Interview with Robert. R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly has pursued a most unusual career. He was the music critic for Crisis magazine for 16 years, and continues to review concerts and operas for Ionarts, an arts blog that covers the Washington DC area and elsewhere. He has also written for such publications as High FidelityMusical America, and the American Record Guide. But, like most of us who write about classical music and are not on university faculties, he has earned his living in other fields. Reilly’s “day jobs” have included 25 years in American government. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, as well as in the U.S. Information Agency. He was the director of Voice of America, and has published widely on foreign policy and “war of ideas” issues. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind and other books.

As a critic Reilly’s chief interest is the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that is the subject of his 2002 book Surprised by Beauty. Readers may not associate the word “beauty” with 20th- and 21st-century music, and that offers a clue to the unusual perspective presented in this book. Now Ignatius Press has just issued a much-expanded and updated edition of Surprised by Beauty, with additional material provided by Jens Laurson, a close associate of Reilly’s and a former contributor to Fanfare. Having been acquainted with Reilly’s thoughtful and perceptive writing for a number of years, I am pleased to have the opportunity to interview him. (In the interest of “full disclosure,” I should add that he has commented favorably in print on my work, although we have never met.)

I guess that my first question stems from my curiosity about your dual careers. I would think that working in government doesn’t put one in contact with many people who are as focused on the arts—and on classical music in particular—as you are. Are the people with whom you have worked aware of the musical side of your life? Have you found others who share your passion? (I once ran into Newt Gingrich in the men’s room during the intermission of a Washington production of Barber’s Vanessa, so I guess you’re not totally isolated.)

(That’s very amusing, as I recently ran into Newt Gingrich and his wife at the Washington National Opera production of Götterdämmerung.)

Government and classical music are, as you indicate, often unrelated, if not antithetical to each other. I remember that, at Fort Lewis, it created some puzzlement in my armored cavalry unit when I went to hear Joan Sutherland sing Turandot at the Seattle Opera. Eyebrows were raised. However, sometimes music and government can be good partners. Early in the Reagan administration, from my US Information Agency office, concert pianist John Robilette began the Artistic Ambassadors Program. The program was John’s inspiration, and he conducted it brilliantly for seven years. My principal contribution was to urge that a new piece of American music be composed for each artistic ambassador who went on tour for USIA. John and I spent hours in my home listening to records of American composers to select the commissions. The government wasn’t used to doing this kind of thing, or at least hadn’t been doing it for some years. So it was with some amusement that we sent composers like George Rochberg, Morton Gould or Lee Hoiby government purchase orders for “1 each, piano music, 10 minutes” or for other kinds of compositions. In any case, the program was very successful overseas and represented our country very well as one with a vibrant musical culture. There is now a significant collection of the manuscripts of all the works commissioned for this program at the Library of Congress. The program died along with the heedless destruction of USIA in 1999.

When I was the VOA director, I had the privilege of working with Robilette again. (By the way, Fanfareinterviewed him around this time in its September/October 2001 issue.) I asked John to arrange a series of live recitals at the Voice of America’s beautiful auditorium in honor of the VOA 60th anniversary. These we recorded and broadcast all over the world. John attracted such notable artists as Byron Janis, the Jacques Thibaud String Trio, and tenor Robert White. They were given only token honoraria, as we had no real funding to do this. I should also mention that composer Steve Gerber, who became a dear personal friend, wrote the Fanfare for Voice of America that was premiered in the same auditorium. He later incorporated it into his Second Symphony. Steve was very excited that there was to be a separate chapter on his music in this edition of Surprised by Beauty. I was very grieved that he was taken by a virulent form of cancer last year and did not live to see it in print.

In any case, if the government has a functioning brain, it should harness classical music to help represent this country at its very best. Unfortunately, it has suffered from a bipartisan lobotomy. As I began my short tenure as VOA director, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which exercises executive power over VOA, decided to eliminate our Arabic service, which was aimed at adults, and substitute for it a new all–pop youth music station with J Lo, Eminem and Britney Spears. That was a very interesting thing to do in the middle of a war. And what a way to help win the war against the terrorists! Just keep those Arabs dancing. The condescension implicit in this approach was felt in the Middle East, as I know from my personal experiences there. Also, I might add, as I departed VOA for the Defense Department, the Board eliminated the concert series I had begun with Robilette, canceling the scheduled appearance of the Tokyo String Quartet. In another mindless act, though one taken earlier and not directly by the Board, Rich Kleinfeldt’s excellent classical music program on VOA was eliminated. (It is lucky for us in the Washington DC area that Rich continues to broadcast at WETA-FM classical station.)

One other anecdote – this one in a more lighthearted vein: I was meeting with conductor José Serebrier and his wife Carole as they were having lunch with the lady who was, at that time, the manager of the Washington National Opera. When she learned that I was at the Defense Department, she said that she knew Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was an opera aficionado, and asked exactly what I did at DOD. I answered, “I am his musical advisor.” I didn’t even personally know Rumsfeld, but at least it got a good laugh.

I know that one question that often arises in the minds of classical music aficionados with regard to critics with dual careers is: Does this person have any formal training in music? Care to comment?

Outside of some piano lessons in grade school and some choir boy singing, I have not had formal training. My graduate studies were in political philosophy. Like George Bernard Shaw (with whom I would not compare myself in any other way), I have largely learned on the job, with the help of musician and composer friends, as well as a great deal of personal study. I hasten to add that that study went on for 15 years before I began to write about music. (I should add that I have been an avid Fanfarereader since vol. 1, no. 2.) I have been driven to put into words what I love or admire in what I hear . French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in
their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. I want to understand it and for others to listen and love it, as well. That’s how I see myself, as a music missionary, more than as a critic.

As you know from having read the book, there is not a lot of technical language in it. Most of it should be accessible to the educated layman. In my many conversations with composers over the years, by the way, I found that they seldom speak in technical language. If anything, they are more likely to use metaphysical or philosophical language to get at what they are trying to express. The way they compose really is directed by their conceptions of reality. You can clearly see this in the composer interviews in the last part of the book.

Anyway, I don’t write for experts because I’m not one. I’m simply a lover who is trying to sing in words what really can only be sung in music. You yourself know how difficult this is, as you have done it so well in your books and reviews.

Thanks very much. Can you describe for us just how you became so interested in classical music—and of the past hundred years, in particular?

I think I was about 19 years old when, quite by accident, I heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. I was seized by it. It changed my life. Sibelius famously said, “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” That is what I heard. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I was never the same afterward. I had not known human beings were capable of such things. Classical music immediately became my avocation. I bought a portable record player and would make friends sit down and listen to Sibelius. Had I only heard the Fifth Symphony earlier in my life, music would’ve become my vocation in some form. In any case, that started my rampage through the world of classical music.

Mozart was really my window onto every form of classical music. I hadn’t initially been attracted by opera until I listened to Mozart’s operas. (One of the thrills of my life was playing
Pasha Selim in a Metropolitan Opera Studio production of The Abduction from the
Seraglio.) The same is true of chamber music. I then began to listen to music of every genre and period. I found myself eventually gravitating to late 18th/early 19th century music, and to 20th century music.

I was fascinated by 20th-century music not only because I found much of it immediately attractive, but also because it underwent such profound transformations and, in fact, at least partially, a derailment. Why would someone want their music to sound like a catastrophe in a boiler factory? I wanted to understand what was behind these transformations. I also wanted to know how some composers held up under the pressures of the avant-garde to continue their vocation of beauty. As you know, there were many of them – far too many to include in my book. I avidly followed what composers said about their music, read their books, and then sought some of them out to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing. Some composers contacted me after reading my reviews. It enriched my life incomparably that some of them became my friends.

Your book presents a rather unusual point of view, hinted at in your title, and it is one that I share to a large extent. I think that we both agree that music of the past hundred years is not uniformly ugly, atonal, or anti-musical; that there have been many composers who have pursued the traditional musical values of emotional and spiritual expression, seek to communicate those values to listeners, and have done so by drawing upon the formal processes that have served as the foundation of Western classical music for some 500 years.  But the additional notion that you add, quite explicitly, is that the dissolution of tonality proclaimed by some composers coincided chronologically with the breakdown of religious faith, and that that correspondence is no accident. Would you agree with that summary of your central thesis?

Yes, I would generally agree with that, except it is not simply my thesis but what many composers have told me, including those who do not consider themselves particularly religious. And I wouldn’t necessarily tie it to loss of a specific religious faith as I would to a loss of the transcendent, coupled with a metaphysical breakdown of the teleological order in nature. John Adams sensed this when he related that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”

Here is another way to put it. If there is a natural order to creation, you will be impelled to write a kind of music that reflects it. You will search for the “harmony of the spheres.” If there is no such order, there will be a different kind of music, if one can call it music at all when it reaches a certain point of disintegration. If there is no “harmony of the spheres” to approximate, you will most likely end up with some kind of organized or unorganized noise – in either case it will be arbitrary. I am alluding here, of course, to the centrifugal forces unleashed by Arnold Schoenberg, who held that tonality does not exist in nature and, therefore, we can be habituated to hear dissonance as consonance. However, as Aristotle observed, no matter how many times you throw a stone in the air, you cannot habituate it to fly upwards. It will always drop down. Likewise, Schoenberg’s system neither achieved the supremacy of German music for another century, as he claimed it would, nor succeeded in habituating us to dissonance. The reason is because there actually is a natural order to things, and tonality exists as a kind of natural law in the world of sound.

Some music critics have gotten quite upset because of what I have said about Schoenberg’s serial system. They insist that it’s just another technique, like any other technique. That’s certainly not how Schoenberg thought of it. My criticism of Schoenberg is more against his faulty metaphysics than it is of his music. Of course, the one reflects the other – that is my point.

Throughout the 20th century and today, there has been and is a broad range of composers attesting to the connection between the spiritual and the musical. Sibelius – not what you would call a traditional believer – said that, “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God.” Therefore, composition, according to him, “is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.”

I know some composers who have left the faith to which they once belonged or even to which they at one time converted, but who nonetheless retain a very deep sense of the spiritual and the transcendent. Scottish composer James MacMillan recently said, “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.” So my thesis is not sectarian in a religious sense, though as a Catholic I am very much aware of the musical treasures that Christianity has inspired, including, say, McMillan’s Seven Last Words.

Now let’s talk for a moment about the word “beauty,” because of its importance in your title, and because it can mean different things to different people. For example, I think that for many people “beauty” is used to describe the sort of warm, slightly poignant serenity exemplified by, say, the second movement of Barber’s Violin Concerto. Others think in terms of Keats’s line, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” which opens the word to a wider interpretation. I’m inclined to reserve the word for the Barber sort of expression, but I consider other qualities in music equally valid, in the Keats sense; I just don’t use the word “beauty” for them. I think of the highest musical values as authenticity and depth of emotional and often spiritual expression, as articulated through meticulous craftsmanship. I think of this as a broader concept than “beauty,” which may, of course, be one manifestation of such expression. Can you speak more about what the term “beauty” means to you?

I understand the distinction you’re making, but I would take the word beauty farther in the Keats sense. I’ve always liked Dostoyevsky’s statement that “beauty will save the world.” In other words, beauty is in some way salvific. In this sense, beauty means more than the second movement of the Barber Concerto. Beauty can pierce; it can slay; it can upset the soul and engender wild longings. It provokes wonder. It can also, in a way, redeem. The great German theologian Josef Pieper spoke of the “recollecting power of the fine arts, for the emotional shock brought about by eros and caritas – in short, through the attitude rooted in the mysterious experience that Plato called theia mania.” Plato knew that all beauty is reflected beauty and that beauty is a sign of, and a path to, ultimate goodness.

I think that’s what George Rochberg was after when he told me “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness.” He said, “but what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts… I know that what is really beautiful hurts.” Then he exclaimed, “Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”

I think music was derailed in the 20th century when it lost this sense of beauty as its mission. The loss of vocation is powerfully reflected in Schoenberg’s statement that he was “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” One can imagine how Dostoyevsky or Plato would’ve reacted to that remark.

It’s clear that a religious or spiritual core is very important in your understanding of a composer’s work, and when it’s relevant in the case of a particular composer it becomes your central focus. Yet there are some composers whom you have highlighted whose music—from my standpoint—has no particular connection to spiritual concerns at all. The most striking example to me–without making a qualitative judgment of my own—is Morton Gould. Can you comment on that?   

The highest vocation of any art is to make the transcendent perceptible, and I think music is uniquely suited to this hieratic goal. As the great Swiss mystic Max Picard said, “In sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit, and this is seen at its most sublime in music.”

But not all music has to be sublime. Not everyone has to be at the top of Mount Parnassus – there are ascending slopes or steps. Mozart reached the heights, but he also wrote wonderful divertimenti for entertainment on social occasions. Dvorak composed most of his music in the kitchen, and its great warmth and domesticity reflect this. In music, the good is not the enemy of the great. If all we listened to was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Second and Nielsen’s Fourth, etc., we would probably suffer from acute altitude sickness.

Morton Gould was certainly a very good composer who mastered a number of colloquial musical styles. He had great fun with them, which is why it is such fun to listen to him. In terms of my general theme, I think Gould clearly demonstrated that tonality was not exhausted. He worked within the traditional tonal frames of reference, and produced works that still sound fresh. In some of his compositions, I think he also caught that sense of yearning in the American soul. He clearly had an appetite for beauty. I think it’s a big mistake to condescend to composers writing his kind of music. That’s why he and others of his ilk are in the book.

I suppose it is inevitable that I would find some of the composers you highlight less worthy of attention than others who would seem to illustrate your thesis through music of the highest caliber, yet are not included by you. I am thinking, for example, of Daniel Catan, Joly Braga Santos, Nicolas Flagello, Andrzej Panufnik, Arnold Rosner, Lee Hoiby, Samuel Jones, and Alan Hovhaness, who seem conspicuous by their absence. I’m especially surprised by the omission of Peter Mennin, as his approach to musical composition shared so much in common with that of Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, both of whom you treat with great respect and understanding.

You have touched a sore spot. My publisher was panicking at the size of the book, which is slightly more than 500 pages as it is, and unfortunately I had to cut 28 composers out of it, including a number of those you mention. Taking them out was heartbreaking. If all the Fanfare subscribers will buy the book, perhaps then I can persuade the publisher to bring out a new edition that would include everyone you mention, plus the others who ended up on the cutting room floor – like Havergal Brian, William Alwyn, Boris Tchaikovsky, Paul Juon, Harold Shapero, Joseph Jongen, etc. As for Mennin, I am not sure I would have the nerve to write anything after the brilliant job you did concerning his music in your book, Voices of Stone and Steel.

Thank you for such kind words. I hope to be worthy of them.

Walter Simmons 
© Fanfare 2017