“SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery Of Modern Music” By Robert R. Reilly

SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Revised and Expanded Edition). By Robert R. Reilly, with Jens F. Laurson. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016. 510 pp. Softcover. $34.95

As noted in the accompanying interview, the original edition of Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty was published in 2002 by Morley Books. Its thesis was, essentially, that the dissolution of tonality in music that was promulgated around the turn of the 20th century, and the concomitant abandonment of traditional aesthetic values, corresponded to a breakdown of the centrality of spiritual order as understood and shared by most of Western civilization, and that this correspondence was no accident. The book consisted of a couple of essays that developed this idea, while affirming a belief in the sacred properties shared by the finest examples of serious art music, along with some 35 short essays on individual or related groups of composers who resisted this abandonment of traditional values despite facing derision and neglect as a result. Six interviews with significant composers and musicians followed.

This newly revised edition is nearly twice the length of the original. Its structure is essentially the same as the first edition, but with much new and updated material. It begins with a Foreword by critic Ted Libbey, taken from the first edition. This is followed by Reilly’s own Preface to the Second Edition: While re-emphasizing the neglect faced by those composers who remained loyal to traditional musical values, he points out how much the times have changed since the earlier edition. Those traditional values are no longer subject to such widespread scorn, and many younger composers have achieved success while embracing them. There are now 64 short essays on composers who illustrate Reilly’s thesis. (Many of the new entries are contributed by Jens Laurson.) These chapters range from the unfamiliar (Walter Braunfels, Günter Raphael, Geirr Tveitt) to the very familiar (Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius), and include figures who have entered the scene as recently as Kenneth Fuchs, Jennifer Higdon, and Jonathan Leshnoff. Reilly even includes a remarkably even-handed and fair-minded chapter on John Cage. Each of these short essays concludes with several recommended recordings. The chapters on composers are sandwiched between two abstract essays: One is called “Is Music Sacred?” and the other, “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In these Reilly takes the opportunity to develop and buttress the essential framework of his thesis, which I will discuss shortly. The six interviews from the first edition follow: the subjects are Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti. There is no index, the absence of which is a notable deficiency in a book of this kind.

The book (aside from the missing index) is quite “user-friendly.” Its tone is casual and informal (plenty of comments in the first-person-singular), making it pleasantly engaging, despite what some might find the severe absolutism of its fundamental message. There is no musical notation, no esoteric technicalities or expectations of advanced erudition. The book conveys the sense of one enthusiast who has made a number of exciting musical discoveries sharing that excitement with readers who may have been searching for just the sort of thing that Reilly has found. And at this he is excellent. His commentaries on Elgar, Finzi, Roussel, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson, Edmund Rubbra, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Bernard Herrmann, and Vagn Holmboe are just a few that display a vivid eloquence and penetrating insight that are truly enviable. He is able to capture their very essences in surprisingly few words.

In his essay, “Is Music Sacred?” Reilly presents and develops the essential foundation of his argument, which I will do my best to capture: Not surprisingly, he starts with the Greeks, discussing Pythagoras’s derivation of musical intervals and his belief that music was the organizing principle of the universe—the “music of the spheres”—already positing the notion that a stable cosmos was connected to a sense of musical stability and harmony. With the advent of Christianity, this notion of cosmic harmony was applied to morality and ethics: The harmony that governed the universe also governed both human life and music, and embracing this harmony elevated the human spirit. Since this eternal harmony preceded the arrival of human life, it could be seen as a first cause, a universal “purpose.” As such this harmony became linked to the belief in a single unifying figure, God, who governed through Christ. As music theory developed, the force that governed the harmonious property of music was codified into the principle of tonality—a dynamic force that provided the energy for musical expression while also permitting a central, unifying stability. Music thus became the pathway for experiencing the transcendent. Hence when doubt began to weaken religious faith in the late 19th century, culminating in Nietzsche’s notorious proclamation that “God is dead,” this also spelled the death of morality, the end of a governing order both to the universe and to the notion of a music of the spheres, and a concomitant weakening of the conviction that musical coherence requires a tonal center. Without such a fundamental spiritual core, music became mere technique, leading ultimately to serialism—a triumph of technique over content. Tonality was then viewed as merely one way of organizing music; other ways were possible and equally valid. Not surprisingly, the chief villain in all this was Arnold Schoenberg, although—to his credit—Reilly acknowledges that composer’s immense talent, as demonstrated in such works as Pelleas und Melisande and Gurrelieder. Other composers (e.g. Varèse) questioned the need for any sort of organizing principle at all; why not simply follow one’s impulses? John Cage’s idea of composing music by throwing dice was the logical next step, eliminating even the composer’s impulses. This sterile state of affairs was supported by a belief that the “exhaustion” of tonality was a historical inevitability. To resist this development was to deny the inevitable, and those who did so were backward, virtually by definition. This view persisted throughout much of the 20th century, until the late 1960s and early 70s, when composers like George Rochberg and others who had been taught that serialism was the only legitimate path had the courage to challenge this dogma, protesting that what they had been taught produced results that were devoid of the values that drew them to music in the first place.

Let me say at this point that I am in essential agreement with most aspects of Reilly’s thesis. The chief element that I question—which I mention because I suspect that many of today’s music lovers may have a similar reservation—is whether it is necessary to embrace a teleological theological foundation in order to share Reilly’s musical views. For example, not only do I agree that the dynamics of tonality are indispensable in creating music that has expressive meaning to listeners, but I greatly appreciate and enjoy music that strives to convey an emotional experience that might be termed “spiritual” or “transcendent”—because it aims to evoke an awareness of forces that reach beyond the experience of the mundane material world—without my necessarily adhering to any particular religious belief system. In short, can’t one experience that sense of transcendence without embracing a theology that “explains” it? Reilly himself seems to acknowledge this point when he writes, “… though not himself a believer, Vaughan Williams nevertheless imbued his works with a deep spirituality.” Another question—perhaps less fundamental—is whether a “loss of faith” is the best or only explanation for the breakdown of tonality; another explanation is that the group—originally, relatively small—who believed that tonality had run its course was motivated by a misguided sense of historical inevitability that supported a notion of “progress” (a notion largely alien to the arts). Then later came the view that music “should reflect its times.” But much is happening in the world at any one time; who’s to say which aspect of “its times” music should be reflecting?

In keeping with my cavil that one need not embrace every element of Reilly’s thesis in order to share his musical views, one also need not agree with every point he makes to appreciate his commentaries on specific composers. He does not “beat one over the head” with theology in each of these chapters. In fact, in some there is no reference to such matters at all. And in others, his introduction of a religious perspective raises some interesting points that are rarely encountered in discussions of these composers. But when—as in the chapters on Elgar, Franz Schmidt, Frank Martin, and others—the music is explicitly religious, Reilly certainly embraces that aspect head-on.

The later essay, “Recovering the Sacred in Music,” deals largely with Gorecki, Pärt, and Tavener, who found a way back in to both tonality and spirituality, while refuting Schoenberg’s claim that there was nothing “natural” about tonality. And I found the six interviews that follow especially interesting insofar as Reilly manages to elicit some meaningful commentary on the importance of religion from people like Craft, Diamond, and Rochberg—figures who were not often questioned about such matters, I suspect.

Surprised by Beauty—in this new edition—is a thought-provoking volume that offers an unusual perspective on the music of the past hundred years, exploring its underlying aesthetic and spiritual principles, while drawing attention to some truly great composers, most of whom remain largely unknown to most serious listeners, not to mention musicians, radio programmers, and concert promoters.