There is a world of beauty in modern (art) music that will surprise people who have been put off by the lack of melody and harmony in prominent 20th Century works. In his new book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listeners Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Robert Reilly uncovers the work of neglected composers who have kept alive the tradition of beauty in music. As he says in the following interview with Michael Cook, his aim is “to give those thirsting for the beauty a place to start their explorations.”
I read a review the other day of a talented American pianist and singer called Perfume Genius who “transforms beauty and ugliness into doppelgängers”. Much of modern music seems to invite us to search for beauty in discordance and pain. Is that the way forward? Is tonality old-fashioned?
You packed in a number of questions.
I presume the review’s allusion to doppelgänger means turning beauty and ugliness into the same thing. However, ugliness is the aesthetic analogue to evil. Operating on the doppelgänger assumption, may we then say that evil is beautiful? This approach seems to lead in this direction and to metaphysical madness. It’s very dangerous to lose the distinction between beauty and ugliness and to pretend that they could become same thing.
Simone Weil wrote: “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.” If beauty goes, so too goes the presence behind it. In other words, you can only merge beauty and ugliness if you break the link between beauty and goodness. This is what is at stake. On the other hand, beauty is painful. It disturbs us. It awakens in us longings that cannot be satisfied by anything within our experience. That is because it is ultimately a desire for the everlasting hills.
In more mundane terms, let me address another aspect of the problem around Gresham’s Law – that bad money drives out good money. An inflated currency will drive out sound currency from the marketplace. No one will exchange a real silver dollar for a paper dollar worth a quarter of its value. In a similar fashion, ugliness crowds out beauty. I recall seeing an architectural jewel of neo-Romanesque concert hall flanked by two ugly concrete buildings that looked like World War I pillboxes. All that was missing were artillery tubes coming out of the windows. I knew instinctively that there would be attempts to tear down the beautiful building because it was such an affront to the competing ugliness of the adjoining ones. And so it was.
I employed a very simple teaching method with my children. I regularly showed them beautiful things and great movies and played for them some of the finest music. I didn’t preach about these things; I simply let them experience them. They gained an intuitive appreciation for beauty and were automatically repelled by ugliness. I then let them explain to me what was wrong with it. When my oldest son was still in grade school, he came back from seeing a movie with one of his classmates. The father driving the car played only acid rock on the car radio. My son returned very agitated about the music. I asked him what was wrong with it. He replied, “It is irritating to the mind.” I then knew that what I was doing worked.
As to your question about tonality – tonality is very old but not “old-fashioned.” One could likewise say that the laws of nature are old but not old-fashioned. Tonality is the law of nature in the world of sound. Ignore it at your peril. Melody, harmony and rhythm are the ingredients of good music. Systematically atonal music, which has typified a good bit of 20th century music, lost at least two of these ingredients – melody and harmony – and one might even say the third, since what remains of rhythm becomes highly artificial without the other two. It loses a natural beat.
“Tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietschze’s God died,” says one of your favourite composers, John Adams. Do trends in modern music have something to do with trends in modern philosophy?
Absolutely. Ideas have consequences. Much of modern philosophy denied that there is any such thing as natural law or an inbuilt order in nature. This is a logical consequence of the so-called death of God. This spilled over into the arts, including music. The impact of nihilism on the arts of the 20th century was succinctly explained by the late English conductor Colin Davis in an interview:
“Have you read The Sleepwalkers by Herman Broch? In it, Broch analyzes the disintegration of Western values from the Middle Ages onward. After man abandoned the idea that his nature was in part divine, the logical mind assumed control and began to try to deduce the first principles of man’s nature through rational analysis. The arts followed a similar course: each art turned in upon itself, and reduced itself further and further by logical analysis until today they have all just about analyzed themselves out of existence.”
In the early 20th century, composer Arnold Schoenberg contended that tonality does not exist in nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras claimed (and Heinrich Hertz proved), but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention that he could change. Therefore, he claimed, dissonance could be heard as consonance once people were habituated to it. Schoenberg’s whole system is really a failed attempt in music to prove this philosophical proposition.
What’s more, Schoenberg also said that he had been “cured of the delusion that the artist's aim is to create beauty.” His “truly new music,” he prophesied in 1931, “is destined to become tradition.” The last 30 years or so have been a giant rebuke to this prediction, as more and more composers have turned away from Schoenberg’s 12-tone system. How wrong he was about the presumed exhaustion of tonality is amply illustrated in my book in the return to tonal beauty.
If I think of 20th Century orchestral music, like most people, I think of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Is there “another 20th Century” in music?
Yes, and it is a largely undiscovered country that is now being explored. During that difficult time, many composers simply soldiered on, writing beautiful music as it has always been understood. For this, they suffered ridicule and neglect. Others saw the expressive limits of atonal music and the need to return to tonality.
Since you quoted John Adams – perhaps the most popular American classical composer today – allow him to spell out the grounds upon which beauty has been recovered in our own time. In reference to the title of his breakthrough composition Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony) Adams explained, “The meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.” His description of the 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. As a dear friend, the late American composer Steve Albert, put it, “It is a matter of trying to find beauty in art again, for art is about our desire for spiritual connection.”
Some composers never lost that spiritual connection; others remade it. Composer George Rochberg described his attempt to “regain contact with the tradition and means of the past” in order to recover beauty. There are many such composers, including today, too many to include in my guide. Though my book extends to more than 500 pages, it barely scratches the surface. That is the great good news. But I try to give those thirsting for the beauty a place to start their explorations. I think they will find the discoveries exhilarating, even life-changing. I believe the rehabilitation of these composers will change the reputation of modern music.
I also want to emphasize that a great deal of the music I cover is enjoyable in a more every day sense of the term and simply fun to listen to. Its purpose is joy.
We have lived through one tortured century and the one we are living in now is not looking much better. Surely music needs to convey the pain of living in troubled times….
Of course. Great music will inevitably convey pain but it points to something greater – to the transcendent. It makes the transcendent perceptible. However, to reach that level can itself be painful – because it’s a struggle. What’s wrong with music that abandons its hieratic vocation is that it leaves us with nothing but pain. Ugliness is pain without hope. The screeching in a good deal of modern music is the sound of despair.
So it is possible to express joy, serenity and transcendence musically?
Indeed, it is. As you know, Bach did it, as did Beethoven, Bruckner and a host of others whose names are still well known. But so too have composers in the 20th century and own time who have aimed at the same goals. One of the greats of the 20th century, Jean Sibelius, wrote: “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.” And Igor Stravinsky proclaimed: “The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellowman and with the Supreme Being.” Closer to our own times, let me quote from English composer John Tavener, who died several years ago. “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’.”
Why don’t we know more about this kind of music?
That’s why I wrote the book. If it doesn’t sound too self-serving, may I suggest that you will know a lot more if you read Surprised by Beauty?
But why haven’t we known more? Some of the music was suppressed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes because it didn’t comply with their totalitarian purposes. There was some great music written by Jewish composers in Germany and Austria immediately before and during the Nazi era that is only now surfacing. Unfortunately, after World War II, this music did not have a chance to gain or regain its place in the repertoire because the avant-garde took over and turned against anything written in the more traditional tonal manner. Wait till you hear the works of Walter Braunfels, for instance. After he refused Hitler’s request to write the Nazi party anthem, his music was banned. Jewish composer Hans Gál escaped with his life and continued to compose in obscurity in Scotland. Finally, we can hear his wonderful symphonies and quartets.
We had the same avant-garde here in the United States that, through its control of the prize system, academia and performance opportunities, excluded the same kind of music from American composers. The avant-garde is now passé, praise be!, and this kind of music is now being played and recorded.
Could you tell us a bit about 3 or 4 of your favourites?
Now you’re putting me on the spot. I have to at least mention Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, which is what started me on my musical rampage many decades ago. Quite by accident, I heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of it with the New York Philharmonic. When the music stopped, I was a changed man.
Here’s a suggestion from our own time. The single most performed American composer of choral music is Morten Lauridsen. Listen to his Lux aeterna and you will discover why. From younger American orchestral composers, I appreciate the open hearted, lyrical music of Kenneth Fuchs, and the soaring lyricism and passion in Jonathan Leshnoff’s music.
One of my relatively recent discoveries is the octogenarian Irish composer John Kinsella, who just completed his 11th Symphony. His symphonic works are unbelievably magnificent and stirring. His noble musical lineage is in Sibelius, Bruckner and Berlioz.
You cover an amazing range of 20th century and contemporary symphonic composers in “Surprised by Beauty” from all over Europe and North America. Are there more to be “discovered” in South America, Africa or Asia?
Yes, there are. Because of the size to which the book grew, the publisher cut a substantial number of pages that contain some of these composers. I’m particularly aware of composers in Mexico (think only of Daniel Catán’s gorgeous opera, Florencia en el Amazonas) and South America – particularly Argentina and Brazil (I do have a chapter on the fascinating Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos). Africa – with the exception of South Africa – and Asia have fewer for the simple reason that Western musical systems have not prevailed there. Also, in some locales, the educational and musical infrastructure does not exist that makes a compositional career possible. Some of these can be found in the “Musical Treasure Map” section of the book’s website:
And where can listeners taste these masters? I felt like going out to buy 329 CDs after reading your book. But that's not possible for most of us.
Sir Roger Scruton wrote a wonderful review of the book largely by listening to many of the suggested compositions on YouTube. Readers can sample in this way before they shop. They can get a general sense of whether a composer I am recommending is to their taste or not, and take it from there. The book also provides a list of online resources for streaming. For those who still like hard copy CDs, I recommend Google shopping in order to find some incredible deals. I recently saw the complete symphonies of Vaughan Williams for $12 and Sibelius’ for $10, in very good performances. Readers will discover that I favor many recordings from budget to midprice labels, like Naxos. And don’t forget used CDs, which are even less expensive. You don’t really need to get a second mortgage on your house to start listening. So one needs pay very little for some priceless treasures.
Robert R. Reilly was the music critic for Crisis magazine for 16 years, and reviews concerts and operas for Ionarts. He has written for High Fidelity, Musical America, Schwann/Opus, and the American Record Guide. In his 25 years in government, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the White House under President Ronald Reagan, and the U. S. Information Agency. He was also the director of Voice of America. He has published widely on foreign policy, “war of ideas” issues, and classical music. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind and other books.