Jens F. Laurson is one of the most respected music critics in the world. I was privileged to have him join me on ‘Church and Culture’ to discuss the music of the late romantic composer, Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957). Schoeck, who was Swiss, stands at the border between romantic and modern, but he never loses touch with the human ear. Schoeck finds the beauty in the soul’s search for what appears to be lost.
The Claremont Review asked me for a review of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music by Robert R. Reilly and Jens F. Laurson (Ignatius Press, 2016).
A Baedeker to Beauty
Deal W. Hudson
January 8, 2018
As a Baedeker for the musically literate, Robert Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music reveals vast, previously unknown territories. It demolishes the long-accepted narrative of how composers embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s rejection of tonality without considering what in music was previously found pleasing. And it introduces us to some of the most beautiful music ever written.
The 1960’s symphony audiences were frequently treated to variations on a three-piece program: two great pieces from the standard repertory—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss—and a third, by a “contemporary” composer, which would be nothing less than cacophonous ugliness. New listeners might have wondered, “Is this really music?” and “Why is anybody listening to this?”, yet even prestigious magazines like Gramophone or (the now-defunct) Musical America always found something to praise. At the time, it seemed senseless that composers no longer wrote beautiful music, or that we somehow already knew the names of all great composers.
Many complained, but Robert Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, did something. Starting in 1995, his Crisis Magazine monthly columns reviewed hundreds of recordings featuring ignored or forgotten composers, past and present, and included the occasional interview, such as with composers David Diamond and Gian Carlo Menotti. Surprised by Beauty, a selection of these columns, first appeared in 2002. The present “revised and expanded” edition, co-written with journalist Jens F. Laurson, far exceeds the earlier book’s achievement. Doubled in size, the new book updates previous entries and adds chapters on 40 additional composers.
In Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1, Laurson finds a key to beautiful music:
What makes the difference between perceiving Berg’s Sonata as an early exercise in pantonalism and perceiving it as an achingly beautiful, wistful romantic statement saturated with the fleeting airs of Viennese coffeehouse atmosphere is the ability to keep the notes “in the air” and recall them when the notes that give them their proper context finally arrive.
When notes are heard in “their proper context,” music communicates through the ear to the mind and heart. I lost count of the times Reilly quoted composers emphasizing their desire to communicate with listeners rather than write to an established theoretical formula.
American George Rochberg was the first major composer to break with the subsidized serialism demanded by the academy, foundations, and orchestra leaders. A painful personal experience—the death of his son to cancer—elicited Rochberg’s decision to re-appropriate tonality: “It was a shock of a kind that necessitated a new sense of how I had to live the rest of my life…. It’s like taking on some sort of spiritual or moral obligation to perform at a level which is outside the bounds of the normal human. So, in a way…the Third [String] Quartet  is really a declaration of that idea in music.”
Rochberg serves as a kind of touchstone for Reilly, because of the courage it took for the leading US composer of serial music to emerge from Schoenberg’s shadow. Rochberg wasn’t timid: “Modernism has done little to satisfy the hunger for the experience of the marvelous…. Whatever the art of this new epoch may be capable of, we can ask nothing better of it than to reveal once again, in new ways and images, the realm of the marvelous.”
Wonder is central to Surprised by Beauty’s purpose. Reilly helps us “recover the sacred in music.” The two essays that bookend the work, and six included interviews make this explicit. “Music is sacred,” he writes; its beauty “makes the transcendent perceptible.”
Most discussions of Surprised by Beauty have focused on these themes, and on Reilly’s claim that tonality’s rejection was intimately linked to artists and intellectuals’ loss of faith in the post-World War I world. Reilly substantiates this thesis with numerous quotations linking belief and art. Do Reilly’s unearthed correlations demonstrate causality? The reader’s own predisposition towards matters of faith will likely inform his answer to this question. But I congratulate Reilly for letting composers speak for themselves and letting his readers determine his argument’s truth.
Take, for example, composer John Adams, one of Reilly’s compositional heroes. Adams learned in college that “tonality died somewhere around the time Nietzsche’s God died.” As with Rochberg, a powerful experience—the birth of his daughter in 1984—changed Adams’ view of tonality: “There were four people in the room, and then there were five.” Reilly modestly calls this a “metaphysical jolt,” but he could have gone further along philosophical and theological lines. Instead, he lets Adams, who emphasizes his music’s communicative aspect, speak for him: “The most important thing is the humanity of the message, the depth of the emotional experience.”
Reilly’s simple act of rescuing composers from obscurity is as valuable as his argument. It is only through their music’s beauty, after all, that we can determine whether “transcendence” or “wonder” are useful modern categories. When it comes to obscure composers, I’m no slouch—I was listening to Delius, Finzi, Korngold, Rubbra, and Braunfels long before their recordings began to multiply. But Surprised by Beauty could easily deplete my bank account.
Reilly reintroduces the musically literate to composers they likely already know—Argento, Arnold, Barber, Britten, Cage, Corigliano, Durufle, Elgar, Finzi, Górecki, Gould, Harris, Herrmann, Holmboe, Janacek, Korngold, Lajtha, Lauridsen, Malipiero, Martinu, Mathias, Martin, Nielsen, Pärt, Poulenc, Roussel, Rota, Sallinen, Sæverud, Schickele, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schmidt, Schoeck, Simpson, Taneyev, Tippett, Tubin, Vaughn Williams, and Villa-Lobos.
But then there are the composers whose names are either unknown, vaguely recognizable, or slightly familiar—James Aikman, Stephen Albert, George Antheil, Richard Arnell, Charles Roland Berry, Walter Braunfels, Alfredo Casella, Einar Englund, Paul Fetler, Arthur Foote, Kenneth Fuchs, Hans Gal, Jack Gallagher, Stephen Gerber, Vittorio Giannini, Daniel Godfrey, Daron Hagen, Stephen Hartke, Jennifer Higdon, Stephen Jaffe, John Kinsella, Ian Krouse, Libby Larsen, Benjamin Lees, Jonathan Leshnoff, Lowell Liebermann, David Matthews, Franz Mittler, Ahmed Saygun, Alexander Tcherepnin, George Tsontakis, Geirr Tveitt, Gunther Raphael, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Peteris Vasks, Karl Weigl, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Eric Zeisl, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
For those composers who are unfamiliar, Surprised by Beauty provides starting points for listening and recommended recordings. The descriptions had me annotating page after page, to remind myself of the compositions I had to hear.
Imagine if half of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the National Gallery’s modern art disappeared into a deep cellar where it could be seen by only a privileged few. For most of us, this was the musical landscape before Surprised by Beauty: half of the greatest music written since 1900 was virtually unknown. Serious musical literacy depends on this book receiving the largest possible circulation.
Terry Teachout is now the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of “Sightings,” a column about the arts in America that appears biweekly in the Friday Wall Street Journal, and author of books about George Balanchine, H.L, Mencken, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. In these two episodes of Church and Culture Today, we talked about a wide range of literary and artistic matters, including film, since he was then film critic of Crisis Magazine. Terry’s range of knowledge, his articulateness, and his nuanced sense of faith and morality made him fascinating and delightful to talk with. There are few in his class.
Deal W. Hudson
December 11, 2017
YouTube has become a treasure trove of musical delights, which I enjoy exploring especially at the season of Christmas. I offer the five best videos of live performances of Christmas music that I have found thus far.
Live performances add a much-needed visual element to the performances of familiar songs. We see, as well as hear, the personal commitment to the music and its message. In some cases, it’s a reminder of what television once gave us, the thrill of singers singing without a net, as it were, in front of a live camera and microphone. As one who grew up delighting in the annual Christmas shows of Perry Como, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and Glen Campbell, I am very pleased to share these with you. Please enjoy and “Merry Christmas!”
1. O Holy Night — Ernie Ford and Gordon MacRae
Let’s begin with a real gem: Remember when TV was live — when great singers just stood in front of the camera and sang without a net. Here are two iconic figures, Ernie Ford and Gordan MacRae from a 1958 Christmas show (I was nine). Their harmony is impeccable, but when Gordon MacRae begins his solo part at 1:12 you will wonder if you’ve ever heard a more pure baritone. Just gorgeous! And, yes, they hit the final notes without any break in their legato delivery.
2. Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing — The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
I have watched this performance over and over since it first became available in 2013. Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the 17th-century French carol, “Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing?” (Quelle est cette odeur agréable). Note the moment at 2:36 when the women’s voice begin singing acapella and are then joined by the men creating as pure a choral sound as you will ever hear. This is very special, and I hope you enjoy it.
3. In the Bleak Midwinter — Benjamin Luxon and the Westminster Choir
The Gustav Holst setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” is sung live by Benjamin Luxon (now age 80) at Westminster Cathedral. Luxon was a man whose love for singing was always apparent by the twinkle in his eye and his delight in communicating with his audience. His many performances with folk singer Bill Crofut are delightful (try to hear their “All Through the Night”). He also loved singing one of my favorite composers, Frederick Delius, and his performance of Zarathustra in the “Mass of Life” remains the best of all recordings.
4. Mary’s Boy Child — Tom Jones at the Vatican
The Welsh have a special gift and passion for music, and none more than Tom Jones — oh, excuse me, that’s Sir Tom Jones, who on this occasion was singing at the Vatican in 2001. Jones cares about this song, it’s obvious from the start, but something happens to him at 2:11 and his performance is lifted to another level, continuing to rise all the way to the end. Born in 1940, Tom Jones was a mere 61 years old when he sang for Saint John Paul II whose Polish heart must have been lifted hearing a man pour his whole heart into this song about “Mary’s Boy Child.” (This version is much preferable to his lip-synced version for the David Foster 1993 TV Christmas Special.)
5. What Sweeter Music — The Georgia Boys Choir
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a clergyman poet, belonging to the Church of England, who composed a marvelous poem, “What Sweeter Music,” which the English composer, John Rutter, set to music in 1998. Rutter’s setting quickly and deservedly entered the Christmas music canon — it’s almost unbearably beautiful. There are many excellent performances on YouTube, including that of the famed King’s College Choir conducted by Dr. Stephen Cleobury. But after listening to all of them, I think this one by the Georgia Boys Choir has the kind of sincerity and tenderness this music demands. The choir’s treble voices at 1:44 completely win me over. I hope watching these boys and young men will add to the delight of hearing Rutter’s masterpiece.
Read Newsmax: The 5 Best YouTube Videos for Christmas | Newsmax.com
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