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Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music
Second Edition
By Robert R. Reilly with Jens F. Laurson
508 pages
Published 2016
ISBN 978 1 58617 905 2

Surprised by Beauty, a rigorous and opinionated guide to the composers of the twentieth century, stirred up controversy on its release in 2002. Robert Reilly and new contributing author Jens Laurson now return with an updated second edition, expanded to 500 pages, with dozens of new essays and recording recommendations. The volume is a valuable guide to little-known composers and a passionate advocate for their art; it’s also contentious in its artistic, intellectual, and religious conservatism. But, to be honest, I had nearly as much fun disagreeing with Surprised by Beauty as I did learning from it.

The book’s purpose is twofold. It comprises a series of essays about 67 20th-century composers, with biographical sketches, discussions of major works and available recordings, and often remarkable insights into the composers’ aims. The first purpose of the book, then, is advocacy for these 67 composers and their music. Here, Reilly and Laurson succeed admirably.

For the most part, these essays were originally published by Reilly in Crisis magazine. (Disclosure: Laurson, who penned a few new chapters for this edition, is a regular MusicWeb International contributor.) Both authors have a remarkable gift for describing music, the hardest art to write about; as I listened along to the recommendations, I found that Reilly and Laurson were always useful and mostly accurate. Here is Reilly’s colorful but perceptive writing on Alfredo Casella: “Prepare for variety. You can witness these influences [Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Stravinsky] in various stages of digestion as if you were viewing Casella’s musical intestines through an X-ray….[but] when the digestion process was complete and all of these influences and forms became Casella, he produced some very special, highly distinctive works out of them.”

Many composer essays are ideal introductions to little-known names. There are exceptions; Shostakovich gets a chapter, and Reilly pens an essay focused on Edward Elgar’s sacred works, assuming that we already know Enigma and the symphonies. But if you, like I, had only heard of a composer (say, John Kinsella), or better yet if you’d never heard the name at all (say, George Tsontakis), Surprised by Beauty shines. Along with the short biographies come passionate recommendations pointing the way to intriguing music; the authors explain what newcomers should hear first, and what should wait until one is acclimated to a composer’s sound-world.

Not every recommendation will reward every listener, but that’s not the point or promise of the book. Not every composer appears, either—I wouldn’t have minded reading about Lera Auerbach, Jean Françaix, Valentin Silvestrov, and a handful of others—but if every interesting name got a chapter, the book would reach a thousand pages. Among the discoveries that I prize especially, after reading Surprised by Beauty: Stephen Albert’s cello concerto, George Antheil’s Fourth Symphony, Gerald Finzi’s “Intimations of Immortality,” Hans Gál’s solo piano works, Daron Hagen’s piano trios, Lowell Liebermann’s Second Symphony, David Matthews’ string quartets, and Edmund Rubbra in general.

This list speaks to the diversity of the book, though it must be said that Reilly listens to orchestral and sacred music more than, say, solo piano repertoire. In any event, not only do he and Laurson make such discoveries possible; they write about them with grace, intelligence, and wit. Laurson’s voice is noticeably different: slightly more sober and almost completely unconcerned with the second purpose of the book, which I will discuss shortly.

When Reilly and Laurson are critical of a certain work, they usually have good, carefully-explained reasons for being so; and these critiques are as helpful as recommendations for a newcomer seeking to explore this repertoire. The only real problems with the musical intent of the book are inherent to the nature of the chapters: Reilly’s were magazine columns, originally, so ideas and remarks repeat themselves, such as a John Adams quote about the death of tonality which appears a half-dozen times.

Due to the project’s huge scope, there are technical issues, too, most seriously the lack of an index. The book’s website is still under construction. In the discography of Karl Weigl, a work title is listed without a disc. And there are typos, several of them repeated throughout: “Eric Satie,” “Malherian,” “Jan Sibelius.”

Readers will also notice a tendency, on Reilly’s part, to insert provocative and controversial asides about any topic on his mind. “Charles Ives,” he notes at one point, “is surely the single most overrated American composer.” Later, he calls “acid rock” the ugliest musical genre, amid an embarrassing argument that classical is the highest form of music. He also takes a moment to call Henry David Thoreau a “relative lightweight”; I agree, but am not sure this was relevant.

These assertions are a manifestation of another important feature of the book: Reilly’s pugnacious intellect. He’s a conservative with a veritable army of ideas, seemingly all of which he can relate to classical music. That’s often a strength, as with his inspired connection of John Cage and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It can also be a distraction; the critique of Michael Tippett as caught in the “snares of Carl Jung’s Manichean world view” is rather cruel and cold-blooded.

This leads me to the second purpose of Surprised by Beauty, which Laurson’s chapters avoid. It is a strongly ideological book with a forceful argument about the right path, both for art and for religious faith. Reilly’s central point is that classical music is written to honor the Judeo-Christian god, and that the best music represents an attempt at religious transcendence in the European tradition. Moreover, Reilly draws a clear parallel between the ordered world of the Church and the ordered world of the tonal system, against the anarchical and menacing forces of atheism and atonality.

“The single clearest crisis of the 20th century,” Reilly contends, “was the loss of faith. Noise—and its acceptance as music—was the product of the resulting spiritual confusion and, in its turn, became the further cause of its spread.” Much of the blame is laid upon Arnold Schoenberg, who is accused of essentially murdering classical music. Even those who agree with Reilly will almost certainly agree with me that too much blame is laid on Schoenberg. From this book, you’d get the impression that Arnold was malicious, and that everyone who followed him was utterly incapable of thinking for themselves.

Reilly’s assault on the Second Viennese School and “atonality” continues relentlessly throughout the book, with phrases like “enforced sterility of mandatory dodecaphony,” “assault of noise,” and “Never before has an artist asked an audience to come to a prearranged place at an appointed time to be assaulted by sheer noise.” He also includes an interview section, conversations with the likes of George Rochberg, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Robert Craft, in which he requests their support for this thesis.

Other composers are, I’ll say, quite perceptive on the issue of tonality and the future of music. Stephen Albert tells Reilly, “What was going on was the massive denial of memory. No one can remember a 12-tone row. The very method obliterates memory’s function in art.” Jonathan Leshnoff is quoted talking about Bach: “I believe there is creativity and newness in reinvigorating the age-old beloved techniques of counterpoint, harmony, line, form, and orchestration. How could someone [like Bach] be so consigned to rules but so absolutely and utterly creative? That’s the battle cry of reinvigorating the past forms.”

George Rochberg, explaining why he turned away from the avant-garde, gives a frankly breathtaking summary of his own view of music: “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness. Absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music. The only reason. But what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts. For example, a poet like William Butler Yeats hurts ... Great music is enunciatory, telling us that there are places, things, regions beyond us. It is trying to measure the immeasurable. Music gives us glimpses, glimmers of that immeasurable, and that is why it has to be beautiful.”

If only that same generosity informed more of Robert Reilly’s invective against Schoenberg and his school. I’m no fan of the 12-tone or Darmstadt schools; in the last few years, I’ve listened to gifted young American composer Adam Schoenberg more than the famous Arnold. But when Reilly laments “an age of angst and ugliness” and immediately invokes Messiaen, I roll my eyes at the stereotype and think of Počmes pour Mi.

And then there’s this: people do, genuinely, enjoy avant-garde music. Maybe not me, though I like, say, Penderecki more than Reilly does. But good friends and colleagues of mine listen to Stockhausen, Boulez, and Eötvös with sincere appreciation and enjoyment. Surprised by Beauty seems to assume that such enjoyment is impossible. That’s an important fault, since it not only imputes dishonesty and malice to sincere performers and listeners, it also alienates those listeners rather than inviting them to try, say, Richard Arnell or Carl Rütti.

The objection to Schoenberg and his followers ultimately, for Reilly, boils down to religion. Not only does he view the 20th century’s great crisis as a “loss of faith”; he sees atonal music as a comparable sin. “The Black Death did not produce ugly music because the people who lived through it did not lose their faith.” By spreading “ugliness” and promoting the philosophical notions of chaos, disorder, and unnaturalness, Schoenberg and the avant-garde, says Reilly, contribute to our moral decay. The return to tonality is a return to faith and God.

This is hugely wrong. Reilly makes reductive assumptions about what “modernist” composers intend to portray; he assumes the worst about their motives for writing; he assumes that Christian divinity is required for the world’s natural order; he assumes, too, that goodness and beauty are impossible without that faith. I’m not paraphrasing. Quote: “A world without God is literally unnatural. If there is no God, there is no Nature, that is, the normal and ideal character of reality.…Tonality, as the preexisting principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order.”

Now, why would tonality and moral order go out the door without God? I’m an atheist, so this is personal for me. Setting aside morality, which we could discuss for ten thousand more words, tonality can exist without God because why wouldn’t it? Human ears still find certain sounds harmonious, whether because of neurology, biology, or cultural conditioning. There are mountains of research on the subject. Musical systems are not “arbitrary” if they are based in natural historical or scientific facts which can be illuminated without resort to faith.

Likewise, Reilly asks, “If there is no ‘music of the spheres’ to approximate, what, then, is music supposed to express?” I answer: the majesty, pain, confusion, and joy of the human condition. The transcendence which we can, it’s true, achieve; the desire to escape from ourselves and belong to another; the transformations of love and loss; even, more humbly, the desire to laugh. I could go on; the only limit is my imagination.

As far as imagination goes, there’s no denying that Reilly’s faith limits his. It’s not just the inability to see that an atheistic composer (say, Janáček) might find a purely humanist reason to compose. Reilly talks about the faiths and religious convictions of many composers; he focuses, for instance, on the Catholicism of Elgar. But another important element of his composers’ personal lives goes utterly undiscussed: love and sexuality.

Reilly discusses Janáček’s second string quartet, for instance, even quoting the composer, without mentioning his inspiration in unrequited love. Reilly interviews composer Gian Carlo Menotti; Menotti talks about meeting Samuel Barber and Reilly moves on to the next topic as if this is uninteresting, as if Menotti and Barber were not artistic and romantic partners for decades. Reilly harshly critiques Michael Tippett’s course of Jungian therapy, omitting the fact that Tippett sought therapy to understand and accept his homosexuality.

Indeed, as heavily as Reilly discusses his composers’ personal lives, he never once mentions that many of them—like Barber, Britten, Corigliano, Diamond, Higdon, Liebermann, Poulenc, and Tippett—are or were gay or bisexual. This is a deliberate sin of omission. Reilly has written another book, Making Gay Okay, which is a polemic alleging that we are being “forced” to accept that gay people are “morally acceptable.” The back cover claims that acceptance of non-straight people is a “triumph of force over reason” which threatens the existence of free democracies.

Surprised by Beauty has the good taste to omit those sentiments, but its tone is often subtly influenced by them. I am worried that I’ve painted the author as a fringe lunatic; he is deeply intelligent, so much so that reading him and disagreeing is a mental workout. Reilly is a good sparring partner, and a good champion of his cause, with the strengths and weaknesses that implies. I happened to enjoy disagreeing with him, though a gay or “modernist” reader might not.

And the positive advocacy for undiscovered composers is an excellent reason to investigate this book. Read with blinders on, Surprised by Beauty is an outstanding introduction to some of the last century’s most obscure and intriguing composers. The discoveries I’ve made have enriched my listening. It is ironic that a book so closed-minded in some ways can nevertheless open my mind to a wealth of new music.

Brian Reinhart



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