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.