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Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, by Robert R. Reilly (Ignatius Press, 2016)

roger scruton composersRobert R. Reilly was the music critic for Crisis magazine for sixteen years, and is still reviewing concerts and operas for Ionarts. He is an assiduous follower of modern music for the concert hall, and has for many years been a champion of beauty against noise and of tonality against the avant-garde. His reviews of recordings have been collected in a single volume—Surprised by Beauty—now reissued in an expanded edition by the author in association with Jens F. Laurson. The result is an indispensable guide to the forbidden land of real contemporary music, a map of the vast catacomb of serene and consoling masterworks, hidden beneath the field of fashionable noise. The downpour of state and academic subsidies, which keeps the noise industry going, does not seep through to this underworld, which is nurtured solely by the passion of its devotees. But it is the place to which real music has retreated and Dr. Reilly’s aim is to show how easily you too can visit it, thanks to the adventurous recording companies who have been there first. Moreover much of this real music has found its way onto YouTube, and it is an unusual pleasure to summon up the pieces that Dr. Reilly describes as you read his penetrating descriptions of them.

It should be said that Robert Reilly is no ordinary music critic. A former United States Army armored cavalry officer, who has served in government under President Reagan and in the United States Information Agency, and who has also been director of Voice of America, he could fairly claim to have been conducting the battle for our civilization simultaneously on all available fronts. He has written with knowledge and insight about the historical origins of Islamism in the Ash‘arite theology that came to dominate Muslim thinking in the eleventh century. His book—The Closing of the Muslim Mindis beginning to have the influence that it deserves, as we ask why it is that Islamists have no other recourse, in the encounter with those who disagree with them, than to kill as many as they can. What goes wrong, when people seriously believe that they believe something, while forbidding all debate as to its truth? This–the question on which civilizations turn–has troubled Dr. Reilly as it ought to trouble us all.

If I were to single out the features of Western civilization that justify our defense of it, and which seem to be so palpably absent from the barbarism with which the Islamists wish to replace it, the tradition of classical music would be high on the list. Dr. Reilly clearly sees things in the same way, and is as distressed as I am by the fact that a deliberate attempt has been made to bring that tradition to an end. The noise industry has conquered the faculties of musicology and composition, has displaced harmony and counterpoint from the curriculum, and set up shop with acoustic laboratories in the heart of every music school. It has equipped itself with theories, critics, and schools of composition that maintain a vigilant and censorious presence in the culture. It tells us that we must like Birtwistle, Boulez, Carter, and Nørgård if we are to show any real understanding of the modern world and the modern ear. And it rests its case in the destructive theology of the Zeitgeist, which has dominated the understanding of art since Hegel. Music, it tells us, must always be progressing, always saying something new, always conquering unexplored territory. It can never go back, never stay in one place, never be comfortable with the way things are. Any attempt to repeat the devices and effects of the past will inevitably be “inauthentic,” “pastiche,” or just “kitsch.”

In itself that collection of clichés is harmless, and could be ritualistically uttered by someone writing in the idiom of Richard Strauss or Vaughan Williams. The problem for modern music arose, however, from the way in which, thanks in part to Schoenberg, in part to Adorno and his followers, and in part to the Darmstadt school, ideas came to displace feelings as the source of musical creation. The twelve-tone serial technique gave a new theory of music, and a new way of learning to arrange pitched sounds in sequence without reference to melody or harmony. Adorno’s critical attack on the “regression in listening,” and on the exhausted nature of the old tonal sequences, made composers afraid to write tunes, for fear that the result would be merely “banal.” And then came Boulez and Stockhausen, clever charlatans who were able to intimidate the world of music lovers into believing that there could be no future for music if Boulez and Stockhausen were not put in charge of it. The fact that the resulting music was entirely without appeal was put out of mind as irrelevant. The point was the charm of the theory, not the sound of the result. A concert-hall from which the audience has fled is not a cultural disaster if a group of state-subsidized zombies is making noises at one end of it.

We have lived through all that, and the whole thing was founded on a mistake. Music is not an arrangement of “pitched sounds” in mathematical permutations. It is a dynamic process in virtual space, a form of movement in which static sounds become goal-directed tones, and simultaneous pitches are magically blended into chords. The whole enterprise of acoustical research, which for Boulez and Stockhausen spelled the way forward into the music of the future, was based on a false conception of the musical ear. It was precisely by building on theory rather than intuitive understanding that the music of the future ceased to be music, and became instead a dance of spectres in a mausoleum of sounds.

We have put that episode behind us. But it leaves us with the great question that is at the forefront of Robert Reilly’s writing about modern music: the question of a “live tradition.” How can the tradition of the classical concert hall survive the assaults of the avant-garde? Conscious repetition of learned effects does not amount to real musical content, and mere competence will always leave a “so what?” impression in the listener’s mind. So might there be some truth in Adorno’s argument that we can no longer write tonal music, since the result will always be repetitious and banal, a rearrangement of stock effects that have lost their meaning for the authentic musical ear?

Surely the way to answer that question is not to go on producing theories and counter-theories, but to listen. We need to go down for a long spell into the forbidden land of melody, and hear what its denizens are up to. And the result, Dr. Reilly shows, is truly surprising. There really are tunes down there, and they really do soar and move and enchant as tunes have always done. There is harmony, rhythm, and development too. It all goes on as before, vital but unacknowledged, like the rituals of a forbidden religion. Dr. Reilly is voluble in his praise of melody: He finds it especially in Samuel Barber, whom he credits as a founding father of modern American music, the one who never betrayed the heart for the head, and who showed how to be entirely original while speaking to every musical person.

Dr. Reilly’s search for melody leads him to concentrate on the modern symphony, whose practitioners have remained true to the classical heritage, taking intelligible thematic material and developing it in comprehensive arches of melodic and harmonic invention. It was precisely this heritage that Adorno most fervently attacked, since the symphony represents the bourgeoisie, subdued after a day in the office, slowly and peaceably recuperating in the concert hall as another group of workers toil in tuxedos for their comfort. The great symphonies of Sibelius, with their romantic evocation of the landscape beyond the villa window, were, for Adorno, an offense against modern life, as were the comparable outrages of Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, and Roy Harris—all escapist fantasies for the after-dinner hours of the bourgeoisie.

Yet composers continue to be drawn to the symphony, the concerto and the string quartet, and Robert Reilly has uncovered and described for the reader much of this hidden treasure—hidden because those who create it believe that beauty and humanity are essential to the artistic enterprise, and that clever mathematics can never be a substitute for real musical form. Among symphonists who have called forth Dr. Reilly’s praise several were all but unknown to me—including the Dane Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), composer of thirteen symphonies in a hectic idiom of their own, the Irishman John Kinsella, and the American Stephen Albert. Indeed reading Dr. Reilly’s gripping chapters, with YouTube on the screen, was both an education in itself, and a source of shame to me, who have defended tonality all these years without realizing that it is a live tradition, constantly renewing itself in defiance of an academic orthodoxy that denies its right to exist.

One modern symphonist has commanded the affection of concert-going audiences throughout the contemporary world, and that is Dmitri Shostakovich, whose great, cloying, and self-dramatizing works, with their no-holds barred assault on the listener’s emotions, both real and fake, have somehow defeated the critical outcry from the avant-garde. The special circumstances under which Shostakovich lived and worked, forced to address the people in officially sanctioned accents, while covertly reaching out to his fellow sufferers from the regime of violence and lies, have silenced the scoffers and the kitsch-hunters. This is serious music for a serious audience in a serious world. And it is gripping, eloquent and, in its demonic way, enjoyable, replete with melodies, some banal, and none exactly lovely, but melodies nevertheless.

Is it only the special and deplorable situation in which Shostakovich composed that explains his mysterious grandeur? Can we learn from him, and can we, in our pampered conditions, risk such a direct appeal to the audience? Dr. Reilly does not answer those questions; instead, in a learned and wide-ranging essay, he reflects on the desolation that haunts Shostakovich’s works. “If Shostakovich’s symphonies are tombstones,” he writes, “the 15 quartets are the flowers he lays on the graves.” Of the last quartet, composed of six uninterrupted adagios, Dr. Reilly makes the parallel with Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, suggesting that, appearances to the contrary, Shostakovich, a professed unbeliever, was not a nihilist but a seeker after consolation, who believed that the spirit of song and dance will eventually banish despair. But Robert Reilly admits that in the grotesqueries of the 4th Symphony we confront torment, death, brutality, violence, and drunken destruction with little respite and no redemption promised.

Well, that period of history is over. And Americans never had to suffer it in any case. So how does the symphonic tradition fare in America? Dr. Reilly quotes Stephen Albert, who decisively rejected twelve-tone serialism, with its implied premise that “the past has no meaning. What was going on,” Albert wrote, “was the massive denial of memory. No one can remember a 12-tone row. The very method obliterates memory’s function in art.” (Compare Fred Lehrdahl’s attack on Le marteau sans maître, to which I refer in “The Clothes Have No Emperor.”) Albert turned to Shostakovich for inspiration, and also to the earlier masters such as Sibelius and Stravinsky. Shostakovich was the initial inspiration also for another American symphonist, Steven Gerber, who gradually worked towards his own very American idiom with his Spirituals for String Orchestra and Serenade Concertante. And the good news to which Dr. Reilly constantly returns is that the younger generation is taking composers like Albert and Gerber seriously. This we discover in the Violin Concerti of Jonathan Leshnoff and Jennifer Higdon, both works of beauty and both increasingly popular.

For Robert Reilly the case of Albert’s teacher, George Rochberg, is of the first importance. Rochberg was educated as a modernist and for twenty or more years composed serial music, teaching in the music department of the University of Pennsylvania, and obeying all the usual strictures of the avant-garde, avoiding melody and tonal progressions and writing music for the high-brow (which is to say, brow-beaten) listener. And then, in 1964, his teenage son died of a brain tumor. Urgently needing to express his grief, Rochberg found the serial idiom entirely incapable of meeting that need. It seemed suddenly sterile, abstract, intellectual in the negative sense, as though it had been deliberately cleansed of all reference to human emotion.

That was when Rochberg set out to compose in a tonal idiom, modeling himself on the Beethoven quartets, because they were the deepest example that he knew of music that expresses emotion, orders it as only music can order it, and in doing so brings consolation to the sufferer. Rochberg’s return to tonality has caused predictable outrage. As a modernist, teaching the pure gospel of Nothingness to innocent neophytes, he was naturally under observation from the censors. Critics have crowded into the space he tried to create, in order to trash it. The charge is repeatedly made, and not only by serial dogmatists, that Rochberg’s assumption of tonality is “pastiche,” the imitation of musical expression rather than a real instance of it.

Last year I had the honor to deliver the annual lecture established in memory of Dr. Lloyd Old at the City University of New York. (Dr. Lloyd, in addition to his enormous achievements as an oncologist, was a keen and accomplished violinist and a paragon of the old New York concert-going culture.) The theme of the lectures, established by Dr. Lloyd’s sister, Constance Lloyd, is modern music and where it is going, and I had the benefit of a string quartet, provided by the Brook Centre for Musical Research, in order to illustrate my argument. I tried as best I could to rehearse what is at stake in the dispute between the classicists and the avant-garde, and then I handed it over to the audience to judge. The quartet played three pieces: the first movement from Tippett’s fresh and energetic Second String Quartet, Webern’s Bagatelles for String Quartet, and the third movement of George Rochberg’s Sixth String Quartet, which consists of variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

The Webern produced pursed lips and furrowed brows, as the audience strove to match the terse stabs with which the instruments puncture the silence–a wonderful effect, of course, but one on the very edge of musical meaning. The Tippett, moving in a space of its own, but never far from tonal harmony, seemed to produce no response from the audience at all. But when it came to the Rochberg, the majority were visibly moved, the members of the quartet playing with great emotion, completely at one with the work, as they were not really at one with either the Webern or the Tippett. I was back in the world of the classical concert, in which audience and musicians are united by an unseen web of sympathy, producing music together out of their shared and rapt attention.

As soon as the lecture ended, however, I found myself surrounded by keen graduate students from the Brook Centre, telling me how absolutely awful the Rochberg movement is, how it is impossible to write like that and mean it, and how the piece should never be played. The contrast between the young musicians to whom the future of their art was being entrusted, and the audience on which they will depend for their livelihood, could not have been more striking. The break with tradition was clear. As for Tippett—yes, honest stuff as far it goes. But going round in circles in an enclosed English garden.

The argument goes on, riveting, vital, and inconclusive. No one is more accomplished in defending the tonal tradition, or better informed about its real recent achievements, than Robert Reilly. His book should be on every serious music lover’s shelves, and readers should consult it whenever, in a world of relentless and erudite noise, they are surprised by beauty, and wish to hunt down the criminal responsible.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Future Symphony Institute (Fall 2016)

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2 replies to this post
  1. I picked up the first edition of Surprised by Beauty years ago and must get the expanded new edition. Although the “argument goes on” as you say, I believe the corner has been turned. Atonality has been a dead end. Beautiful music is being written and, even if the Academy scorns, it will find its audience.

  2. The German composer Paul Hindemith dealt with the issue of tonality many years ago. His acoustical experiments demonstrated to him that the ear is always searching for a tonal center. His “The Craft of Musical Composition” is based on this, as well as his own music. (I notice Hindemith is not even mentioned in this article.)

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