Surprised by the Beauty of 20th-Century Music | Paul Senz | CWR
While avant-garde art dominated the past century, notes Robert R. Reilly, glorious and melodic music was being written all along, even if often suppressed or neglected.
Robert R. Reilly has written about classical music for more than 35 years, including for Crisis magazine, where he was music critic for 16 years. He has also written about music for High Fidelity, Musical America, Schwann/Opus, and the American Record Guide. He is the director of The Westminster Institute, which was established in 2009 to "promote individual dignity and freedom for people throughout the world by sponsoring high-quality research, with a particular focus on the threats from extremism and radical ideologies." During a quarter century of government service, Reilly worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, and in the U. S. Information Agency; he was also the director of Voice of America. In addition to his writings about music, he has written widely on foreign policy, "war of ideas" issues, Islam, and culture.
He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about a new and expanded edition, published by Ignatius Press, of his book Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.
CWR: You have been in the military, served in the White House under President Reagan, and were director of Voice of America. How did you become a music critic? And how, in particular, did you become interested in modern classical music? How did you end up writing music reviews for Crisis magazine?
Robert R. Reilly: Well, I was thunderstruck by music when I heard, quite by accident, Jan Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. By the time the recording was over, I was a changed person. I was 19 years old at the time; my music quest began. I plunged in in search of the experience and for an explanation as to why I had had it. What was it about? French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. So, some 15 years later, after I gained the right vocabulary and enough experience, I began writing about it and the other treasures I had discovered. As you pointed out, this was not my day job. My day job was fighting the Evil Empire.
So, as an avocation, I wrote for a number of musical journals like High Fidelity and Musical America. Then Deal Hudson, whom I did not know at the time, moved to Washington, DC, to take over Crisis magazine. He came to my house and, out of the blue, asked me to contribute a monthly article about classical music. He is one of those rare conservatives who are culturally literate in every sphere, including classical music, about which he is equally enthused. I did that for 16 years.
It was Deal who suggested that we publish a book of my essays. It turned out that most of what I had written was about 20th century music. That had not occurred by any design of mine or his. That book, the first edition of Surprised by Beauty, came out in 2002, with Deal as the publisher.
Lo and behold, some 14 years later, now the second edition of the book is out—this time from Ignatius Press. It is more than twice as long as the original and completely revised. There is so much more good news about the recovery of modern music in this listening guide. I hope readers will be enticed to explore some of the many CD recommendations in it. I emphasize that this is not a book with technical jargon written for music specialists. It is for the general reader who has an open mind, an open heart, and who opens his ears.
CWR: The terms "modern music" and "modern classical music" are usually not met positively by those who hold to more traditional beliefs about the arts, culture, and religion. Is it the case, however, that stereotypes and assumptions have obscured necessary distinctions between various composers, movements, and schools of music?
Reilly: Modern art strove hard to earn its bad reputation. It succeeded. People fled the concert halls because they did not want to hear what sounded like a catastrophe in a boiler factory. Likewise, many people shunned modern painting when canvases looked like someone had spilled a plate of spaghetti. Modern architecture seemed to be a contest as to who could design a building that best disguised the fact that human beings would be in it.
Unfortunately, the avant-garde gained control over the levers of the art world—by which I mean the commissions, the prizes, the positions in academe, the cultural press, etc. Unless you played ball with the avant-garde, your artistic goose was cooked. This was not true for some of the giants who continued to write in the traditional tonal manner, but it was decidedly true for the up-and-coming younger composers from the mid-20th century until about 20 years ago. They suffered a lot.
The whole point of my book is to announce that it is safe to come out of the bomb shelters now. Not only is beautiful music being written again but, it turns out, beautiful music was written all along, throughout the 20th century. It simply went underground. Some of it was suppressed (literally the case in some Communist regimes), some of it was simply neglected, but it is surfacing once again. And it is glorious. These are the composers I write about in this book, along with the recommended recordings of their works. They are the other 20th century about which most people have never heard – though there are a number of composers, like Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom they probably have heard of, who are in the book. Of course, I also include contemporary composers. The tremendously good news is that we are living at the time of a major musical renaissance.
CWR: In the Introduction, "Is Music Sacred?", you explain how destructive musical revolution of the 1920s, directed by Schoenberg and others, rejected tonality and melody. What were some of the deeper reasons for this revolution? In what way that revolution relate to the cultural upheavals in Western societies?
Reilly: Yes, there were deeper reasons that were ultimately metaphysical and spiritual. Music, art and architecture reflected a wholesale rejection of form, which is another way of saying Nature. I recall one artist saying, “If I don’t do anything else in my artistic life, I want to smash form” – which expresses, shall we say, a certain resentment of reality.
Going back to Pythagoras, the traditional understanding of music held that it was somehow an approximation of “the music of the spheres.” In fact, Pythagoras thought that music was the ordering principle of the world. The whole point of approximating the heavenly harmony was to instill inner harmony in the soul. Following Pythagoras, Plato taught that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful”. This idea of “the music of the spheres” runs through the history of Western civilization with an extraordinary consistency, even up to the 20th century. At first, it was meant literally; later, poetically.
Then it was rejected.