Surprised by Beauty
A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music
Robert Reilly (Morley, 2002)
350 p. First reading.
The usual history of twentieth-century music pivots around the music of Arnold Schoenberg. He overturned our musical apple-cart in a radical way by declaring the tonal system “diseased” and “exhausted”, and he bequeathed us a new, atonal kind of music. Since he believed that the tonal system was just an arbitrary convention, unrelated to any natural order, he saw no reason that it could not be replaced by a heroic act of will, and he prophesied that in the future school-children would sing atonal ditties to one another across the playground. This fanciful — or absurd — dream has not been realized, and atonal music now sounds far more exhausted and tiresome than tonal music ever did (although such a statement raises the perplexing old question of whether atonal music makes a sound when there is nobody listening to it). In the meantime, however, the sonic noise of Schoenberg, Babbitt, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez, Varèse, and the rest of the radicals dominated the composers’ guild and the prize committees for most of the century. Composers who wanted to continue writing tonal music were cast into the outer darkness (though, oddly enough, the guild retained the gnashing of teeth to themselves).
In this book, Robert Reilly goes roaming through that outer darkness, searching out the music of many composers who, despite the disapproval of their peers, rejected atonality and continued writing expressive music that aimed at beauty. There are a surprisingly large number of such composers. Some of them (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams) are famous and much beloved, others (Adams, Janáček, Finzi, Villa-Lobos, Nielsen) are fairly well-known to music lovers, some (Tcherepnin, Rautavaara, Rochberg, Arnold) may be known by name but not by ear, and a few (Tveitt, Rütti, Holmboe, Saeverud) were completely unknown to me. It is to Reilly’s credit that his enthusiasm for even the most obscure of these figures is infectious. At the end of each short chapter I was ready to run out and plunge (further) into debt in order to hear this music for myself.
Reilly is a good guide. He has been writing about music for decades (including a a regular gig as music columnist at Crisis Magazine, and now at Inside Catholic), and he knows whereof he speaks. He is on familiar terms with this music, even when it is quite obscure. (In one amusing passage, discussing the Poco adagio section of Harald Saeverud’s ultra-obscure Symphony No.9, he exclaims, “I have not heard such a delectable treatment of the waltz since the second of Lars-Erik Larsson’s Due Auguri“. I don’t mind saying that it has been even longer for me.) He writes well about music, which is not easy to do, even if his range of descriptors is not quite as wide as his subject warrants; I think I counted four different composers whose music is described as “crepuscular murmurings”. But that’s a minor, and sort of endearing, fault. The repetition derives in part from the fact that many (all?) of these composer-specific essays were originally published as separate columns.
At the end of the book Reilly has included several transcribed interviews with composers and conductors. These are very interesting, and for a variety of reasons. My eyes were popping out of my head reading his interview with conductor Robert Craft, who is famous as an interpreter of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Craft essentially concedes Reilly’s point that Schoenberg’s music is arid and inhuman. (This in contrast to Stravinsky, of whom Craft forthrightly — and rightly — says, “All of his music is happy music.”) In an interview with Gian Carlo Menotti we learn that Menotti received some sort of spiritual gift or miracle through the intercession of Padre Pio. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara says that some of his compositions were inspired by encounters with angels. For many of these composers the rejection of atonality was identical with a rejection of the willfullness at its root. They chose instead to serve beauty in order to convey goodness and truth.
This is perhaps the most interesting point that emerges from these essays and the comments of the various composers: the reality of the unity of goodness, truth, and beauty, the three transcendentals. It is one thing to state that the three are ultimately one (or, for that matter, to deny that they are), but another to see that it is so. Philosophers of the old school offered metaphysical arguments of various kinds, but here, in the art of music, we encounter not an argument but a demonstration. Music, says Reilly, is the sound of metaphysics. Atonalists denied that there was a truth, an order, to which their minds must conform, and they produced ugliness. At least one of the composers in this book describes such ugliness as a manifestation of evil. And again and again we find them drawing a connection between a composition expressing truth — true feeling, rationality, or whatever it happens to be — and its being a good composition, or between music being beautiful and its being morally good, or between a desire to portray goodness and the need to write beautiful music, or between the writing of beautiful music and an inner attitude of submission and obedience to an external order of beauty.
This apparent connection between music and the transcendental goods raises the question of the relationship of music to religion and the sacred. There is a long tradition, going back to Pythagoras, of regarding music as a manifestation of the order of the cosmos, and also as reflecting and cultivating order in the human soul. Christian music theorists of the Middle Ages connected Christ, the Logos, to this “music of the spheres”, and the beauty of music was connected to both cosmic and moral order. Even today, when this intellectual framework is mostly ignored or unknown, people persist in describing certain kinds of music as “spiritual” or “transcendent”. Reilly discusses these matters in a provoking prefatory essay called “Is Music Sacred?” His answer is broadly in the affirmative, and he draws an explicit three-way connection between the atheism of the leading atonalists, their denial of an objective order governing music, and the harsh and inhuman ugliness of their compositions. If this is true, it should not be surprising to find (as we do) that many of those who rejected atonalism, and those who are rehabilitating music in its aftermath, are explicitly religious, or describe their vocation in religious terms, or are at least friendly to religious themes and interested in writing sacred music. It is God alone who can make these dry bones live.
As a history of twentieth-century music, Surprised by Beauty bears comparison with Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, which I wrote about a few years ago. Objectively, Ross’ book is the greater of the two: wider in scope, deeper in detail, and more elegantly written. Reilly’s book is not half as ambitious, and it is certainly much more polemical, with Schoenberg and his progeny the targets. But, personally, I enjoyed reading Reilly’s book more than I did Ross’. He is more obviously passionate about his subject, and I found myself eagerly devouring chapter after chapter. If you are interested in hearing “the untold story” of twentieth-century music, I recommend it highly.