As Robert Reilly mentions in the beginning of his extraordinary book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Damon of Athens said that he would rather control the modes of music in a city than its laws, because the modes of music have a more decisive effect on the formation of the character of its citizens. Maybe this is why the 20th century was such a rolling disaster.
At the same time that Lenin was consolidating his Marxist revolution in the Soviet Union, Arnold Schoenberg introduced a century of atonal hegemony in modern music with his 12-tone theory of serial composition, and with much the same effect, musically speaking. The fact that normal people — meaning those outside the academy — instinctively rebelled against the gray wash of disharmony churned out on the Schoenbergian compositional assembly lines was proof of how advanced the serial method was.
When I was studying music some 50 years later, in the 1970s, my teachers were still promulgating the notion that it was only a matter of time and perseverance before audiences — not to mention the musicians themselves — would become habituated to the destruction of tonality and harmony inherent in 12-tone music. Like the new Soviet man, we’d give up our old possessions, in this instance, outmoded ideas of beauty, emotion, or even meaning, and discover, to use Schoenberg’s own description, the “emancipation of dissonance.”
It never happened, of course. Just as Soviet laborers used to pretend to work, while management pretended to pay them, modern music more often than not became a case of composers pretending to write music and audiences pretending to listen. Like Marxism, however, this didn’t prevent serial music from becoming ever more entrenched in the universities and among the intellectual elites, including most music critics, who as arbiters of aesthetic value — and more practically, dispensers of prize money, awards, and academic positions — have extended the stultifying dominance of Schoenbergian noisemaking into the present century.
As Robert Reilly chronicles in Surprised by Beauty, however, there were always guerilla holdouts who never gave up on tonality, and in the past couple of decades increasing numbers of composers have thrown aside atonal dogma and dared, despite the hostility of critics and grant-givers, to write beautiful music once again. It is music replete with those old standbys of melody, harmony and rhythm, that reaches beyond technique to touch the heart and soul. It is a new music, of our time and place (not an anachronistic retread of old styles), that has the courage to aspire to greatness; and if you follow up on Reilly’s very helpful CD suggestions — this is, after all, a buyer’s guide as well as well as a collection of uniquely perceptive articles of musical criticism — you’ll find that musical greatness is something these die-hard modern tonalists very often achieve. The recovery of modern music that Reilly promises in his subtitle is very much in full swing.
Too often, music criticism today is as dry as the academic music it still tries to foist on an unwilling public. Reilly’s essays, compiled from his monthly contributions to Crisis magazine, are the diametric opposite. A man of great erudition and wide real-world experience who has at various times made his career as a Shakespearean actor, high-government official, and extremely accessible writer on matters of history, philosophy, and religion, Reilly writes essays that will amuse and enlighten even those who don’t know the particular compositions or composers at issue.
When was the last time you read music criticism that moved you emotionally, made you laugh and cry, and ultimately filled you with hope? One of the most compelling sections in this collection is a series of interviews conducted over the last decade. Reilly must work some sort of magic on his subjects to get them to open up in most personal ways. Interviewing Robert Craft, one of the towering figures of 20th century music, right after Craft completed a series of recordings of Schoenberg’s most seminal works, Reilly prompts him to muse that atonal music “has come to a dead end.” Everything is static: “You never [in Schoenberg's music] get the sense of movement, of direction . . . you don’t know where the piece is going. It’s rare that you have a sense that it can’t last forever.” He calls Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet “an absolute abstraction from beginning to end and kind of ugly. For me, the tune in the slow movement for the cello is fairly close to torture.”
The heart of Reilly’s thesis, however, is not just that atonal music is boring. It was, he says, part of the 20th-century project to exalt man above God and to deny transcendence. And more often than not, the composers who threw off atonalism did so as part of a spiritual reawakening. Interestingly, two of the composers — the Italian composer of operas Gian Carlo Menotti and the Finish symphonist Einojuhani Rautavaara — speak of their struggle as resembling the fight between Jacob and the angel in the Old Testament. “I’ve been struggling with the angel for a long night,” says Menotti. Rautavaara tells of a dream he had as a boy that he only remembered latter in life when, already a successful composer of atonal music, he was beginning to make his break: “I was scared because [the angel] was a huge, formless, gray and silent being, which came slowly towards me and took me in his arms, and I felt suffocated. I had to fight and wrestle with him. And as I later thought, you are supposed to wrestle with your angel, as Jacob did in the Bible. When I remembered this dream 40 years later, I understood that it really was a visitation, a revelation.” A revelation that would lead him to compose some of the most beautiful music of our time.
For George Rochberg — another highly acclaimed serialist early in his career — it was the tragic death of his son in 1964. “I couldn’t continue writing so-called serial music,” Rochberg said after that. “It was finished, hollow, meaningless.” To Reilly he says: “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness. Absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music . . . Serialism is the denial of memory. You can’t internalize it; you can’t vocalize it; it can’t live in you . . . What happened is that [tonality] went underground. It just transformed itself from within under everyone’s noses and ears . . . Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”
If, like this reviewer, you’ve been scared off modern music by innumerable atonal assaults and minimalist musical lobotomies, read this book. Music is undergoing a Second Great Awakening, and Robert Reilly is there to guide you to the new, bright City on the Hill these modern-day greats are composing — and recording — at this very instant.
— Joshua Gilder is a senior director of the White House Writers Group. He is author of Ghost Image, a novel.