Surprised by Beauty

It is an astonishing fact that the most popular modern classical music is religious. Arvo Part is the most performed living composer (James MacMillan also makes the top 10) and three of his works are included in the ten most performed contemporary works. The 1993 recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is the best-selling contemporary classical album of all time, and even made it into the popular charts. John Tavener’s works are exceptionally popular, particularly The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene.

When I came to classical music two years ago, I was first attracted by the beauty of twentieth century music. I was far too innocent to know that this was in any way unusual. My first classical music loves were, among others, Arvo Part, James MacMillan, Penderecki, Messiaen, Sofia Gubaidulina, and of course Charles Ives, after whose song this blog is named. These are (or were) all composers of gorgeous music whose faith is central to their work. My younger self, obsessed with extreme metal and resolutely atheist, would doubtless be incredulous at my older self’s love of beautiful religious music.

Enter Surprised by Beauty. This book by Robert Reilly (now expanded with the help of Jens F. Laurson) sets out to promote the many twentieth century composers who continued to write beautiful music despite an often hostile environment. Reilly sees the twentieth century as a period of crisis, particularly spiritual crisis, to which music was by no means immune. ‘The death of God’, he writes, ‘is as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy. Tonality, as the preexisting principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order.’ The ordering of music became arbitrary, and gave way to purely technical compositional techniques, notably serialism. Such a radical change was built on the ideological premise that tonality is a finite resource, thus making a new musical language a historical necessity — what Schoenberg famously called the ’emancipation of dissonance’. But then there was a counter-rebellion of sorts, giving way to (some) tonality and beauty. Many composers have been returning to the natural order of sound, and this book is a celebration of their work.

The list is impressive — I’m unfamiliar with about two-thirds of the names. I don’t imagine I’ll ever finish this book. Each chapter explores the life and work of one composer, and finishes with a list of recommend recordings, giving you weeks of material to listen to.

Nevertheless, there are some surprising omissions. Yes, I know that with this kind of book everyone will have some favourites they feel should have been included. But the number of well-known composers who are missing is rather perplexing. No Messiaen, Penderecki, Gorecki, Part, Tavener, MacMillan or Gubaidulina. These are some of the great contemporary religious composers. It’s not as if the authors are averse to having ‘big names’ in the book — Shostakovich and Sibelius both make the cut. Some of these omissions are obviously personal — ‘I simply have never fathomed Messiaen’s music’, Reilly writes at one point, which is fair enough. I also wonder whether the authors considered including some of the Spanish twentieth century composers, whose music was often more tonal. Villa-lobos is included, but he is an exception. One might have also included Brouwer, Rodrigo and Ponce.

Another omission is a personal favourite, Charles Ives. I wouldn’t have mentioned it had Reilly not left this flippant comment: ‘Charles Ives (1874–1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer’. In this blogger’s opinion, Ives was one of the twentieth century’s great defenders of beauty. He was also a deeply religious composer. For an example of both, listen to his incredible setting of Psalm 90:

There are certain composers, however, who I was delighted to see included. Take Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). He was a great French composer who is much under-appreciated. One of his fascinations was with films, and I first heard his work when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a rare performance of his Seven Stars Symphony, broadcast on Radio 3 a year ago. Each movement is based on a film star, and it was some of the most visual, open music I’d ever heard. Reilly describes it extraordinarily well:

The music can often seem to drift—not aimlessly—but as in a dream, with an extremely spacious sense of time. Koechlin is not afraid to keep the music barely above the level of audibility, as if it were a haze settling upon you, or to engage in raucous outbursts of Mahlerian proportions.

… some of Koechlin’s works can sound like the aural equivalent of a Verascope photo without the stereoscope to see it through. This is because of his employment of techniques that are polytonal—using more than one tonal center or key alongside, and sometimes against, another—polyrhythmic, and even polystylistic. This can get confusing. It can produce a huge sonic welter, a veritable jungle of sound. However, because of it, it is all the more breathtaking when all of a sudden, stereoscopically, things are snapped into focus, resolving themselves in a magnificent, arching melody.

Here’s the Seven Stars Symphony:

Speaking of Hollywood films, another excellent inclusion is Erich Korngold. Among his other works, he wrote one of the best symphonies of the twentieth century, and a very fine violin concerto. It is a pleasure to see George Tsontaki in the list, too, who also wrote a quite brilliant violin concerto (the No. 2, which won a Grawemeyer award). Reilly describes Tsonatki’s music thus: ‘The music is certainly highly allusive—sometimes like floating islands of melody on a sea of sounds (sometimes it is hard to make out the melody from the welter of sounds) or dream music that only makes sense in a dream.’

I could go on. A composer I discovered from the book is Morten Lauridsen. Granted, I think I may have heard the name before, but had never been introduced to his music. Reilly describes his music as ‘in style … inspired by Renaissance master Josquin des Prez. He not only draws upon Renaissance forms, he remains true to them, albeit with some modern harmonies.’ Reilly later quotes Lauridsen, who says, ‘There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us.’ Wonderfully said.

I had a meagre little paragraph of my own about Lauridsen’s music, but whoever uploaded this video gives a far more effective testimony:

Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!

Here’s the video:

It is shockingly beautiful. I think I’ll end here. (Oh, yes, and it is well worth getting your hands on the book!)


5 thoughts on “Surprised by Beauty

  1. Yes! that book is a great resource. As with you and Lauridsen, there are an awful lot of composers Reilly discusses who I’ve never really listened to in spite of being superficially familiar with their names or work. Was planning on exploring Valentin Silvestrov (heard Gidon Kremer perform an encore earlier of his ‘Serenade’ for solo violin) this weekend but perhaps I’ll spend time with Charles Koechlin instead. Bryan T. wrote a post about the Reilly not too long ago, in case you missed that.

    ‘Last Night’ of the Proms tomorrow morning for me!


    1. Yes, I had missed that post, unusually. Will check it out. Might watch the Last Night, but honestly not the biggest fan. Though it’s befkre my time, apparently they used to play a concerto in the first half. Now it’s just too bitty and miscellaneous, but perhaps that’s just me. Love the patriotism though. Never heard the Kodaly, of any Kodaly really, so might tune in for that.


  2. As it turns out, my laptop had stopped making ‘i’s and commas this morning so had to find a replacement while repair happens which business occupied the entire forenoon– returned to ‘normal’ just in time for Jerusalem, which always makes my eyes water.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s