Reilly: Surprised by Beauty

February 15, 2010

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.

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21 Responses to “Reilly: Surprised by Beauty”


  1. I’ve got to find a copy of this book. Nielsen, Janacek, and Holmboe are already favourites, and I see from the Amazon page that the book also deals with Frank Martin, Malipiero, Mathias, Rubbra, Sallinen, and Tubin. There is no good writing on any of those composers, and their music is so obscure that one can hardly mention them to other musicians without seeing eyes roll. A former professor of mine called this the “other twentieth century,” and there’s no reason why this music shouldn’t be much more popular.

    I rebel a bit, however, against the facile association of atonality with atheism and evil. Many “atonal” composers (particularly Schoenberg, Wuorinen and Xenakis) strike me as frustrated Romantics, who write powerful music with large, sweeping gestures, but in a harmonic style that most people would find foreign. And plenty of the “rejected” composers championed by Reilly wrote extremely dissonant music: Malipiero’s late works, for example, are gnomic, oddly orchestrated serial works which will never be popular. The biggest enigma of all is John Cage: his post-1950 compositions are almost completely worthless, but his Buddhist-influenced philosophy of the merits of silence and the beauty that can be found in the everyday has echoes in Christian thought, and has been explicitly endorsed by such Catholic writers as E. F. Schumacher and Fr. James Schall. I don’t know what aesthetic conclusions one can draw from any of this, but I for one am glad to be able to listen to Xenakis as well as Vaughan Williams.

    Finally, a warning to be very critical about anything Robert Craft says! He is notorious for trying to legitimize his own dubious aesthetics by putting words in the mouth of the composers he worked with, most notoriously in his almost entirely fabricated books of “conversations” with the elderly Stravinsky.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Osbert. I did not know that Robert Craft was an untrustworthy source. Last year I read his book of journal entries about his life with the Stravinskys. I hope that wasn’t fabricated.

    I actually agree with you that Reilly sometimes lets his polemical zeal get the better of him. One cannot draw a straight and narrow line between atheism and atonality. I do think, however, that one can draw a slightly crooked and smudgy line. Not every atheist is going to write atonally; neither it is impossible to write sacred atonal music. (Webern tried it, and I like Webern very much). Even so, reading the book I was struck by how religious or “spiritual” themes arose again and again as these tonal composers described their music.

    I also agree with you that Schoenberg was a frustrated romantic — I recently heard Gurrelieder for the first time, and was blown away by it — but I don’t see that that necessarily contradicts Reilly’s argument. As to Xenakis, well, I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and it would never have occurred to me to call him any sort of romantic! To me his “music” really does sound like the gnashing of teeth.

    Cage is another matter. He’s an enigma to me too. Some of his music I find really attractive. (I would say the same of Morton Feldman, and for similar reasons.) Other pieces upset me with their triviality or ugliness. In the end I admired him enough not to include him in my list of radicals above. (Reilly shows no such reticence.)

  3. cburrell Says:

    Oh, and I wish you luck finding a copy of this book. It is out of print already, and though used copies can be found they will cost you a pretty penny. The copy I read was from the university library.


  4. The Xenakis piece to listen to, if you haven’t already, is Aïs, with solo percussion and a hauntingly beautiful baritone solo setting ancient Greek texts by Homer and Sappho. This is one of the few pieces where he seems to let his guard down and allow himself to be conventionally “expressive” – there are a couple of lament-like sections for the solo vocalist that are almost diatonic. For me, this was the key to the rest of the music – there is a very unique sort of energy and even emotional expression in much of Xenakis, despite the composer’s own attempts to deny it. (He had half of his face blown off by an enemy shell during the Greek civil war, and seems to have had plenty of psychological scars to go with the physical ones.)

    That’s my take on it. Of course, I also find much of Boulez quite beautiful, so maybe I’m just strange.

    I’d certainly agree that there is at least a loose connection between compositional antimodernism and religious faith – of the major modernist composers, only Messiaen and Stravinsky were known for their Christian faith, and their works are highly idiosyncratic and almost always include some sort of tonal centre. I suppose a red flag goes up in my mind whenever someone seems to be painting this in unduly broad strokes: although there are plenty of 1970s academic serial compositions that have no possible aesthetic interest for anyone, there are literally hundreds of twentieth-century composers that are worth the effort. To take an overly polemical tack (tonal is good, atonal is bad) merely encourages people to stop listening, and it’d be a shame if people missed out on music they could learn to enjoy because they thought their dislike of Varese corresponded to some sort of Metaphysical Truth.

    In any case, I look forward to reading his take on the Other Twentieth Century – I eventually found a reasonably priced used copy, which should be here before too long. . .

  5. cburrell Says:

    I take your point that an overly polemical attitude can do an injustice to worthy music. This post was more polemical than I actually feel, mostly because I was trying to present Reilly’s argument as well as I could. I do like some atonal music — Webern in particular is a favourite of mine — but evidently I don’t like as much of it as you do. It is also true that even when I like it, I am suspicious of it, and Reilly’s book has provoked me to think about why. As you said before, it is facile to make too straightforward a correspondence between a work of art and a metaphysical truth; but at the same time it is facile to treat them as two solitudes. Every creative work of man is metaphysical.

    I have heard Xenakis’ Ais, and I did not care for it, but on your recommendation I’ll give it another try. The pieces of his which I found most palatable were those written for solo instruments; perhaps it is the necessary spareness of the music — the limited possibility of collision — that makes it palatable to me. But plenty of other composers have written music for solo instruments that I’d like to hear before hearing Xenakis again.

    I’m glad to hear you’re getting a copy of the book. I hope you enjoy reading it.


  6. “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).”

    That is a brilliant line. I’m still chuckling.

    I’ve heard just enough Rautavaara to be very interested in hearing more. It may have been one of Reilly’s columns in Crisis that put me on to him.

    There is definitely a spiritual problem with the modernist aesthetic in general, though it has a lot of twists that make it hard to pin down. And I’ve never answered to my own satisfaction the question of the relationship of specific techniques to spiritual sickness or health.

  7. cburrell Says:

    I haven’t answered that question either, though I certainly think that Reilly’s claim, that there is an affinity between atheism and the mode of musical expression that dominated the last century, deserves to be heard and considered.

    I have not heard much Rautavaara myself, but what I have heard has left me underwhelmed. On the other hand, this week I listened to some music of Geirr Tveitt on Reilly’s recommendation (from emusic), and it was terrific.


  8. Finished reading the book! I have a lengthy response here, and would be most interested in your thoughts.

  9. robert reilly Says:

    I must say that I was delighted to discover, quite by accident, this thoughtful review of my book, which came out so long ago(2002). Thank you so much for your kind and generous remarks.

    I was, though, slightly puzzled that you should think that I believe an athiest must compose atonal music. I think no such thing. (The best music critic in Great Britain, a dear friend, is an athiest, who writes brilliantly on sacred and liturgical music. I keep trying to promote him to agnosticism but he stoutly refuses to abandon his athiesm. In any case, it does not impair his critical faculties. I also admire and have written on Robert Simpson’s music, and he was of the same orientation.) I was making a more general philosophical point that athiesm destroys the normative foundations of natural law, of which tonality is a part. It was John Adams who made the point that he had learned that tonality died around the same time as Nietzsche’s God died. I was trying to explain what that meant.

    By the way, whatever Robert Craft’s reputation is for possibly making up things Stravinsky is supposed to have said, I can guarantee to you that he did say those things in my book to me (I have them on tape). Like you, my eyes popped out when I heard them.

    Thanks, again.

  10. cburrell Says:

    My apologies for this slow response to your remarks, Mr. Reilly. A busy life has kept me away from the keyboard this past week or two. Nonetheless, I really appreciate that you took the time to leave a comment.

    I think that the problem may be that I said you drew an “explicit three-way connection” between atheism, atonality, and ugliness. I did not mean by this — and I know that you did not mean by this — that there is a necessary connection between those three things. The weaker claim that there is an “affinity” between these things is something that, unless I am mistaken, you would defend. I think it is a defensible position.

    I have not heard much of Robert Simpson’s music. His Symphony No.9 is very beautiful. I know that Hyperion has recorded quite a lot of his music, and I am sometimes tempted to spring for those recordings, but I have not yet done so.

    Osbert Parsley, who commented above, has recently himself written some commentary on your book, and you can find his thoughtful remarks here.

    Thanks again for stopping by. I greatly enjoyed your book, and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to thank you for writing it.

  11. robert reilly Says:

    I would like to send you my article on Simpson if you would be good enough to send me an email address.

    Parsley is very interesting, and provocative. I, of course, never said nor would I say that dissonance is analogous to evil. Also, no one in the 19th century banned all audible overtone relationships from music. Only Schoenberg did that, and he did it not for musical reasons but for metaphysical ones. He, as good gnostic, was trying to reconstitute reality.

    I would certainly not forbid anyone from enjoying Schoenberg’s serial compositions, if they can. I would only point out that, as British philospher and composer Roger Scruton says, serialism works, to the extent it does, not because of serialism but despite it.


  12. I only just discovered these last few comments, and so I’m very late to this party, but I’d like to make a few brief remarks since my earlier post is mentioned above.

    We tend to see Schoenberg’s introduction of atonality as something unprecedented and new. And in a sense, it is – as Mr. Reilly points out above, atonality eliminates audible overtone relationships, and forces the listener to process the music in some other way. And there’s certainly a sense in which this change parallels our society’s collective abandonment of traditional teleology. Yet this has all happened before. In the early eighteenth century, for example, the theorist Johann Mattheson wrote a series of polemical tracts advocating a new music theory that abandoned the traditional system of hexachords, solmization and the church modes in favour of a new system of goal-directed tonality and affect. He was opposed by another theorist, Johann Heinrich Buttstett, who argued that the hexachordal system and the church modes represented the metaphysical order of the universe, and that abandoning it ran contrary to the natural law.

    Well, Mattheson eventually won the argument. But Buttstett was right, too – the new system of music theory would sever music from its connection to the Church. After Mattheson, the modality of Gregorian chant was an alien language and could not be integrated into a composition without losing its essential character. Mattheson’s work helped to destroy the medieval natural-law consensus and usher in the Enlightenment fetishization of “progress”. Yet if it weren’t for Mattheson, we wouldn’t have Haydn or Mozart.

    Schoenberg’s work is one of the last possible stages of the same process, albeit far more extreme. And although I don’t particularly like his music (both his tonal and atonal works strike me as emotionally overwrought and narcissistic), I also know that without Schoenberg we wouldn’t have Messiaen, or Rochberg, or Frank Martin, or the whole generation of composers who came of age after his work was well known.

    In the end, however, this may be hair-splitting. I argue with Mr. Reilly not because I am in essential disagreement with him, but because I agree with his analysis and commentary on so many issues that our minor disagreements are thrown into sharper relief. If you’re still following this thread, I’d like to thank you for your book, and for your thoughtful, readable criticism on so many terrific musical figures of the last century. Surprised by Beauty would have been worth the purchase price just for the recommendation of Harald Saeverud, whose works I’ve just begun to explore – I look forward to having the leisure to explore his works further!

  13. Maclin Says:

    I’d just like to say that, as a music lover with negligible technical knowledge, I’ve found this discussion fascinating. Personally I’ve never really made up my mind about the philosophical/religious and in general the theoretical standing of Schoenberg’s and similar work. But I do enjoy some of it (I love “Pierrot Lunaire,” for instance) and am willing to leave the questions of principle to others.

  14. cburrell Says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve really enjoyed this thread as well. It is not very often — not here, anyway — that a fairly long string of comments get written that both (a) stay on topic, and (b) add something to the original post. This one definitely qualifies.

  15. robert reilly Says:

    I agree. What a delightful, civilized discourse.

  16. cantueso Says:

    Yes, I have also never seen anything like this on the internet. I know nothing about music and landed here because I found out just in time that the article about Reilly was not by Cardinal Ratzinger.

    Probably I found it originally on the Ratzinger fan page. That was many years ago. Now I put three paragraphs of this text on a blog and said they were by the Cardinal. Next I went to look for some references and saw my mistake.

    And here is Reilly himself! I would never have thought that he was “still among us” for I never read but very old things and only the best.


  17. [...] Surprised by Beauty – Robert Reilly An alternative history of twentieth-century classical music that brings attention to a host of relatively little known composers, each of whom rejected to some degree the radicalism that dominates the standard histories. Reilly writes with knowledge and affection about these composers, who have toiled, often in deep obscurity, to carry on the tradition of writing music that is beautiful and attractive to audiences. A treasure trove. [Book Note] [...]


  18. [...] that touches on several topics that have come up here from time to time: music and morals, and music and the sacred, for instance. Each time I hear Arvo Pärt speak I am more impressed by [...]

  19. robert reilly Says:

    I wanted to let you know about the forthcoming new edition of Surprised by Beauty. Please see below from my recent column, “Five Composers in Three Days:

    Ignatius Press has agreed to bring out an expanded and revised edition of my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (initially published by Morley Press in 2002), and Laurson has generously consented to collaborate on it. We have already conspired on a list of composers whom we wish to add, including Walter Braunfels, Paul Juon, Robert Simpson, Joly Braga Santos, Ahmed Saygun, Othmar Schoeck, and Joseph Jongen. If you have not heard of these composers . . . well, that is the point of writing about them.
    There are also living composers whom we will include, such as British composer David Matthews, in whose music I am currently immersing myself. One reason for being in London was to meet him. We also had the good fortune to visit with Stephen Hough, the noted pianist, who is now devoting more time to composition; Robin Walker; and Lionel Sainsbury. I also introduced myself briefly to Ian Wilson after the première of his lovely string quartet piece Her Charms Invited.

  20. cburrell Says:

    That is great news, Mr. Reilly; thanks for letting us know. I look forward to the new edition. I know some of Robert Simpson’s music, and the little I have heard from Othmar Schoeck has impressed me, but otherwise those names are new to me.

  21. robert reilly Says:

    Thanks. This revision will take some time, but I will keep you posted and greatly appreciate your interest. I am delighted that I will have the opportunity to correct some of the errors you found.


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