. The repeated invocation is all the more insistent when there is a sense of loss and devastation. In his Beatus Vir, Górecki cries out unconsolingly, almost angrily: “Domine!” Where is God in the midst of the horror? The almost grating insistence with which “Domine” is repeated moves from a sense of despair to one of assertion and then finally to consolation and release. The repetition is exorcistic.

Because of the predominance of these characteristics in the work of Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener, and their hearkening back to earlier periods of music, they are accused of being reactionary, if not archaic. However their work is not a form of cultural nostalgia. Their change in technique is not an attempt at a new or an old means of expression. Their technique changed because they have something profound to express. As Thomas Merton once remarked, the perfection of 12th-century Cistercian architecture was reached not because the Cestercians were looking for new techniques, but because they were looking for God. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are looking for God, and they have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit.

Aside from these shared traits, Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are quite unlike in the sounds they create. Curiously, Pärt, the Russian Orthodox Estonian composer, uses Western Latin idioms from the Roman Catholic Church, while Western English composer, Tavener, uses the exotic Russian Orthodox idioms hailing from Byzantium. Górecki, the Pole, stayed right where he was, in the middle, using earlier modes of Western liturgical music but staying fairly mainstream. He sounds the least exotic of the three.

Górecki (19332010) was also the toughest of the three composers and the most modern in his musical vocabulary, though he was considered a conservative reactionary by his erstwhile colleagues in the European avant-garde. (He said that leading modernist Pierre Boulez was “unbelievably angry” about his music.) Though at times harsh for expressive purposes, Górecki’s music is never hysterical, like so much modern music that reflects the horror of the 20th century without the perspective of faith. He could look at suffering unblinkingly because Christianity does not reject or deny suffering but subsumes it under the Cross. At the heart of the most grief-stricken moments of his work, there is a confidence that can come only from deep belief. When asked where he got his courage to resist Communist pressure, Górecki said, “God gave me a backbone – it’s twisted now, but still sturdy. …How good a Catholic I am I do not know; God will judge that, and I will find out after I die. But faith for me is everything. If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.”

Górecki did not shrink from facing the nightmare through which his country and the 20th century have gone. Poland was trampled by both the destructive ideologies of our time, Nazism and Communism. The moving consolation his works offer comes after real and harrowing grief. (Can someone really refer to this as “Feel-Good Mysticism?”) One can recover from a loss only if one grieves over it, and, yes, expresses anger over it as well. The anger is heard in Beatus Vir, as mentioned above. This piece is dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, who commissioned it when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Kraków. One of the most extraordinary expressions of grief is Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is a huge, arching, heart-breaking lament, written in 1976. Its three texts are on the theme of grieving motherhood. The first movement, based on Mary’s lament at the Cross, is a slow-moving extended canon for strings that unfolds in a moving, impassioned crescendo over the course of nearly half an hour. The central text is a prayer to Mary inscribed by an eighteen-year-old girl on the wall of her cell in the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland, September 1944. It includes the admonition: “No, Mother, do not weep.” Though Górecki drew on Polish folk song, the appeal of this deeply affecting musical requiem can be felt by anyone for whom these themes resonate. This one work gathers up the whole tragedy of Poland in the 20th century and places it before Mary, standing at the Cross.

Another piece written with the same basic architectural structure as the first part of Symphony No. 3 is Miserere. Górecki wrote it as a protest over the bludgeoning of members of Solidarity by the militia in 1981, shortly before the declaration of martial law. But, in this work, unlike in Beatus Vir, one cannot hear the protest. Its text is: “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis.” The Lord’s name is at first gently, then with growing strength, and finally expectantly invoked for nearly half an hour. The words “Miserere nobis” are not heard until the final three minutes. Rather than a crescendo, they are presented, to moving effect, diminuendo. Mercy arrives with tender gentleness. Miserere is a beautiful work of affirmation and consolation.

Though writing in a thoroughly accessible idiom, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is not an “easy listen.” His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three, but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time. Even more than the other two, his work is steeped in silence. When he abandoned the modernism of his earlier work, he retreated to a Russian Orthodox monastery for several years of silence. When he emerged, he began writing music of extraordinary purity and simplicity, using medieval and Renaissance techniques. Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

The closer to the source of silence out of which it comes, the closer his music is to being frightening ­– or awesome, in the original sense of the word – and heart-breakingly beautiful. Pärt appropriately chose the Gospel of John, the most metaphysical of the Gospels, for the text of his Passio. “In the beginning,” begins St. John. This feel for ontology, for creation close to its source in the Creator, permeates Pärt’s music. It can be heard in instrumental works such as Fratres and Tabula rasa, or in striking choral compositions, such as the exquisite Stabat Mater and the Miserere.

Pärt’s Stabat Mater from 1985 brings us back to the piercing purity of the 13th-century text and to the liturgical roots of the work. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this 24-minute opus, employing medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Pärt’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence – in this case, the silence at the foot of the Cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the Cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism, but a living testament to faith. It is music to listen to on your knees. (A sublime performance is available with the Hilliard Ensemble on a CD entitled Arbos, ECM 1325/831959).

More of Pärt’s mesmerizing musical asceticism comes from Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907182) with its release of De Profundis, Magnificat, and a number of other works covering a span of nearly 20 years (19771996). If you are living life in the fast lane, listening to Pärt will be like hitting a brick wall. Everything suddenly stops and becomes very simple. Anyone puzzled by the starkness and seeming severity of his work should know that for Pärt the Word is the priceless jewel that his music sets. It is to the jewel he is calling attention, not its setting, and the necessary precondition for hearing the Word is silence.

This is the reason for Pärt’s profound respect for silence and its fullness as the Word emerges from it. Pärt’s is music for meditation; it is the sound of prayer. Some might call this a fetish for archaic; others, a witness to perdurability of true faith. The choral works on this CD may not be the ideal introduction to Pärt (for that go to ECM’s Tabula rasa or Arbos CDs), but those who know his music will want to have these beautiful performances by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.

There are two common responses to Pärt’s Passio: (1) It is boring, ersatz medieval and Renaissance music; why is someone going back to the triad in this day and age? (2) It is a profoundly moving setting of the Passion according to the Gospel of John. Certainly Passio is very different from Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which it is otherwise most like. In Stabat Mater, the instrumental music, like a chorus, reacts to the words, dramatizes them and provides a purgation. Pärt foregoes this approach in Passio, which is dinstinctly not dramatic and far more austere. The austerity does not translate into barrenness, but into an intense expression of purity. There is very little in the way of specific dramatic response to this most dramatic Latin text as it literally moves to the crux of Christianity. For example, when the mob in the garden answers Christ’s question, “Whom seek ye?” The chorus does not shout his name, but sings it in a most gentle, reverential way. Passio clearly is meant as a meditation on the Passion. As such, the words carry more weight. Indeed, one must read this Passion in order to listen to it. It was fashionable not long ago to write vocal music that treated syllables of words independently, oblivious to their meaning. Now the word has returned – or one should say, the Word. With his music, Pärt intends to direct us through the words to the Word. What sustains a work like this? What impels a man like Pärt to write it? Clearly, the answer is faith, for there is no ego in this work. The temptation to focus on the music alone does not present itself. Indeed, if the words mean nothing to you, so will the music.

However, within the austere means that Pärt has chosen, there are many very moving moments. A simply held note on veritate (truth) can be electrifying within the spare musical context, as can also Christ’s exclamation: Sitio (I thirst). In the ECM recording of Passio that Pärt authorized, he seems to have anticipated response (1) above, and did not provide any indexing for the curious to search for “high points;” you will either give up in the beginning or listen to and experience the full 70 minutes. It’s all or nothing. Sort of like religion. Newcomers to Pärt are advised to begin their explorations with earlier releases of his music: first try Tabula rasa, then move on to Arbos and the Miserere, and finally come to Passio. It is worth the journey.

John Tavener (19442013) once wrote in the spirit of Schoenberg “some severely serial pieces.” Later he eschewed such convolutedness and said, “Complexity is the language of evil.” His simplicity, though, has an almost theatrical aspect to it. It is more flamboyant, almost voluptuous compared to Pärt, whom Tavener called “the only composer friend” he had. Because of his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and its oriental musical idioms, his music sounds the most exotic and unfamiliar of the three. But his purpose is as clear. “In everything I do,” he stated, “I aspire to the sacred. …Music is a form of prayer, a mystery.” He wished to express “the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty.” His goal was to recover “one simple memory” from which all art derives: “The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” As he said elsewhere, “The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else; that which was once perceived ‘as in a glass, darkly’ we shall see ‘face to face.’”

Tavener’s music also often begins at the very edge of audibility, rising reverentially from the silence out of which it flows. He called his compositions musical icons. Like icons, they are instilled with a sense of sacred mystery, inner stillness, and timelessness. He often employed the unfamiliar cadences of Orthodox chant with its melismatic arabesques, floating above long drones. Though ethereal, his music conveys a sensuousness absent in Górecki and Pärt. His orchestral writing, even when confined to strings only, as in The Protecting Veil, can be very rich. He dramatically portrays visionary moments of epiphany with climaxes that are physical in their impact. The titles of his compositions convey the range of subject matter: The Last Sleep of the Virgin; The Repentant Thief; Ikon of Light; “We Shall See Him as He Is”; Mary of Egypt; Canticle of the Mother of God; Resurrection; and The Protecting Veil, which commemorates the Virgin’s appearance in early 10th-century Constantinople, where, during a Saracen invasion, she drew her protecting veil over the Christians. This latter piece met with enormous success in England.

Devotion shines forth in Tavener’s compositions such as Thunder Entered Her, whose short text by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306373) begins, “Thunder entered her / And made no sound.” Tavener’s The Lament of the Mother of God is a striking piece. The ritualized grief of this haunting work is expressed by a soprano voice, representing Mary, and an unaccompanied choir. The beautiful soprano voice floats above wordless drone of the chorus and ascends step-wise over the span of an octave with the beginning of each stanza, which each time repeats the opening line: “Woe is me, my child.” The text of the second stanza reads, “I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held him when he was a little child. But alas there is none to give him to me.” This is a very affecting work ­– the Pietà in sound.

Tavener was able to have his Funeral Canticle performed at his father’s funeral. This 24-minute piece appears with four shorter works on a Tavener Harmonia Mundi release, entitled Eternity’s Sunrise, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music and various soloists, led by director Paul Goodwin. Tavener had complete confidence in beauty and simplicity. The melismatic vocal lines in Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of a short poem by William Blake, and Song of the Angel, in which the soprano sings only one word, “Alleluia,” are soaringly beautiful. They are sung seraphically by soprano Patricia Rozari. Eternity’s Sunrise, written to mark the Academy’s 25th anniversary, was Tavener’s first work for period instruments, but it does not have a period sound. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle employs a gently rocking motion in the music that slowly ascends and descends the scale, as if it were cradling one to sleep. It is touching but restrained; it does not call attention to itself. This is ceremonial music, meditative and mesmeric. The text from the Orthodox funeral service conveys the real substance: man’s frailty, the hope for salvation, and God’s surpassing goodness. As in almost all of Tavener’s works, the constant refrain is “Alleluia.”

Tavener’s Akathist of Thanksgiving for chorus and orchestra was composed for the celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. An akathist is a hymn of thanksgiving or supplication used on special occasions. The text of Tavener’s work was written in the late 1940s by Archpriest Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a Siberian prison camp. His inspiration came from the dying words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for everything.” So, shortly before his own death, this priest, surrounded by misery and death, wrote, “I have often seen your glory / Reflected on faces of the dead! / With what unearthly beauty and with what joy they shone, / How spiritual, their features immaterial, / It was a triumph of gladness achieved, of peace; / In silence they called to you. / At the hour of my end illumine my soul also, As it cries: Alleluia, alleluia.”

It is undoubtedly surprising to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling, spiritual compositions should come not only from Scripture and liturgy, but from the 20th century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. The late Pope John Paul II was not surprised. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he said of the multitude of martyr’s in the 20th century, “They have completed in their death as martyrs the redemptive sufferings of Christ and, at the same time, they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” Twentieth-century martyrdom as the foundation of a new civilization? Can this be so, and, if so, how would such a civilization express itself? Part of the answer is in the music of these three composers. Thiers is the music of this new civilization. Like the martyrs from whom they have drawn their inspiration, they have gone against the prevailing grain of the 20th century for the sake of a greater love.

“O word, thou word that I lack,” cried Schoenberg’s Moses before falling to his knees silent. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg’s Moses lacked, and they have sought new expressive means to communicate it. The new expressive means have turned out to be the old ones, lost for a period of time in the desert, but now rediscovered by these three who know that “the rock was Christ.”

That something like this could emerge from under the rubble of modernity is moving testimony to the human spirit and its enduring thirst for the eternal. Is this too large a claim to make for these three composers? Perhaps. But be still, and listen.


The Music of the Spheres, or The Metaphysics of Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who first published it in their Fall 2001 issue of Intercollegiate Review.


[In] sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit and this is seen at its most sublime in music.

—Max Picard

Despite the popular Romantic conception of creative artists as inspired madmen, composers are not idiots savants, distilling their musical inspiration from the ether. Rather, in their creative work they respond and give voice to certain metaphysical visions. Most composers speak explicitly in philosophical terms about the nature of the reality that they try to reflect. When the forms of musical expression change radically, it is always because the underlying metaphysical grasp of reality has changed as well. Music is, in a way, the sound of metaphysics, or metaphysics in sound.

Music in the Western world was shaped by a shared conception of reality so profound that it endured for some twenty-five hundred years. As a result, the means of music remained essentially the same – at least to the extent that what was called music could always have been recognized as such by its forbearers, as much as they might have disapproved of its specific style. But by the early twentieth century, this was no longer true. Music was re-conceptualized so completely that it could no longer be experienced as music, i.e. with melody, harmony, and rhythm. This catastrophic rupture, expressed especially in the works of Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, is often celebrated as just another change in the techniques of music, a further point along the parade of progress in the arts. It was, however, a reflection of a deeper metaphysical divide that severed the composer from any meaningful contact with external reality. As a result, musical art was reduced to the arbitrary manipulation of fragments of sound.

Here, I will sketch of the philosophical presuppositions that undergirded the Western conception of music for most of its existence and then examine the character of the change music underwent in the twentieth century. I will conclude with a reflection on the recovery of music in our own time and the reasons for it, as exemplified in the works of two contemporary composers, the Dane Vagn Holmboe and the American John Adams.


According to tradition, the harmonic structure of music was discovered by Pythagoras about the fifth century BC. Pythagoras experimented with a stretched piece of cord. When plucked, the cord sounded a certain note. When halved in length and plucked again, the cord sounded a higher note completely consonant with the first. In fact, it was the same note at a higher pitch. Pythagoras had discovered the ratio, 2:1, of the octave. Further experiments, plucking the string two-thirds of its original length produced a perfect fifth in the ratio of 3:2. When a three-quarters length of cord was plucked, a perfect fourth was sounded in the ratio of 4:3, and so forth. These sounds were all consonant and extremely pleasing to the ear. The significance that Pythagoras attributed to this discovery cannot be overestimated. Pythagoras thought that number was the key to the universe. When he found that harmonic music is expressed in exact numerical ratios of whole numbers, he concluded that music was the ordering principle of the world. The fact that music was denominated in exact numerical ratios demonstrated to him the intelligibility of reality and the existence of a reasoning intelligence behind it.

Pythagoras wondered about the relationship of these ratios to the larger world. (The Greek word for ratio is logos, which also means reason or word.) He considered that the harmonious sounds that men make, either with their instruments or in their singing, were an approximation of a larger harmony that existed in the universe, also expressed by numbers, which was “the music of the spheres.” As Aristotle explained in the Metaphysics, the Pythagoreans “supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.” This was meant literally. The heavenly spheres and their rotations through the sky produced tones at various levels, and in concert, these tones made a harmonious sound that man’s music, at its best, could approximate. Music was number made audible. Music was man’s participation in the harmony of the universe.

This discovery was fraught with ethical significance. By participating in heavenly harmony, music could induce spiritual harmony in the soul. Following Pythagoras, Plato taught that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.” In the Republic, Plato showed the political import of music’s power by invoking Damon of Athens as his musical authority. Damon said that he would rather control the modes of music in a city than its laws, because the modes of music have a more decisive effect on the formation of the character of citizens. The ancient Greeks were also wary of music’s power because they understood that, just as there was harmony, there was disharmony. Musical discord could distort the spirit, just as musical concord could properly dispose it.

This idea of “the music of the spheres” runs through the history of Western civilization with an extraordinary consistency, even up to the twentieth century. At first it was meant literally, later poetically. Either way, music was seen more as a discovery than a creation, because it relied on pre-existing principles of order in nature for its operation. It is instructive to look briefly at the reiteration of this teaching in the writings of several major thinkers to appreciate its enduring significance as well as the radical nature of the challenge to it in the twentieth century.

In the first century BC, Cicero spelled out Plato’s teaching in the last chapter of his De Republica. In “Scipio’s Dream,” Cicero has Scipio Africanus asking the question, “What is that great and pleasing sound?” The answer comes, “That is the concord of tones separated by unequal but nevertheless carefully proportional intervals, caused by the rapid motion of the spheres themselves…. Skilled men imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in singing have gained for themselves a return to this region, as have those who have cultivated their exceptional abilities to search for divine truths.” Cicero claims that music can return man to a paradise lost. It is a form of communion with divine truth.

In the late second century AD, St. Clement of Alexandria baptized the classical Greek and Roman understanding of music in his Exhortation to the Greeks. The transcendent God of Christianity gave new and somewhat different meanings to the “music of the spheres.” Using Old Testament imagery from the Psalms, St. Clement said that there is a “New Song,” far superior to the Orphic myths of the pagans. The “New Song” is Christ, the Logos Himself: “it is this [New Song] that composed the entire creation into melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the whole universe may be in harmony with it.” It is Christ who “arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instrument he makes music to God and sings to [the accompaniment of] the human instrument.” By appropriating the classical view, St. Clement was able to show that music participated in the divine by praising God and partaking in the harmonious order of which He was the composer. But music’s end or goal was now higher, because Christ is higher than the created cosmos. Cicero had spoken of the divine region to which music is supposed to transport man. That region was literally within the heavens. With Christianity, the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new purpose of music is to make the transcendent perceptible in the “New Song.”

The early sixth century AD had two especially distinguished Roman proponents of the classical view of music, both of whom served at various times in high offices to the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric. Cassiodorus was secretary to Theodoric. He wrote a massive work called Institutiones, which echoes Plato’s teaching on the ethical content of music, as well as Pythagoras’s on the power of number. Cassiodorus taught that “music indeed is the knowledge of apt modulation. If we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but when we sin, we are without music. The heavens and the earth and indeed all things in them which are directed by a higher power share in the discipline of music, for Pythagoras attests that this universe was founded by and can be governed by music.”

Boethius served as consul to Theodoric in AD 510. Among his writings was The Principles of Music, a book that had enormous influence through the Middle Ages and beyond. Boethius said that

music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well, for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound – that is, that which gives us pleasure – so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same principle of similarity.

It is not necessary to cite further examples after Boethius because The Principles of Music was so influential that it held sway for centuries thereafter. It was the standard music theory text at Oxford until 1856.


The hieratic role of music even survived into the twentieth century with composers like Jean Sibelius. Sibelius harkened back to St. Clement when he wrote that “the essence of man’s being is his striving after God. It [the composition of music] is brought to life by means of the logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that has significance.” But this vision was lost for most of the twentieth century because the belief on which it was based was lost.

Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. John Adams, one of the most popular American composers today, said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. If there is no God, Nature no longer serves as a reflection of its Creator. If you lose the Logos of St. Clement, you also lose the ratio (logos) of Pythagoras. Nature is stripped of its normative power. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.

The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order. So how does one organize the mess that is left once God departs? If there is no pre-existing intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it – which is the Creator – what then is music supposed to express? If external order does not exist, then music turns inward. It collapses in on itself and becomes an obsession with technique. Any ordering of things, musical or otherwise, becomes simply the whim of man’s will.

Without a “music of the spheres” to approximate, modern music, like the other arts, began to unravel. Music’s self-destruction became logically imperative once it undermined its own foundation. In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg unleashed the centrifugal forces of disintegration in music through his denial of tonality. Schoenberg contended that tonality does not exist in nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras had claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature. Schoenberg was irritated that “tonality does not serve, [but] must be served.” Rather than conform himself to reality, he preferred to command reality to conform itself to him. As he said, “I can provide rules for almost anything.” Like Pythagoras, Schoenberg believed that number was the key to the universe. Unlike Pythagoras, he believed his manipulation of number could alter that reality in a profound way. Schoenberg’s gnostic impulse is confirmed by his extraordinary obsession with numerology, which would not allow him to finish a composition until its opus number corresponded with the correct number of the calendar date.

Schoenberg proposed to erase the distinction between tonality and atonality by immersing man in atonal music until, through habituation, it became the new convention. Then discords would be heard as concords. As he wrote, “The emancipation of dissonance is at present accomplished and twelve-tone music in the near future will no longer be rejected because of ‘discords.’” Anyone who claims that, through his system, the listener shall hear dissonance as consonance is engaged in reconstituting reality.

Of his achievement, Schoenberg said, “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” In fact, he declared himself “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” This statement is terrifying in its implications when one considers what is at stake in beauty. Simone Weil wrote that “we love the beauty of the world because we sense behind it the presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake our thirst for good.” All beauty is reflected beauty. Smudge out the reflection and not only is the mirror useless but the path to the source of beauty is barred. Ugliness, the aesthetic analogue to evil, becomes the new norm. Schoenberg’s remark represents a total rupture with the Western musical tradition.

The loss of tonality was also devastating at the practical level of composition because tonality is the key structure of music. Schoenberg took the twelve equal semi-tones from the chromatic scale and declared that music must be written in such a way that each of these twelve semi-tones has to be used before repeating any one of them. If one of these semi-tones was repeated before all eleven others were sounded, it might create an anchor for the ear which could recognize what is going on in the music harmonically. The twelve-tone system guarantees the listener’s disorientation.

Tonality is what allows music to express movement – away from or towards a state of tension or relaxation, a sense of motion through a series of crises and conflicts which can then come to resolution. Without it, music loses harmony and melody. Its structural force collapses. Gutting music of tonality is like removing grapes from wine. You can go through all the motions of making wine without grapes but there will be no wine at the end of the process. Similarly, if you deliberately and systematically remove all audible overtone relationships from music, you can go though the process of composition, but the end product will not be comprehensible as music. This is not a change in technique; it is the replacement of art by ideology.

Schoenberg’s disciples applauded the emancipation of dissonance but soon preferred to follow the centrifugal forces that Schoenberg had unleashed beyond their master’s rules. Pierre Boulez thought that it was not enough to systematize dissonance in twelve-tone rows. If you have a system, why not systematize everything? He applied the same principle of the tone-row to pitch, duration, tone production, intensity and timber, every element of music. In 1952, Boulez announced that “every musician who has not felt – we do not say understood but felt – the necessity of the serial language is USELESS.” Boulez also proclaimed, “Once the past has been got out of the way, one need think only of oneself.” Here is the narcissistic antithesis of the classical view of music, the whole point of which was to draw a person up into something larger than himself.

The dissection of the language of music continued as, successively, each isolated element was elevated into its own autonomous whole. Schoenberg’s disciples agreed that tonality is simply a convention, but saw that, so too, is twelve-tone music. If you are going to emancipate dissonance, why organize it? Why even have twelve-tone themes? Why bother with pitch at all? Edgar Varese rejected the twelve-tone system as arbitrary and restrictive. He searched for the “bomb that would explode the musical world and allow all sounds to come rushing into it through the resulting breach.” When he exploded it in his piece Hyperprism, Olin Downes, a famous New York music critic, called it “a catastrophe in a boiler factory.” Still, Varese did not carry the inner logic of the “emancipation of dissonance” through to its logical conclusion. His noise was still formulated; it was organized. There were indications in the score as to exactly when the boiler should explode.


What was needed, according to John Cage (19121992), was to have absolutely no organization. Typical of Cage were compositions whose notes were based on the irregularities in the composition paper he used, notes selected by tossing dice, or from the use of charts derived from the Chinese I Ching. Those were his more conventional works. Other “compositions” included the simultaneous twirling of the knobs of twelve radios, the sounds from records playing on unsynchronized variable speed turntables, or the sounds produced by tape recordings of music that had been sliced up and randomly reassembled. Not surprisingly, Cage was one of the progenitors of the “happenings” that were fashionable in the 1970s. He presented concerts of kitchen sounds and the sounds of the human body amplified through loudspeakers. Perhaps Cage’s most notorious work was his 4’33” during which the performer silently sits with his instrument for that exact period of time, then rises and leaves the stage. The “music” is whatever extraneous noises the audience hears in the silence the performer has created. In his book Silence, Cage announced, “Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”

What was the purpose of all this? Precisely to make the point that there is no purpose, or to express what Cage called a “purposeful purposelessness,” the aim of which was to emancipate people from the tyranny of meaning. The extent of his success can be judged by the verdict rendered in the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music, which says Cage “has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the twentieth century.”

Cage’s view of reality has a very clear provenance. Cage himself acknowledged three principal gurus: Eric Satie (a French composer), Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminster Fuller – three relative lightweights who could not among them account for Cage’s radical thinking. The prevalent influence on Cage seems instead to have been Jean Jacques Rousseau, though he goes unmentioned in Cage’s many obiter dicta. Cage’s similarities with Rousseau are too uncanny to have been accidental.

With his noise, Cage worked out musically the full implications of Rousseau’s non-teleological view of nature in his Second Discourse. Cage did for music what Rousseau did for political philosophy. Perhaps the most profoundly anti-Aristotelian philosopher of the eighteenth century, Rousseau turned Aristotle’s notion of nature on its head. Aristotle said that nature defined not only what man is, but what he should be. Rousseau countered that nature is not an end – a telos – but a beginning: man’s end is his beginning. There is nothing he “ought” to become, no moral imperative. There is no purpose in man or nature; existence is therefore bereft of any rational principle. Rousseau asserted that man by nature was not a social or political animal endowed with reason. What man has become is the result, not of nature, but of accident. And the society resulting from that accident has corrupted man.

According to Rousseau, man was originally isolated in the state of nature, where the pure “sentiment of his own existence” was such that “one suffices to oneself, like God.” Yet this self-satisfied god was asocial and pre-rational. Only by accident did man come into association with others. Somehow, this accident ignited his reason. Through his association with others, man lost his self-sufficient “sentiment of his own existence.” He became alienated. He began to live in the esteem of others instead of in his own self-esteem.

Rousseau knew that the pre-rational, asocial state of nature was lost forever, but thought that an all-powerful state could ameliorate the situation of alienated man. The state could restore a simulacrum of that original well-being by removing all man’s subsidiary social relationships. By destroying man’s familial, social, and political ties, the state could make each individual totally dependent on the state, and independent of each other. The state is the vehicle for bringing people together so that they can be apart: a sort of radical individualism under state sponsorship.

It is necessary to pay this much attention to Rousseau because Cage shares his denigration of reason, the same notion of alienation, and a similar solution to it. In both men, the primacy of the accidental eliminates nature as a normative guide and becomes the foundation for man’s total freedom. Like Rousseau’s man in the state of nature, Cage said, “I strive toward the non-mental.” The quest is to “provide a music free from one’s memory and imagination.” If man is the product of accident, his music should likewise be accidental. Life itself is very fine “once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord.”

But what is its own accord? Of music, Cage said, “The requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness is not an accurate representation of how things are” in nature, because in nature there is no order. In other words, life’s accord is that there is no accord. As a result, Cage desired “a society where you can do anything at all.” He warned that one has “to be as careful as possible not to form any ideas about what each person should or should not do.” He was “committed to letting everything happen, to making everything that happens acceptable.”

At the Stony Point experimental arts community where he spent his summers, Cage observed that each summer’s sabbatical produced numerous divorces. So, he concluded, “all the couples who come to the community and stay there end up separating. In reality, our community is a community for separation.” Rousseau could not have stated his ideal better. Nor could Cage have made the same point in his art more clearly. For instance, in his long collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage wrote ballet scores completely unconnected to and independent of Cunningham’s choreography. The orchestra and dancers rehearsed separately and appeared together for the first time at the premiere performance. The dancers’ movements have nothing to do with the music. The audience is left to make of these random juxtapositions what it will. There is no shared experience – except of disconnectedness. The dancers, musicians, and audience have all come together in order to be apart.

According to Cage, the realization of the disconnectedness of things creates opportunities for wholeness. “I said that since the sounds were sounds this gave people hearing them the chance to be people, centered within themselves where they actually are, not off artificially in the distance as they are accustomed to be, trying to figure out what is being said by some artist by means of sounds.” Here, in his own way, Cage captures Rousseau’s notion of alienation. People are alienated from themselves because they are living in the esteem of others. Cage’s noise can help them let go of false notions of order, to “let sounds be themselves, rather than vehicles for man-made theories,” and to return within themselves to the sentiment of their own existence. Cage said, “Our intention is to affirm this life, not bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent….”

That sounds appealing, even humble, and helps to explain Cage’s appeal. In fact, Cage repeatedly insisted on the integrity of an external reality that exists without our permission. It is a good point to make and, as far as it goes, protects us from solipsists of every stripe. Man violates this integrity by projecting meanings upon reality that are not there. That, of course, is the distortion of reality at the heart of every modern ideology. For Cage, however, it is the inference of any meaning at all that is the distorting imposition. This is the real problem with letting “sounds be themselves,” and letting other things be as they are, because it begs the question, “What are they?” Because of Cage’s grounding in Rousseau, we cannot answer this question. What is the significance of reality’s integrity if it is not intelligible, if there is not a rational principle animating it? If creation does not speak to us in some way, if things are not intelligible, are we? Where does “leaving things as they are” leave us?

From the traditional Western perspective, it leaves us completely adrift. The Greco-Judeo-Christian conviction is that nature bespeaks an intelligibility that derives from a transcendent source. Speaking from the heart of that tradition, St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans said, “Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.” By denigrating reason and denying creation’s intelligibility, Cage severed this link to the Creator. Cage’s espousal of accidental noise is the logically apt result. Noise is incapable of pointing beyond itself. Noise is the black hole of the sound world. It sucks everything into itself. If reality is unintelligible, then noise is its perfect reflection, because it too is unintelligible.


Having endured the worst, the twentieth century has also witnessed an extraordinary recovery from the damage inflicted by Schoenberg in his totalitarian systematization of sound and by Cage in his mindless immersion in noise. Some composers, like Vagn Holmboe (19091996) in Denmark, resisted from the start. Others, like John Adams (b. 1947) in America, rebelled and returned to tonal music. It is worth examining, even briefly, the terms of this recovery in the works of these two composers because their language reconnects us to the worlds of Pythagoras and Saint Clement. Their works are symptomatic of the broader recovery of reality in the music of our time.

In Vagn Holmboe’s music, most particularly in his thirteen symphonies, one can once again detect the “music of the spheres” in their rotation. Holmboe’s impulse was to move outward and upward. His music reveals the constellations in their swirling orbits, cosmic forces, a universe of tremendous complexity, but also of coherence. Holmboe’s music is rooted and real. It reflects nature, but not in a pastoral way; this is not a musical evocation of bird songs or sunsets. Neither is it an evocation of nature as the nineteenth century understood nature – principally as a landscape upon which to project one’s own emotions. To say his work is visionary would be an understatement.

Holmboe’s approach to composition was quite Aristotelian: the thematic material defines its own development. What a thing is (its essence) is fully revealed through its completion (its existence) – through the thorough exploration of the potential of its basic materials. The overall effect is cumulative and the impact powerful. Holmboe found his unique voice through a technique he called metamorphosis. Holmboe wrote, “Metamorphosis is based on a process of development that transforms one matter into another, without it losing its identity.” Most importantly, metamorphosis “has a goal; it brings order to the process and enables it to create a pattern of the same perfection and balance as, for example, a classical sonata.” Holmboe’s metamorphosis is something like the Beethovenian method of arguing short motives; a few hammered chords can generate the thematic material for the whole work.

Holmboe’s technique also has a larger significance. Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen observed that Holmboe’s metamorphosis has striking similarities with the constructive principles employed by Arnold Schoenberg in his twelve-tone music. However, says Rasmussen, “Schoenberg found his arguments in history while Holmboe’s come from nature.” This difference is decisive since the distinction is metaphysical. History is the authority for those, like Rousseau, who believe that man’s nature is the product of accident and therefore malleable. Nature is the authority for those who believe man’s essence is permanently ordered to a transcendent good. The argument from history leads to creation ex nihilo, not so much in imitation of God as a replacement for Him – as was evident in the ideologies of Marxism and Nazism that plagued the twentieth century. The argument from nature leads to creation in cooperation with the Creator.

Rasmussen spelled out exactly the theological implications of Holmboe’s approach: “The voice of nature is heard … both as an inner impulse and as spokesman for a higher order. Certainty of this order is the stimulus of music, and to recreate it and mirror it is the highest goal. For this, faith is required, faith in meaning and context or, in Holmboe’s own words, ‘cosmos does not develop from chaos without a prior vision of cosmos.’” Holmboe’s words could come straight from one of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. For Holmboe to make such a remark reveals both his metaphysical grounding and his breathtaking artistic reach. This man was not simply reaching for the stars, but for the constellations in which they move, and beyond. Holmboe strove to show us the cosmos, to play for us the music of the spheres.

Holmboe’s music is quite accessible but requires a great deal of concentration because it is highly contrapuntal. Its rich counterpoint reflects creation’s complexity. The simultaneity of unrelated strands of music in so much modern music (as in John Cage’s works) is no great accomplishment; relating them is. As Holmboe said, music has the power to enrich man “only when the music itself is a cosmos of coordinated powers, when it speaks to both feeling and thought, when chaos does exist, but [is] always overcome.”

In other words, chaos is not the problem; chaos is easy. Cosmos is the problem. Showing the coherence in its complexity, to say nothing of the reason for its existence, is the greatest intellectual and artistic challenge because it shares in the divine “prior vision of cosmos” that makes the cosmos possible. As Holmboe wrote, “In its purest form, [music] can be regarded as the expression of a perfect unity and conjures up a feeling of cosmic cohesion.” Arising from such complexity, this feeling of cohesion can be, he said, a “spiritual shock” for modern man.


Just as Holmboe, whose magnificent works are finally coming into currency, represents an unbroken line to the great Western musical tradition, John Adams is an exemplar of those indoctrinated in Schoenberg’s ideology who found their way out of it. Adams ultimately rejected his college lessons on Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the loss of tonality. Like Pythagoras, he “found that tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon.” In total repudiation of Schoenberg, Adams went on to write a stunning symphony, entitled Harmonielehre (“Theory of Harmony”) that powerfully reconnects with the Western musical tradition. In this work, he wrote, “there is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool in building my work.” More importantly, Adams, explained, “the other shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.”

Adam’s description of his symphony is explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explains that “the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and spiritual sickness; … it has to do with an existence without grace. And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at all … that’s the way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace.”

It is clear from Adams that the recovery of tonality and key structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to spiritual loss. The destruction of tonality was thought to be historically necessary and therefore “determined.” It is no mistake that the recovery of tonality and its expressive powers should be accompanied by the notion of grace. The very possibility of grace, of the unmerited intervention of God’s love, destroys the ideology of historical determinism, whether it be expressed in music or in any other way. The possibility of grace fatally ruptures the self-enclosed world of “historically determined forces” and opens it up to the transcendent. That opening restores the freedom and full range of man’s creativity.

Cicero spoke of music as enabling man to return to the divine region, implying a place once lost to man. What is it, in and about music, that gives one an experience so outside of oneself that one can see reality anew, as if newborn in a strange but wonderful world? British composer John Tavener proposes an answer to this mystery in his artistic credo: “My goal is to recover one simple memory from which all art derives. The constant memory of the paradise from which we have fallen leads to the paradise which was promised to the repentant thief. The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else. That which was once perceived as in a glass darkly, we shall see face to face.” We shall not only see; we shall hear, as well, the New Song.


Reflections on “The Ring of the Nibelung”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sir Roger’s new book, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” is available now.

The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s great cycle of operas exploring the origin of consciousness and the birth of the human world begins in the depths of the river Rhine, and also in the depths of the unconscious, hearing the voice of the natural order from which human kind departed in the long distant past. Wagner’s story of gods and heroes, of giants and dwarfs, is not a fairy tale. It is addressed to modern people, who have lost the ways of enchantment, and for whom the path to heroism is overgrown. It is a story in which law and love, power and property are all caught up in a life and death struggle between the forces that govern the human soul.

Wagner’s great work is controversial. Even today, when The Ring is so popular that the London performance by Opera North has been sold out in a day, the drama is often dismissed as romantic nonsense and the music as bombast. Part of the problem has been Wagner himself, whose hectic and domineering personality continues to make enemies long after his death. Nor do his anti-Semitic diatribes help his reputation. So embarrassed are the Germans by The Ring, indeed, that their producers regularly choose to satirize the most noble moments in the drama while putting scare quotes around the rest.

I have loved The Ring and learned from it for over 50 years and for me, it is quite simply the truth about our world – but the truth expressed in artistic form, by means of music of unquestionable authority and supreme melodic and harmonic power. It is also the nearest an artist has yet come to showing what religion means for those who have lost their faith in the ancestral gods.

The story derives from the collection of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. These tell of the Viking gods, whose king, Odin, builds the fortress of Valholl in order to fend off the day of Rognarök, when the gods will be destroyed in their final battle. Rognarök  means the “doom” or “twilight” of the gods, and its advent is inevitable; yet Odin struggles unceasingly to evade it. He therefore wanders on the face of the earth, seeking knowledge that might boost his bid for immortality. That story belongs to a religion that has vanished completely, as religions do; and the society reflected in it seems raw, merciless, and irrecoverably distant from our modern interests. Nevertheless, Wagner, in a stroke of sublime inspiration that has no parallel, took the surviving fragments and threaded them onto a narrative of his own. The result is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.

Wagner began work on The Ring in 1848, the year before revolution broke out in Dresden, where he was court Kapellmeister. Wagner was, at the time, a passionate socialist, and joined the revolutionary party, being forced as a result to flee into exile in Switzerland and France. The story of The Ring is marked by those events and by the composer’s early socialist enthusiasm. And it contains an evocation of industrial capitalism every bit as disturbing as those of Dickens and Zola.

However, during the twenty years that it took to complete the work, Wagner ceased to believe in the possibility of a political solution to the conflicts of his time. He ceased to believe that human beings have a clear choice between a society built on power and one built on love. Certainly love and power are in tension with each other, as is symbolized by the Ring itself, which was forged by the dwarf Alberich from the gold of the Rhine only when he had cursed the love that he could not obtain from its guardians, the Rhine-daughters. But Alberich’s divine counterpart, Wotan, king of the gods, enjoys both love and power, having perceived that power is meaningless until constrained by law, and that a world governed by law makes possible all that we most intimately value – personality, freedom, respect, and domestic affection.

However, the rule of law is not self-sustaining. Wotan must pay the price of his sovereignty, and only one character in the Ring can supply that price, namely Alberich, the great industrial producer, whose enslaved workforce has created a hoard of treasure sufficient to pay for the Castle of Valhalla. By a trick Wotan obtains the treasure, Ring included; but the dwarf curses the Ring with so powerful a curse that all love and law thereafter become precarious. This curse will be lifted only when the Ring is returned to the Rhine, by the free being who has no interest in using it. The ingenious plot of the cycle consists in the search for that free being, who will release the gods from their chains.

Love without power will not endure, and power without law will always erode the claims of love. We live this paradox, and without the gods to maintain the moral order the burden of it falls entirely on our shoulders. The Ring shows how gods come into existence, conjured from our need for them. It also abounds in moments of religious awe: Brünnhilde’s announcement to Siegmund of his impending death; Sieglinde’s blessing of Brünnhilde; Siegfried’s soliloquy in the forest and Wotan’s farewell to his Valkyrie daughter. Virtually all the turning points of human life are represented, and elaborated by the sublime music. This, to me, is the most extraordinary aspect of Wagner’s achievement. He was able to show the indispensible need of modern people for sacred moments, in which freedom and consciousness are nevertheless revealed as purely human burdens.

But a peculiar Wagnerian twist is given to these moments. While the sacred has in the past been interpreted as man’s avenue to God, for Wagner it is God’s avenue to man. It is the gods, not mankind, that need redemption, since it is their bid for sovereignty that has disturbed the natural order. Redemption can come through love. But love, for Wagner, is complete only between mortals – it is a relation between dying things, who embrace their own death as they yield to it. This Brünnhilde recognizes during her great dialogue with Siegmund, resolving in her heart, but as yet not fully conscious that this is what she is doing, to relinquish her immortality for the sake of a human love.

But what, on this view, are the gods? Mere figments, as Wagner’s mentor, the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, had argued? Or are they more deeply implanted in the scheme of things, symbols of forces that precede and survive us? Wagner’s answer is not easily explained in words, since it is expressed in music. And it is an answer that makes him supremely relevant to us. For, despite our attempts to live without formal religion, we are no more free than people ever have been or ever will be from the religious need. Wagner accepted Feuerbach’s view of the gods as human creations. Gods come and go; but they last as long as we make room for them, and we make room for them through sacrifice. The gods come about because we idealize our passions, and it is by accepting the need for sacrifice on behalf of another that our lives acquire a meaning. Seeing things that way we recognize that we are not condemned to mortality but consecrated to it. Such, in the end, was Wagner’s message. Yes, the gods must die, and we ourselves must assume their burdens. But we inherit their aspirations too: freedom, personality, love, and law. There is no way in which we can achieve those great goods through politics, which, if we put too much faith in it, will inevitably degenerate into the kind of totalitarian power enjoyed by the dwarf Alberich. But we can create these things in ourselves, and we do this when we recognize the sacred character of our joys and sufferings, and resolve to be true to them.

Hence when the action of The Ring has come to its inevitable conclusion, with the death of the free hero Siegfried and his beloved Brünnhilde, with the burning of Valhalla and the destruction of the gods – when all conflicts have run their course, when death is triumphant and the gold returned to the Rhine, the music recalls the most sublime event in the drama, when a mortal woman who had lost everything save love, gave her blessing to the goddess who had rescued her. This, one of the supreme moments of Western music, is also the greatest statement in modern drama of what life is really about.


Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Society for Classical Learning, where it first appeared.

I. Beauty in Music

“[A]nd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7

Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things

The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.

The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual – that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?

Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.

‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’
‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’
‘These then,’ I said, ‘must be banished…’

These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:

It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.

Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.

Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (the sound of a car or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come – these elements are the language of the composer/performer.

Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial

When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life. We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.

The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things – seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.

Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric – the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.

The telos of music

Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.

The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…
…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”

If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes – to have our theology correct – but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.

So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?

II. Inspiration

“…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” Exodus 31:2

The Greek Muses

Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:

Calliope – eldest, epic poetry
Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music
Melpomene – singer of tragedy
Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry
Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry
Urania – astronomy/astrology

These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word music is taken from Mousike Techne (“the work of the Muses”). Nearly everything that we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses, and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia: the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.

Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.

Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence, we encounter music as moments in linear succession, but musical patterns are made without words; that is, the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne (“Memory”). So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before – we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?

How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.

III. Excellence

“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true,… honest,…just,… pure,…lovely,…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Philipians 4:8

Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.

Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide (“with faith”). A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art – I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal – I say beauty.

Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”

Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by the characteristics of the object and the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce the study of form. When one describes the contours of the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation, the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regained a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):

Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)
Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)

All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one-dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.

A Theological basis for excellence

What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine-taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear) than with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.

Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?

The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).

Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based. Our imaginations are damaged by the Fall as well. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.

Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.

So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object, beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of making music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.

IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind.” John 9:39

The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.

In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music – a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.

The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty – the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit – a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world – although it is that at times – but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God: to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.

A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors – to see sacramentally. This requires the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.

Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent – that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.

This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life – like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest – music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.

Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the Quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.

How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony – which is the beautiful relation of disparate things – to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.

Music rightly understood cannot save our souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”


Works Cited

Plato. The Republic, Book III.
Scruton, Roger. Aesthetics of Music.
_______. “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal, Feb. 2009.


Music and the Transcendental

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the keynote address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also watch the video of the address.

I’m greatly encouraged by this initiative to actually bring into public awareness just what matters about the symphony and what its place in modern cities should be, what its place in the surrounding way of life and the culture generally should be, and how we can support and give meaning to it. What I shall talk about today are some philosophical ideas about music itself, in particular about classical music, and why we think it is such an important thing. And it’s a difficult area for many reasons.

People who love music often find it extremely difficult to talk about it, to say what it is that they love in it; and people who dislike it nevertheless think that they have very good reasons to do so. And there seems to be no forum of debate in which people can try to come to some agreement as to why music has the importance that it has in our society. I’m going to say a few things about that and also about the theme that I have put in the title.

I think we have to begin from this idea that we’ve inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us don’t pay attention to it – partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there’s also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are – in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever – we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music wasn’t originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we don’t learn to ignore it, we can’t also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it’s one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world.

I totally endorse everything that Léon Krier said to us about modern architecture and the way in which it has created alienating spaces where it should create spaces where we’re at home. And I think of all spaces where we should be at home, the symphony hall is the most important. Many of us have this sense that musical experience is of supreme value and that musical experience of the kind I’m going to be talking about – the kind that involves listening – has been extremely important in our civilization.

Western civilization is in many ways a musical civilization. Music has had a place in our civilization which it has never achieved elsewhere. Of course, all people everywhere sing and dance. Dance in particular has a profound social meaning, and without it most societies in the past could not have really held together. But dancing is a very different thing from just sitting and listening, and we have this long – perhaps a thousand-year-long – experience of just sitting and listening for long moments, and doing so in company. We detach music from collective singing and dancing and make of it what you might call a spectacle or auricle, an occasion for simply sitting together and listening. Though detached from those natural social forms of musical order like singing and dancing, it is still a social experience. It is something shared. Even when you’re listening on your own, there is an implicit sharing going on you. You don’t think of yourself as “me, alone, listening to that.” You are, as it were, representing your ideal group of fellow listeners for whom this is a communal experience. You’re being returned in some way to a deep social experience within you.

There are many threats, however, to this listening culture. In particular, there is growing around us a habit of merely hearing music, or merely overhearing music, and of having to fight music off so that you can listen. The music that you hear in most restaurants today is not music that you could listen to without going mad. Or if you if you did start listening to it then of course the whole purpose of the restaurant would be defeated, too. It is there simply to fill in the silence that would otherwise, people fear, be engendered between the people sitting at the tables by the fact that they’ve forgotten how to speak. That is only one place in which music intrudes, but it intrudes in so many other ways and so many other places that we do have to learn the habit of ignoring it. And that gives us a real sense that learning to listen is not something that can be achieved simply by doing it. We need to rehabilitate ourselves to a particular culture.

I want to say something in connection with this about the idea of the sacred. We all have this conception within us that certain moments, certain events, certain ceremonies, and certain social occasions stand outside the ordinary run of events. They are not simply day-to-day events, but somehow they are places, times, or occasions, which take us outside ourselves and point us to another world – a world which, whether or not we even think it exists, is nevertheless there in our imaginations and beckoning to us. And this of course is something that we experience in collective worship – those of us who are believers or are attached to a particular faith. And we recognize it as contained within liturgical words and the habit of chanting. I think it’s worth thinking about this experience, even if it may not be an experience we repeat each week in church, or mosque, or synagogue, or wherever. Nevertheless, for all of us there is deep in the unconscious memory this sense of the ceremonial presence of the divine and our collective attention to it. In this moment, our attention is turned towards the altar, and the altar is a kind of ‘no place.’ It’s a place within our world which is also nowhere because there’s nothing at it. The thing that is there is in some deep sense elsewhere. It lies outside our world. It’s not of this world.

This idea that we collectively turn our attention to something that is, as it were, absent but also for that very reason present – this paradoxical sense – is something that I think we inherited from the primary religious experience of humanity. And when this occurs in the normal ceremony of worship, the words and the music seem to fill the void that is there. It’s a very important feature of our civilization that religious worship has almost always been a matter of music as well as words. The words are formalized. Often they are words in a foreign language, words that have been inherited from a dead language. They’re not there specifically so that you should understand every nuance of them. They are there because they are correct, they sound right, they’ve always been said. But it’s the music for many of us that fills the void, that turns our attention to the altar, which is the ‘no place’ that is also a place. And through this singing we summon the real presence of the god, but we do this only because we have precise words and precise songs – the right words and songs. And that is what we have inherited.

Chant: “Salve, Regina”

This experience that we have of the sacred moment in which we are addressing this ‘no place’ at the altar with music and ritualized words is, I think, always in the back of our experience when we enter the concert hall. This is, as it were, the original experience from which we are downstream. And this experience of the real presence of the sacred, the sacramental, the consecrated, is a shared experience – even if you encounter it alone. When you walk into a church in a quiet, rural place and you’re alone in that church, you are for that very reason not alone. You are being addressed from nowhere, but as a member of something. So you adopt precise steps, precise tones – you speak in hushed tones and you look around yourself always for the precise words and precise gestures that would make your presence there into something acceptable. But I think music captures something of this ‘no place’ experience – the ‘no place’ where it all takes place. And that’s because it moves in a space of it’s own. In listening, we stand at the threshold of this space, and this is a philosophical point which is sometimes quite difficult to put across. Let me just give you a few thoughts.

When we listen to music – and perhaps not when we’re playing it or even singing it, but just listening – we experience a sense of things moving. The theme moves up and down in a one-dimensional space that is represented in the bar lines of the score. And it moves from one place to another. The opening theme of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, for instance, moves from C to E-flat to G and it comes down again. So between those notes there is a movement that you hear, but it’s an imaginary movement. The notes themselves are simply sounds if you think of them in real, physical terms. There’s a sequence of sounds but we hear in that sequence a movement up and then down. It has a certain force to it. It has a certain speed, and the sounds themselves have weight. As it goes down that C-minor scale to the tonic, you feel the weight increasing: you think, “It’s got to go further, it’s got to go further.” And then Beethoven stops it. With a couple of dominant-to-tonic commas, he stops the music in midstream.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

And musical sounds have all kinds of spatial features like opacity and transparency. The chords in a Debussy prelude might sound to you totally transparent, as though you could hear what is coming from behind them. There’s also a gravitational force in music: things seem to be, as it were, attracted to each other. They seem to drag things behind each other; they coalesce. Think of the beginning of Brahms’s second piano concerto where the horn announces the first phrase of the opening theme and seems to drag the piano behind it, after which, then, the piano takes over from the horn and completes the phrase. The piano is in one part of the concert hall, the horn in another part. There is no physical interaction between them, but in the notes that you hear, in the musical line, you hear a gravitational force which is making those two things cohere and move together.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is all by way of suggesting that music in the listening culture to which I’m referring is organized spatially even though it isn’t in a real space. There is no actual space comparable to the physical space in which you and I live that contains the music. The music itself is creating that space and it’s creating it in your imagination. So the musical experience has some of this character of being nowhere. It’s creating a space of it’s own, which is not part of physical space and of which we are privileged witnesses through our ears, so to speak – but into which we ourselves cannot enter, either. It is something like the way that we sense a real presence around us in the sacred moment, but one that’s addressing us from ‘no place’ where we are.

This raises the question of how we find meaning in music. What kind of meaning do we find and how important is it to us? Does this help explain the incredible weight that has been given to the musical experience in our culture? Obviously, music can occur in conjunction with words. Music is used to set words and many people think that that is the primary way in which music acquires meaning – through word setting. You have a poem on the one hand, you have the musical setting on the other hand, and somehow they come together in the experience of these things. We hear the music perhaps as an illustration of the words or expressing the same thing that the words express. Those of you who are familiar with Lieder, especially the Schubert songs, will recognize that there is something consummate in what the music can provide to a very simple poem by way of translating it from a naïve expression of something into a kind of perfected drama. But what exactly is going on here? I want to say that it’s not just an identity of expression, but much more to do with the fact that the music provides appropriate gestures because it’s moving in this imaginary space that we ourselves are imagining in hearing, that we are surrounding the words with the gestures which in some way complete them. It is as though the music is observing the words with a sympathetic gaze. It is standing next to them and moving with them.

And I think for this reason, contrasting words can be set to the same music. In many of the Bach cantatas you will find that the composer uses again and again some of the themes and structures which appeal to him because they fit into the musical context. And they seem absolutely appropriate even though perhaps the emotions suggested by the words are completely different on each occasion. Many people think this a proof that music really doesn’t express emotion at all – that it can be used in these completely contrasting ways suggests that really, after all, it’s an illusion on our part and that we attribute emotional meaning to the music. But I think that’s not right. If we see the music as observing the words, sympathetically responding to them with the gestures that are appropriate to them, then of course it could be making the same movements in response to contrasting emotions in the words. What it is doing is providing those words with a context which enables us to identify with them.

In the supreme examples, however, we want to say that the music is in some way picking up the words and taking them to another place – the ‘no place’ that is also a sacred place. Here I would play for you Bach’s famous aria from the St. Matthew Passion, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” which perhaps many of you know. It opens with a violin obligato, one of the longest melodies that have ever been composed, simply introducing, before any words have been uttered, the state of mind that Bach wishes you to understand. And it’s a very complex state of mind. That moment in the St. Matthew Passion occurs just after Peter has a heard the cock crow, and has remembered the words of Jesus who had told him that before the cock crows he would betray him thrice. And he goes out and weeps bitterly. It’s a beautiful recitative setting of those words followed by this extraordinary violin melody in 12/8 time. And you don’t know yet what is going to be said next. But what is said by the words is something very strange: it’s not a direct comment on Peter’s emotion, but a general plea for mercy from God. “Have mercy on me, my God.” In other words, “Recognize that I live in a state of sin and that I will always fall short of what is required of me.”

Bach: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

Because music can have such an extraordinary emotional power of its own, independently of words even if it can be put to the use of words, there arose at a certain stage in the history of our civilization the idea that the real meaning of music would be best identified if we could separate it from words altogether. A certain distinction was made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century between music that is applied and absolute music. Absolute music was thought to be the true music – the music which is not put to use in setting words or in accompanying a dance or in managing the conduct of a drama or any of the normal uses to which music might be put. Absolute music is just there for its own sake and in its own right. And that, surely, is the music of the concert hall: music which is simply played, which we attend to in reverent silence.

The word absolute was very appealing to the German romantic philosophers and poets who first put it forward – partly because it is a philosophical word. It seems to denote something which has purified itself of all pollution from the surrounding day-to-day reality. It’s as though this kind of music is lifted out of all its applications so as to reveal what it is in itself, in its essence. It reveals its intrinsic meaning. Now, whether you can make full sense of that is one of the great questions of musical aesthetics. And I’ll just say one or two things about it because I think, again, this is part of trying to understand why music has had the enormous significance that it has had for us.

The first point to make is that music is not a representational art. I think this is not often seen quite as clearly as it should be seen. Painting, as you know, is a representational art in its highest forms. It is an attempt to depict reality. It shows the world in a certain light, but the world that it shows is independent of the painting. You look at the painting and you see through the painting to another world – not always, of course: with modern abstract art you don’t have that experience. But that’s one reason for thinking that modern abstract art is a kind of degenerate case. In the central case, painting is there to represent something other than itself. And the same is true of literature and poetry. But in the case of music, this is not so. Although music can be used to set words, although it can be used to accompany a dance or to present a drama, in the case that really interests us – where we think that we are concentrating on the music itself – it doesn’t represent things, or if it does represent something it’s only itself. It is just there, as an object of attention. There are cases, of course, where music imitates sounds other than musical sounds. In Debussy’s La Mer you have attempts to imitate the movement of the sea in various conditions. But suppose somebody said to you that, although he loves Debussy’s La Mer, he can’t see any analogy with the movement of the sea. You wouldn’t say for that reason that he had misunderstood it. There are many forms of imitation that you don’t have to latch onto in order to understand the movement in the music. If music were a representational art you’d have to understand the subject matter in order to understand the music. And I think it’s very, very rare that that is required – that you, as it were, understand the music in terms of something else.

And again, music isn’t a language, either. It’s like a language in certain respects, but you couldn’t use music in order to conduct a conversation. When you hear in many of the Haydn and Beethoven quartets that kind of conversation-like music, as though the instrumentalists were responding to each other in the way that people do when having a friendly conversation, it’s not an actual conversation that you’re hearing. There is nothing other than the music that they are saying to each other. There is no exchange of information. It’s just something that’s very like a conversation going on. Even so, of course, music does have a kind of syntax – that is to say, there are rules that seem to have emerged over time to which we get habituated. And every note in music builds up certain expectations as to what will follow it. This is particularly true of tonal music. One of the things that worries us about atonal music is that we don’t have expectations as to what will follow any particular note in a melodic line or any particular harmony in the accompanying chords. But with tonal music, precisely because of the tonal syntax, we do have those expectations. So there is a background syntax that we seem to be able to grasp and it carries us forward through the music. It seems to be intimately connected with the meaning of the music. And in that sense, music is like a language.

But this syntax is not conventional: it’s the effect of use and not the cause of it. In language, syntax is entirely arbitrary. You can make your own rules – and there are many artificial languages of which this is true. Each language has different rules for constructing a syntactically correct sentence out of the parts of it. But in music, syntax is not conventional. There is something natural about the syntax that has emerged over the centuries in tonal music. It wasn’t somebody’s choice to create the relation between the dominant seventh and the tonic which makes the tonic such a natural successor to the dominant seventh. That’s something that we’ve learned to hear, and if you try to remake the code so that that particular convention – that syntactical rule – is denied, you’ll find that your audience won’t follow you. So it’s like the syntax of language in a way, but not conventional.

Bach: Cello Suite No. 1

There is nevertheless a form that emerges from the use of this syntax, and musical form is one of the most important features that interests us in this so-called absolute music – music which is there for its own sake and is not applied to anything else. And as in architecture, the parts of music answer to each other. Léon Krier in his lecture showed us some very wonderful examples – in his inimitable draftsman’s style – of architectural elements in which the parts enter into relation with each other, and how by altering the dimensions the relation is in some way distorted. Another meaning entirely begins to attach itself to the architectural form. But without the meaningful parts, the architectural form would have no meaning at all. It’s because there are moldings that you can divide a wall into meaningful areas and see whether they correspond to each other proportionately. It’s because a column has a capital, a base, and all the moldings around them that you can understand the relations between its parts and obtain a sense of harmony between them. And I think that one of the great errors ­– to add to what Léon said – of modernism is to think that you can understand the architectural form without the meaningful parts from which the building is constructed. On the contrary, you end up with buildings which, because you have no meaningful parts, have no shadows with which to measure them. I think something similar is true of music: musical form isn’t just an overall, liquid assembly. It’s generated, bit-by-bit, from meaningful details. It is only there because we have this syntax which enables us to understand the parts.

But there is a mystery, as well, to musical form. It’s not just a matter of following certain rules. The traditional forms of music were constructed according to rules. There’s a rule for constructing the perfect sonata form movement. There are rules for constructing fugues, and so on. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that you obey these rules that the resulting piece of music will have real musical form. Clementi’s sonatas and sonatinas, which all of you learn when you begin learning to play the piano, are full of perfect sonata form movements which are deeply formless. There’s nothing that happens in them. There is no real tension built up at the beginning which takes them through to the end. But they’re charming and very useful to piano teachers. In Scarlatti, you have these defiant violations of the traditional forms. Those little sonatas of his which seem from the technical point of view entirely formless are nevertheless perfect little miniatures – perfectly formed in the sense that everything given at the beginning takes you inexorably through to the end, and there isn’t a redundant element in them. This is true, too, of the great formal masterpieces like the sonata movements of Bruckner’ symphonies. But there could be formal perfection, also, without conventional form when there is no reference to any particular system of rules for generating a musical movement – as in the three movements of Debussy’s La Mer, each of which is formally absolutely perfect in the sense that I’m intending, but has no real reference to the traditions of musical structure. This is similarly true of Beethoven’s late C-sharp minor quartet.

So why should we be interested in form in this case? This is a deep question, which is extremely relevant to the whole idea of a listening culture. When you go to a concert to listen to something, you go not just because it’s live music and otherwise you only get it on your iPad or whatever. You’re going partly because the form seems so much clearer when you can engage with your eyes and with your sense of space with the individual components, the individual musical lines, that go to compose it. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the listening experience – when you’re in the presence of the players – that in some way you see and hear and are surrounded by this coming-together of separate currents of energy into a comprehensive form. And this interest is not simply the result of taking an aesthetic attitude – in other words, of attending to the thing – it goes deeper.

We have a deep interest in form. We require the parts in a work of music to answer to each other. And, as I said, part of the disaster of modernist architecture lies here. It reminds us that we are at home with form but we are at sea with the formless. If you look at the city with which you are familiar, you have a very good example of this: Baltimore is one of the few American cities that hasn’t been yet entirely destroyed. It’s got another five or six years of life. You’ve got whole sections of the street where you see buildings that were made in very different sizes and of very different materials, but all attempting to produce form out of matching parts or out of parts that respond to each other. Then they’re interrupted by utterly formless blocks which have bulk but no detail. And we’re not at home with those other things.

Form seems to be a fundamental need of the human psyche. Why is this? I’ll offer just a very rough suggestion, which is that our lives are incomplete and we are constantly embarking on things – adventures or just a walk around the block or a conversation with a friend or something bigger like a love affair or whatever. We embark on these things and it quickly dissipates in chaos or incompletion. Something interrupts it. Nothing comes properly to an end, and then a sense invades us of the futility of things. “I should have done that properly. I didn’t bring it to a conclusion. It is simply the ragged ends of something that I began but couldn’t actually bring to any effective conclusion.” In everything we do we are aiming to get somewhere, but we never seem to arrive there.

Perhaps one of the things that art can do us is to provide us with a destination. When we enter a work of music, so to speak, we’re taken up by it and it’s moving us towards a destination of its own. Because in some deep sense we’re identifying with the movement in the music, we hear it as bringing to completion the gestures that originated in us. We follow these gestures and episodes to their completion. And there’s a sense that, after all, these ragged ends of human life don’t have to be just ragged. They could, in some ideal world, find a conclusion of their own; and we are, similarly, beings who do have it within us to arrive at our destination. You can think of your own examples of that, but to me, a very effectively example is the first movement of Brahms’s fourth symphony, which starts off with a very obvious gesture: a descending third followed by a rising sixth. And growing out of that gesture is another one of the same kind, and then you gradually realize that this gesture has penetrated the whole orchestra and has taken on a life of its own and moves through successive blocks of thematic material until finally it reaches its inevitable fulfillment ten minutes later.

As well as our desire for form, we also have a hunger for meaning. Music, as I said earlier, is not sound. It inhabits sound in the same way that a face inhabits a picture. It’s there in the sound; we hear the movement in the sound through entering that imagined space. What we’re hearing, judged as a physical object, is just sound. But the music is not that sound. It is the thing that we hear in it. So we’re always listening for something that speaks to us through the music – a kind of disembodied voice in an imagined space. And that voice is in the world but not of it, to use the religious language. It is speaking to us, but not from any space in which we ourselves stand.

Nevertheless, we judge it. If we’re listening, we want to know if it’s saying something serious. And if it’s serious, from what psychic region does it come? We have the impression often that truly serious music has, as it were, put its ear to the ground and heard the far-off murmur of the infinite. And that’s the kind of experience you have obviously from things like the openings of Bruckner’s symphonies and the famous opening of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in which the music is saying, “Look, something is speaking through me from far, far away – and you must put your ear to the ground just as I am doing.”

This connects in my view with our experience of each other. To understand an experience, of course, is not necessarily to justify it. But we still have to understand this experience that we get from music. And one way of understanding it is to see its relation to our everyday experience of each other. What I want to say is that the reaching for the transcendental is actually an everyday event for human beings. It isn’t something unusual because it’s what we are doing all the time with each other.

When I encounter another person, as I encounter you or as you encounter each other, whether in conversation or just simply standing and looking at you, I have a sense that there is a kind of barrier between me and you. There you are looking at me, speaking to me, but the thing that you really are – the ‘I’ behind that barrier – is not something that can ever be made visible or tangible to me. And yet I’m constantly reaching out to try and take possession of it, to try to be in full contact with you. And I, too, stand behind such a barrier. I know that you’re looking at my face and you’re listening to my words, but I also know that in some deep sense you can’t actually enter that space from which I address you.

We have to reach across this barrier. Otherwise, what is the point of human life? Everything that we do and hope for depends upon crossing that barrier to the other and being at one with him or her. So we do reach across it, and when we’re doing things together of the right kind, we can forget that barrier. We have a sense in communal activities that the barrier has dissolved and that the various ‘I’s have melted into a ‘we.’ And I think this dissolving of the barrier between us occurs especially in our shared attention to the ‘no place,’ as in the religious experience when we’re all attending to the altar, that ‘no place’ which is a place nevertheless.

I suspect that something similar is going on also in the concert hall. The music is, as it were, speaking for us in our communal assault on the silence that is being created in the concert hall, and we are with it in trying to get through to what it is that’s speaking through that silence. I think the sense that we find in music a transcendental voice that we can engage with and enter into communication with is something that has its origins in our everyday need for each other. And that’s part of its significance for us.

Now, I think I’ll say a little bit more. I think I have more material than I can possible present to you, but I shall carry on for a bit more. We’re all familiar with the facts of human sympathy: that we can be at one with another person in his joy or grief, and likewise we can feel sympathy for animals, for nature itself – we can be at one with the natural world in the sense that we feel a harmony between our emotions and our will, our desires, and the context that surrounds us and inspires those things in us. And when I feel sympathy with another person, I enter into his state of mind. “I know what it’s like to feel as you do.” We don’t necessarily know how to put it into words, but often in extreme moments of sympathy, especially those which are of real value to us, we have this sense of knowing from inside what the other person is feeling. And there is a kind of vindication of our own life in that. The fact that that is possible brings home to us the other dimension of our being, where we are at one with others.

Music can also shows what it is like to be in a condition for which we have no words. In Fidelio, when Leonore and Florestan are finally aware of each other’s presence they sing that famous duet O namenlose Freude! (O Nameless Joy!). And the music really does express a joy of the kind no words could possibly capture – and indeed probably of a kind that only somebody as solitary as Beethoven could think really exists. Nevertheless, the music, as it were, gives us that first person perspective on this otherwise unknowable thing.

In a similar way, much music reaches towards the transcendental – reaches beyond the limits of this world to the kind of archetypes from which we think our own feelings and states of mind have descended. And perhaps this shared moment of reaching towards the transcendental is what we ultimately wanted from music. That is one of the real questions: Is it so?

Well, I’ll conclude with a philosophical thought about ‘about.’ My feelings are directed from the ‘I’ towards the ‘you.’ This is what philosophers call an intentional relation, not a material relation. I feel maybe fear, love, shame, or whatever towards you. And it may be that I feel this even though you don’t exist. It’s unknown to me that you’ve been killed, but still my feeling is there. The feeling is a going out towards the other which doesn’t necessarily depend upon the other’s existence or anything that’s going on in the other.

And this feature of our states of mind – their intentionality – is something that philosophers regard as, in many ways, marking out the human condition from everything else in the universe. Here we have these extraordinary conditions that we undergo which are in some way incomplete. They’re reaching out from us; they are unsaturated. They’re looking for the object that will fulfill them and complete them. We have this sense all the time with each other – that we’re reaching out in that way – and I think we have this in music, too. When we’re listening properly, surrounded by others who are doing likewise, and imagining that space in which the music moves under impulses of its own, we hear the music, not just moving as a physical object might move, but having intentions of its own, reasons of its own. It’s got a reason for moving from C to E-flat, just as we might have. It is a kind of master of its imagined space.

Important works of music exhibit in that way a kind of freedom and completeness to which we aspire in our own lives, but which we don’t obtain. For this reason, I think we think of music as having an ‘aboutness’ of its own. It’s not just there, the movement of sounds in imaginary space. It is itself responding to something that we can’t directly perceive or know – in just the way that we can’t directly perceive or know each other. It is, if you like, a source of feelings which belong to it. It’s as though it is about something even though it’s not something that we could ever ourselves engage with or know directly.

And I think it’s this feature of music – this capacity it has to lift up our hearts, to take us into a world where we, too, can imagine being complete in our emotions, to take all our emotions to their conclusion, and to rejoice in them as they are – that is perhaps the most important experience of the concert hall, and one which is threatened wherever the listening experience is threatened by invasion from the noise that surrounds us.

So I would give these as my philosophical reasons for thinking that music not only gives us a sense of the transcendental, but is a part of our lives that fulfills us and depends upon the whole symphonic concert hall tradition in order to be the thing that it is. I’ll stop there. Thank you.


Beauty and Desecration

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcription of the plenary address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at The Power of Beauty Conference, hosted in October 2014 by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.
It is reprinted here with their gracious permission,
and we encourage you to watch their video of the address.

Just to say a few general philosophical things to begin with about why beauty matters: We live in a world in which utilitarian values are not just triumphant but for many people the only values that there are. There seems to be no sense that things can have a value which is not a form of use. This means that all of us are engaged all the time in what some philosophers call instrumental reasoning. Whenever we’re asked to justify something we try to find a purpose for it – we justify, for instance, the shape of this room in terms of its purpose, which is to gather people together to listen to a lecture. If it’s not very efficient at that, then the room has not actually achieved what it set out to achieve.

In all our activities we are familiar with this kind of reasoning, but what other kinds of reasoning are there? We know perfectly well that instrumental reasoning can’t be the only kind because if something is a means to an end, there has to be an end that it’s a means to. That too needs a justification. So we do reason with each other – rather insecurely but nevertheless we do reason – about the ends of our activities, what our goals are, and whether we should be pursuing the goals that we pursue. This is especially true in activities like building – building a room like this, or setting out on a career, and so on – in which there is a long-term project involved and an end point that you can’t very clearly envisage.

When you set out to build something you can’t clearly envisage the end point just from a ground plan. You need some conception of not just what it will look like but what it will be like to live with it. Only if you know what it’s like to live with it will you be justified in building it. Here is an example of a simple activity in which aesthetic reasoning is fundamental. One reason why modern architecture is such a failure is that people don’t do this. They don’t try to envisage what it will be like to live with the product of their building, only what its capacity is for the number of people assigned to it, and so on. Reasoning about what it’s like to live with something means bringing the end of your activity forward into the present so that you sense its being, as it were, with you in the moment where you are. And that is one of the roles of beauty and of aesthetic judgment in our lives: to do just that.

In another area, of course, we argue about our ends from a religious point of view. We know that people have this conception of the meaning of life, as lying in some way beyond life – either in the transcendental or in the afterlife. And this meaning is sometimes revealed in the present moment, the moments which people are apt to describe as sacred: the moment of liturgy and worship, the moment of revelation, of reading a sacred text, and so on. Perhaps being blessed with that experience is what Saint Paul described as the peace that passeth understanding.

That’s a very powerful emotion and a powerful experience if you can obtain it. But of course we live in a world where not everybody does obtain it or even seeks for it. And increasingly the surrounding culture either ignores that sort of thing or denigrates it. So it’s very difficult to explain to people who are immersed in the secular culture today exactly how you would think about justifying the ends of existence and not just the means. We need some other notion of the real presence in our life of the meaning of things if we are going to be able to justify to others who are skeptical exactly what it is that we want them to do. I think this is our situation today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889

Here is a picture, a landscape by Renoir. There’s no particular reason for me to have chosen this landscape – and all landscapes presented on PowerPoint are hopeless anyway, because, as you know, it’s backlit and it doesn’t contain the texture of the paint, and certainly not that of the canvas. Still, you see in that a particular artist’s attempt not just to present a little bit of la douce France, which everybody loves, but also to make you love it, too. And whatever goes on in that landscape is imbued with a sense of peace and order and it takes from the surrounding colors the vitality that makes life meaningful. Renoir, like other Impressionists, painted a world to which we belong. Belonging is an all-important aspect of human experience. Not everybody has it, and of course our jails are filled with the people who don’t. Most people in this room, I imagine, got here without criminal offenses, and feel that they do instinctively belong in the world and are in the business of trying to make that belonging more rooted, more permanent, more wound together with coexistence with their fellows. That of course is part of what education is about. And that’s what you see in that beautiful landscape by Renoir: a painting of ordinary fruit trees and an ordinary mountain in the distance, and so on – but painting it all as part of the world to which we belong.

For Renoir and his contemporaries, it was a post-religious world. They were very much people of their time who were skeptical about religion. And in any case, they regarded it as their duty as painters to show that it is this world and not the next that matters. It is quite hard to paint the next world, as you can imagine. It has been done in words by Dante, and a few painters have tried to follow him, but for the most part it has been a failure. Nevertheless our world is not that bad. It is imbued with its own tranquility, and that tranquility can reside in perception itself. That’s what Renoir was telling us: stop, stand still, look. In that perception you will see that this thing in front of you has a meaning all of its own, a meaning which justifies you being in it and reminds you that you belong to it. There’s a moment of standing still that we all can achieve and in which we can let the otherness of the world dawn on us. It’s something other than me – not just imagined by me, but there in front of me and including me nevertheless.

When painters do this – the painters of modern life, as Beaudelaire called them – they don’t behave as photographers behave. This is something very difficult to explain to people these days as everybody goes around with this criminal object in their pockets immortalizing the ephemera of their existence, and as a result desecrating it with their own trivial perceptions. Renoir wasn’t doing anything like that at all. He wasn’t pointing a camera at this landscape. Maybe the landscape didn’t entirely look like that. He was trying to extract from it what it means, not just from a perceptual point of view but also spiritually.

We live in a time when there is much ugliness around us and much desecration – in many ways, a deliberate making ugly of things, or a carelessness as to whether things should be ugly or beautiful. And many things that we regard as beautiful we discover to be desecrated not just by the way we treat them but also by the works of art which are supposed to celebrate them. We know this obviously from our experience of the human form. The human form is all-important to us because it is the primary locus of meaning, the thing that means most to us in the world. The human face and the human body come before us imbued with the life of the spirit. But we can also, as we know, desecrate them – as they are desecrated by pornography and such things, which turn the subject into an object. And being turned into an object is essentially to lose one’s spiritual value.

Part of what lies behind this is a growing obsession with power. Power is the great commodity that is as it were transferred from person to person in the world we are creating. Many people would say, here is old Scruton up in front of an audience enjoying his power. You are transferring to me that power, the power to hold your attention and to infect you with my reactionary attitudes. This power is something that I have not yet justified to you. Many scholars influenced by people like Foucault will say that I couldn’t justify it. The institution is structured by domination, and I’m enjoying that domination and triumphing over you, the victims who are sitting before me. Now, you don’t actually believe that because you know that you are sitting there willingly, but nevertheless you can redescribe the whole of the world in that way. You can take the most innocent thing – the love of a mother for a child, or a child for a mother – and there’s power in that too. If there weren’t, the mother couldn’t protect the child. But yet, it’s not the power aspect of it that’s important here, it’s the love aspect. All our loves create powers.

In all the things that matter to us most there is that element of power. Of the tranquility that Renoir is trying to put across to us in that painting, many of our literary and artistic critics today would ask the question, “What does this tranquility conceal? Who is using it, who is gaining, who is losing?” And you can imagine the text in Modern Language Review which will analyze that painting and try to persuade you that it is there as part of the hegemony of the bourgeois class, representing nature as a place that endorses its comfortable and relaxing attitudes, excluding the truth about labor, which went into creating those fruit trees in the first place – in other words, legitimizing the power of the French bourgeoisie over the French proletariat. In that way Renoir becomes part of the ideology which is being imposed upon us by our Western culture. We need to liberate the oppressed, the victim, from beneath this ideology. And the victim of course will turn out to be whoever the current obsession is – probably working-class women in this particular case.

When you start thinking like that, nothing is as it seems. It’s as though there’s a reality behind everything and that reality is the power that people exercise over each other. And that’s why beauty is a kind of deception – because it’s always concealing those real relations between people in which one class or one person or one group has dominion over another. But of course for the Impressionist painters that’s all nonsense. For them, seeming is everything. What Renoir was trying to do in that painting is to remind you of something that you would otherwise not notice: namely, that the world does seem in a certain way to you and that’s what it really, really is – in other words, how it comes across to you in your immediate perception when you’ve stopped all the instrumental reasoning, forgotten all the powers and the projects, and just look. But because of this obsession with power, people do wipe away the face of the world so that the way things seem is no longer available to us, and that means that beauty is no longer available to us, either.

Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995
Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995

Here’s an example of a work of art, if you can call it that, which was created by two brothers. It’s quite normal now in the products of the British art schools for people to do joint works of art like this because that way you get rid of the romantic idea of the artistic genius who has something special to say. You’re doing it together with someone else. And of course, the purpose in this case is to make the human body repulsive, into a kind of liquid, standing in these childish Mary Jane shoes with all the parts deformed – penis instead of nose and things like that. What its point is can only be understood if you realize that these boys were brought up in an art school which tells them that the purpose of art in not to beautify life, in no way to replace the sacred moments that religion might have given us, in no way to give you a sense of the meaningfulness of things. On the contrary, it is to deconstruct those things, to show that life is essentially meaningless, and you can best do this by taking the human body and making it repulsive.

Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998
Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998

We all know of Tracey Emin’s famous bed – which last changed hands at two million pounds – in which she presented, well, her bed – after she had got out of it, of course, and with all the debris of her night’s dissipation lying on the carpet around it. And there it is. It’s in the Tate Modern Gallery now, its permanent resting place, although of course those sheets are going to rot away quicker than most sheets do. I want to contrast it with another bed, which I mentioned in the film I made about this: Delacroix’s bed. Delacroix, as you know, is a great French painter from the Romantic period, who is also a highly learned and interested cultural figure, perhaps one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century cultural figures in France.

Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828
Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828

Here is his bed. This isn’t an actual bed, of course, this is a painting of a bed. In painting it, he has tried to transfer into the bed some of his sense of the value of lying in it, of being the thing that was in it, and also what it meant to wrestle with the sheets in that way. A comparison of these two does help you to understand a little bit about what’s gone wrong with art today. Tracey Emin’s bed presents itself but obviously nothing beyond itself; it just is there. Delacroix’s bed presents something other than itself. It’s a life that’s been translated into those fabrics, a perpetuation in another form of a spiritual wrestling, which we know from Delacroix’s life and his other paintings – that wrestling with fabric, with reality, the flexibility of this world, and the attempt to impose upon it a meaningful human form, if you like, a testimony to the spiritual life with which we invest all the objects that we’re in touch with. So he was looking for a kind of harmony, order, even a redemption in the shape of those sheets. He’s searching for the trace left in them by the spirit, which will be a meaning beyond the present moment. Here we’re talking about the difference between an attempt to represent life, which is also a transfiguration of a life into something which is a permanent record of the spirit, and the mere debris of a life. Once you see it you realize that only the first of those is a genuine artistic activity.

However, we’ve entered this period in our history where ugliness has become a kind of cult – not ugliness as such but more transgressive ugliness, like those melted-together human figures of the Chapman brothers. It’s an ugliness that pollutes or negates some familiar ideal or value. Transgression is something which also has a certain appeal, especially to younger people. It’s an act of self-affirmation that frees itself from judgment. The transgressive gesture is one that says, “I don’t actually care whether you judge me or not. I’m going do it and I’m going to affirm myself against your judgment, and that is in itself a liberation.” I think we’ve seen this in every sphere of human endeavor since the 1960s: the assumption of the freedom to offend, the freedom to annihilate other people’s vision of what matters, and to show that the values for which other people live don’t count for you. That’s a stage which obviously all of us have to go through at certain points in our lives. We have to fight against our parents, fight against institutions, fight against the people who seem to be preventing us from being what we truly are and going out into the world and claiming it as our own. In the normal run of things that’s not a particularly bad thing to do because, after all, once you’re out there in the big world, feeling the winds of change around you, you realize that you are actually on your own and that it was a terrible mistake to be so offensive to the people you need, and gradually you work your way back to them. You reassume possession of them in their view and you are reconciled and forgiven, as in the famous parable of the prodigal son. So there’s a paradox in this position of assuming the freedom to offend: it’s only because other people’s values count for you that you can be exhilarated by defying them or disavowing their ideals.

William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953
William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953

Nevertheless this is certainly what artists at a certain stage did. De Kooning was a paradigm of this. He’s an artist who, I think, has largely been seen through now, except in America – and the reason why he has not been seen through in America is that a lot of money has been spent on his pictures. So museums, art critics, and private owners conspire together to make sure they are not going to lose the two million dollars that they spent on them. If you can keep the values up, your museum is still worth what you invested in it. This is just called Woman, and it’s his representation of what a woman fundamentally is. All those ideals of womanhood which you might have entertained in your self-deceiving moments are as nothing compared with this representation.

And here is another instance of this way of approaching our ideals. Rusalka – some of you may know this great opera by Dvorak – tells the famous story of Ondine the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal. And it’s a beautiful, romantic story not only about the mystery of woman but also about the importance of chastity and purity in preparing a woman for love, and the danger in which she is put by that. And of course this is symbolized by the fact that there she is living in the water. If she comes out of it, is that the end of her? And if she tempts the mortal into the water, is that the end of him? This story has been told many times, but never as well as by Dvorak. This is the production that Covent Garden made of that opera in which Rusalka, the pure water nymph who dreams of an erotic relation which no water nymph is allowed, is a prostitute and the water is the bath in which she is lying, expecting the stream of lovers. And for reasons that can’t be explained she sings an aria to the moon.

Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir
Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir

Now that’s simply one example of a very ordinary occurrence in opera productions today. The idea in so many opera producers’ minds when given a romantic fairy tale like this is of course to desecrate it if you can, and also to bring in sex, violence, and all the usual stuff in order that the audience you have trapped there – an audience of ordinary, decent middle-class people who spent a couple hundred dollars for the ticket – well, you can really give them a hard time. You’re never going to get them there in any other way because they came for this beautiful romantic legend – and they won’t come again, but you’ve got them for a couple hours anyway. This is the way in which opera productions tend to go now. Why did all this come about?

I think we can’t understand this great movement to desecrate works of art like that if we don’t attend a little bit to the phenomenon of kitsch and the distrust of beauty that arose because of kitsch. The Romantic movement that arose, as you know, at the end of the eighteenth century and dominated all of art through the nineteenth century was a movement away from beauty, the homely sorts of beauty that appeal to ordinary people and that don’t seem to threaten them. There was a movement toward the sublime, presenting great tragedies rather than sweet fairy tales, emphasizing the difficulties of human life, the difficulty of emerging from a life of oppression, and so on. We have many great works of Romantic art which focus on these fairly negative aspects of the human condition but try to find beauty in them nevertheless. All this is epitomized in Beaudelaire’s famous poem to beauty, which I recommend you to read, Fleurs du Mal. There was a movement away from the beautiful and at the same time a fear of the sweetness that beauty can bring into our lives. Isn’t there a kind of deception involved in that? If life really is as bad as we all know it to be, isn’t art deceiving us by trying to make us accept it and find sweetness and consolation in it? Maybe there is no sweetness and consolation. Maybe art should have another role, that of showing the truth to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to perceive it. If art concentrates on beauty, isn’t it going to degenerate into a form of lying, a form of faking things?

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486
Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486

I’ll give you a contrast between two Venuses. Everybody knows Botticelli’s Venus, who is so detached from the world, and I contrast him with the Venus of Bouguereau, being the famous salon painter of the nineteenth century in France who was a wonderfully accomplished painter in the style of Ingres, but a question mark inevitably is placed over him because of this sweetness and gentleness and also the perfection of everything he did, which seemed to many people to be a kind of lying. Beaudelaire expressly defended Manet against Bouguereau because Manet was showing us life as it is without any of this cloying sweetness. You all know Botticelli’s Venus, not an easy way to show it, but in that face you see a particular conception of what the erotic is. Botticelli was a Platonist, who believed as Plato did that beauty is an object of desire but it’s also a gateway to the transcendental, that you understand what beauty really is if you follow through that gateway, leave behind your earthly desires, and unite with the spiritual condition from which they originally spring.

William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879
William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879

This face for him was not an object of sexual desire but an object of a sexual desire that had been transcended. She was Simonetta Vespucci, who was mistress of his prince Lorenzo de Medici, and therefore unobtainable anyway. The thought in this Venus is the symbol of the erotic as Plato conceived it, something to be transcended into the spiritual.

Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, as you see, is all perfection of form but doesn’t mean anything. There she is, sniffing her freshly shaven armpit, waiting for the lover who’s going to come through the bathroom door, and obviously she’ll have to get rid of the company meanwhile. Bouguereau was a great master of color and form, but somehow the sentiment is fake: it isn’t a real Venus. This is sexuality in its ordinary, vulgar form without any attempt to show you the meaning of it and its reflection in the transcendental.

Desecration takes many forms. But if we worry about kitsch – which all artists today do – what do we do about it? There are two ways of dealing with it. First, try and find a way of producing real art that is not kitsch. And that’s a really hard thing to do: producing art that doesn’t have this fake character, isn’t childish and isn’t a Christmas decoration. Or you can do what Jeff Koons does: produce something that is so obviously kitsch that no one could ever accuse you of it. He’s saying, “Of course, this is such obvious kitsch that I must be making another and deeper point.” No one has ever discovered what the deeper point is. But there it is, desecrating a beautiful classical façade probably for many years to come.

Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000
Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000

The causes of this situation in which we find ourselves go deep. We have acquired this distrust of beauty because it is an invitation into realms that have been mined. There are traps here. You might fall into the trap of Bouguereau; however beautiful your human figures, they turn out in the end just to be standard Christmas card porn, or something like that. The reality slips away from you and you’re left with this fake.

Artists have come to distrust beauty. And I think you all know this from modern cinema and much modern music as well. There is an attempt often to show that you’re a genuine artist by producing something that nobody could possibly like, so you must be serious. And there are consolations also of ugliness, consolations of showing that in some way life doesn’t matter anyway. That’s the meaning of the Chapman brothers’ sculpture. Life is simply a nothingness. We happen to have been born and we will die and decay and disappear – and so what? There’s a charm in that kind of view, a charm which I call the charm of disenchantment. Being disenchanted with things gives you a kind of glamor. If you go around a room of people who are ooh-ing and aah-ing with fake enchantment about kitsch, then your being disenchanted gives you a kind of distinction.

Many artists aspire to that distinction of not being taken in by anything, not being dupes to the surrounding culture and values. Added to this there is a desire to desecrate values as well, like putting graffiti on things or a moustache on the Mona Lisa. When that moustache was first put on the Mona Lisa by Marcel duChamps, you can see what he was doing. He was saying, “Yes, yes, yes, but we’ve gone beyond that. That’s all nonsense. You might be taken in by that but I’m not.” And essentially, ever since that gesture which was made a hundred years ago, the majority of art that we’ve come across, at least the art coming from art schools, has been putting another moustache on the Mona Lisa. The question automatically arises as to whether there is any point in doing it twice, let alone a thousand times. The thought behind all this is that we’ve asked too much of art, we’ve asked it to be a substitute for religion, to be the light from and the window onto the transcendental. If it disappoints us, we start becoming angry with it. Disappointment turns to repudiation.

So what is the mission of art, then? Is there a mission we can still maintain? I believe we all have a need for redemption. I don’t mean that necessarily in the religious sense. I mean that we need our actions, our gestures, our plans and projects, to have a fulfillment of some kind, to lift us out of the day-to-day appetites that otherwise swallow us. All our actions aim towards this; they aim beyond themselves to a point of rest in which we can look back and endorse what we have done. This is obviously the case with human relations, especially love relations, but it’s there in all our lives and a life without this, without ideals, gets tired of itself. When people set out on the path of transgression it’s partly because they’ve become disappointed with the possibility of actually achieving this sort of redemption.

Where, then, does beauty fit into this and what can it actually do by way of satisfying this desire? I have argued that the search for beauty is the search for home, for a place where you can be at home with yourself and with others, but in particular where you belong. Going back to the Renoir painting, which is a painting of a landscape as a thing that we belong to, being at home means being at home with yourself. And that means seeing yourself in some way as another, as another person, seeing yourself from outside – not just this selfish self-involved thing you are familiar with when you wake up in the morning, but that other thing which you were when you went to bed, having spent the day with other people. You want to be at home with what you find. I think this search for being at home does not start with high art, nor does it end there. One of the reasons people have become so confused about beauty is because they have constantly taken their examples from the realm of high art, those great and difficult things like Botticelli’s Venus, which you have to think about for an awfully long time before you know what it really means. High art challenges us in the deepest parts of our being, and maybe we get turned off by it, we feel we can’t live up to it, so let’s live in another way. But that’s not where the search for beauty begins, nor is it where it ends.

I think it begins and ends in everyday life. People misconceive aesthetics when they see it merely as the realm of beauty. It is as though that’s all we were ever thinking about when we were going around our world making aesthetic judgments. “Oh yes, that’s beautiful. No, that’s ugly.” But that’s not the way we behave at all. We actually make completely different kinds of judgments. We talk about whether something fits in, whether it’s graceful, whether that would be the right way to go forward, does this color fit with that color and so on. And I think people take revenge on beauty because they don’t see that there’s something more important without which there can be no revenge. And that more important thing is just our instinct to get things right, to make things fit in and harmonize. This is where the aesthetic judgment is a fundamental part of our everyday lives; we are making it all the time.

Now, I’m not a natty dresser but even I had to question whether this tie goes with this jacket. It probably doesn’t, but nevertheless the question occupied me for a certain amount of time, and it was part of my attempt to fit in and harmonize and also to fit in to this occasion where I’m giving a public lecture. You could put this, however, in a much more pretentious and philosophical way by saying that when we do this we’re trying to realize ourselves as subjects in the realm of objects. That’s the language that Hegel and his followers would use. It’s a tough language, but you can see what it means. We are free beings, we are subjects who have an inner life, but that inner life is not meaningful to us if we cannot in some way make it into an outward reality among other outward realities. In all our gestures we are trying achieve that, to become something real, and part of things – to belong, in other words.

So, this realization is something that goes on all the time and all rational beings are engaged in it. Children know about this already. In these two little girls you see what Wittgenstein would call the natural expression of aesthetic judgment. There they are, trying to fit things in the right place on the table. They’re not saying to themselves, “Is this beautiful, is this ugly, or sublime?” Those words are not part of their vocabulary, probably, but they are asking themselves the question, “Is this right? Am I getting it right? Should it be a little more to the left?” You can see the intent expression here, something only human beings manifest. No animals manifest this sense of the rightness and wrongness of things because these girls are not reasoning instrumentally. They are completely beyond the idea of the function of these things. They are trying to fit things together so they look right, so the guests will find that they look right, too. That’s the beginnings of the aesthetic attitude.

We know this as well. We don’t accept the world simply as a thing out there, an assembly of objects. We try and adorn it and fit it to ourselves and us to it. We are always aware of the distinction between things standing out and fitting in. Sometimes it’s right for them to stand out; sometimes it’s wrong. Fitting in is one of the most important aspects of our life in every sphere of human endeavor. We all have this need to be part of something greater than ourselves, and this is something that happens to us all day long: that we know that we are part of something greater and we know that we are either fitting in or not fitting in. Obviously there is a distinction between looking right and being right, but one of the important features of the aesthetic is that that distinction gets collapsed. If you look back at the two children, there isn’t a distinction between the plate being in the right place and looking in the right place. Being and seeming have come together and that’s perhaps something that’s really important for us – to live in a world where every now and then being and seeming coincide, so that nothing, as it were, deceives us anymore.

I think this is part of the great social significance of the aesthetic. We live in a world which has in many ways been uglified, and it’s a world that we want to redeem so that we are part of it once again and our fulfillment is reflected back to us from all the things we encounter. And that’s really part of what I mean by redemption and that is the function of the aesthetic. This search for getting things right is an all-pervasive thing, no matter what circumstances you are in. Even if you’re living in a trailer park you can do things right. You can go to a local timber merchant and buy the Georgian windows to replace the rubbish that would otherwise be there, you can have a little cornice and so on. And if there’s a lot of money involved you can still get things totally wrong.

This is a part of London, and as you can see, someone’s made a mistake here. There’s another example of London mistakes. But here is getting it right. This is just an ordinary Victorian street in London. Someone has built a bridge across it so that two buildings communicate, but this is a totally different thing. Although there’s lots of different buildings there, they all harmonize. They harmonize because they’re standing along a street, they are all built of vertical components which match each other, and contain they classical details, cornice and stringcourse and pilasters and so on. And here’s an example of a modern town center, the center of Reading, built entirely out of horizontals. One of the important differences between them is everybody wants to live here, and nobody wants to live there, and in fact nobody does live there. The center of Reading was destroyed completely by this development and it’s standing empty and vandalized and covered in graffiti.

modernist living room
A living room of modernist design

This emphasis on the horizontal was originally a very aesthetic thing. The modernist aesthetic exemplified in this interior is entirely designed in this way. You can see that, yes, this is a kind of aesthetic ideal. Nobody, I’m sure, has ever sat in this room but nevertheless you can see that it has aesthetic thoughts behind it. Unlike this. But the modernists, of course, were in reaction against this, all this Victorian clutter, which again is something that most people would find extremely difficult to live with now.

Here is an example of a rather perfected modernist interior: Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna, which he designed for his sister. Wittgenstein, like me, had the sense that architecture ultimately must get the vertical emphasis right, must make verticals stand in parallel to each other, and that the sense of detail matters. This is not my preferred form of architecture but you can see the aesthetic instinct at work in everything in this building. He designed it for his sister, who never lived in it. It ended up as the embassy of a communist country, for which it is wonderfully suited.

Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna
Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna

This is an example of what architects really can do when it comes to making corners. This is the corner of a church in Rome, by Pietro da Cortona. You see when you have the sense of detail, the classical idiom and this desire to fit things together, how a building comes alive and captures the light of the sun and incorporates that light into itself, makes it part of its own spirit, so to speak. Even in architecture the human spirit finds its embodiment.

In conclusion, those examples were sort of taken from the air, really, but they’re meant to emphasize the place of aesthetic judgment, of our desire to get things right, in ordinary, everyday life and in our enterprise as builders and dwellers, as people who have settled down. We know that we are free beings, but we also know that freedom demands recognition. This is something that Hegel emphasized. It has to be re-expressed for every generation.

Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667
Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667

We’re not truly free until others recognize that we are free and grant us the space to be free in. And that means that we’re in relations of mutuality with each other. My freedom is always rubbing up against the edge of your freedom, and that boundary between us is the public world where we both belong. And it is in shaping that boundary between us that the aesthetic sense is so important. That’s where, in our search for recognition from each other, we attempt to be graceful towards each other and to bring each other to our side. I bring you to my side, you bring me to your side, so that the boundary where we coincide is mutually acceptable. This reasonably cool grace is a matter of harmony and fitting in. Of course, it cannot be achieved without the habit of giving and receiving: I give way to you, you give way to me, I offer you things and you receive them. This is what the public world ideally should be. That kind of giving and receiving of things is what should be embodied in our ideal forms of architecture.


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