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!)

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Charles Ives: The Attacker of Beauty or Its Defender?

I’m reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, having seen it recommended too many times to count. And indeed it’s a very fun read, a real page-turner. But his section on Ives annoyed me enough to write this post. Some good stuff, but also many cliches and stereotypes. It made me then mentally run through the common stereotypes of Ives: the eccentric innovator or the serial fabricator of dates, the dogmatic stubborn visionary, the non-professional musical purist or the cranky amateur, an independent man isolated from the classical music world. All of these are at least partly wrong. Yet people keep coming back to them as they cast him in that much-desired heroic Romantic role.

However, my biggest bugbear is the portrayal of Ives as the attacker of beauty — far from it! Yes, Ives wrote for quarter tone pianos, he took polyrhythms to unheard levels, he was among the first to use tone clusters, he famously adored dissonance. But despite his oft-quoted phrases, he never rejected beauty — only the monopoly of beauty and the monopoly of tonality. His complaint was a just one considering those American composers that had preceded him, such as his teacher Horatio Parker, whose genteel ersatz European music will doubtless not be remembered. Yet he never seemed to have spoken ill of Parker, and indeed respected him. He wasn’t an iconoclast (another myth). In fact, he spoke somewhat disdainfully of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and admiringly of Brahms. But he was fed up of the stale ‘niceness’ of the music around him. Ives sums it up wonderfully:

Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.

His issue is the mis-identification of beauty, not beauty itself. I see him as fighting the corruption of beauty, how it was used as an excuse for stale thinking. One gets a sense from the quotation that he wanted to reclaim beauty from its idle captors. In fact, Ives knew there was nothing more beautiful than a hymn, so he ended his best work, the Fourth Symphony, with one. Skip to 31:40 to hear it, though to feel the full impact listen to the fourth movement in its entirety (25:20) or preferably the full symphony. The whole thing is one spectacular journey, an attempt to get, in the words of the hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee:

Few other ‘modernists’ (and I’m not sure he was a modernist, really) wrote or writes like Ives. He didn’t invent theories or schools of composition. He didn’t formalise his method; he tinkered around. He was a mischievous, playful chap, and thoroughly impassioned and excitable, someone who approached life with the utmost fury and levity in equal measure. He doesn’t belong the the dull world of the abstract modernists, so pure and detached from reality and their audience. Elliot Carter could not understand Ives’ music, for instance. He had no idea what the purpose of quoting Yankee Doodle in a piece was, and that would ruin it for him — I suspect he found it all too silly.

Ives did try to be more like his good friend and fellow composer Carl Ruggles — more wholly atonal, that is. But he admitted failure. Take the Robert Browning Overture. It’s one of his least interesting works (in a non-academic sense), and he admitted he could never realise it, though felt slightly more optimistic 20 years later (1930s), for reasons I’m not sure of (still, his judgement of the work is merely lukewarm). It certainly doesn’t hold up when I listen to it. From Ives’ Memos:

[The Robert Browning Overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. … But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically–but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out.

One of the works Ives was most happy with was his setting of Psalm 90. It strikes that Ivesian balance between tonality and dissonance, and unfolds its beauty at the end, typical for Ives. He is of course drawing on his faith, which had been foremost in his life. (His wife, Harmony, was even the daughter of a pastor.) And he reaches for the celestial, that other side to Ives. He was at once the young boy from Danbury, Connecticut, relishing those memories, and the impassioned universalist eager for grand international projects and ecumenical faith. In his setting of Psalm 90 he gets perhaps the closest to the celestial, yet still grounded in his character as a ‘Yankee’ composer, though less so than than other works. This work strikes me as somewhere between the Fourth Symphony and his never-completed, insanely-ambitious Universe Symphony. But much more contained and focused than either of those works.

Ives is known, perhaps, for his love of dissonance — dissonance for its own sake. But he also loved folk melodies for their own sake. He didn’t disdain the surrounding popular culture as the Frankfurt School came to. He was fond of incorporating ragtime in his work, for example (and Alex Ross rightly points this out in his book). Look up his joyous Four Ragtime Dances to see this.

One of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in Ives’ music — and one which was apparently a great struggle to compose — comes in the form of a simple folk-like melody in ‘Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day’, the last movement of his Holidays Symphony. The section begins 7:20 until a bit after the 11 mark. Apologies for audio quality — it hardly does it justice — but it was the best I could find:

Ives would sometimes give the appearance of deferring to musical simplicity. He would make it so that his music resembled amateur bands — notes coming in late, or simply the wrong notes, for instance. Ives wrote about his friend: ‘Keyes says these notes are O.K. –he is the best critic, for he doesn’t know one note from another’. Biographer Jan Swafford suggested that ‘failing to find he approval of the sophisticated, Ives settled for that of the tone-deaf. So far, he seemed to find it funny.’ He certainly did, but as much as it was a reactionary posture in terms of the classical music world, he really did have a strong democratic sense.

What I’m trying to say, is that Ives was far from the stubborn modernist people portray him as. He didn’t resent beauty or simplicity. At one point Alex Ross described him as ‘uncompromising’, and at another time a ‘stubborn youth’ — which is total nonsense, as he was a terribly shy boy and his early works were quite conventional, with a couple of fun lighter works written mostly for his peers. Maybe what Ives really was was a Romantic with a mischievous bent. I don’t know — and it’s not as if music is one linear, easily-categorised progression. Ives was unusual though, for sure, just not in the way so many think.

I’d like to end with Feldeinsamkeit, what Jan Swafford has called ‘one of the most beautiful songs an American has created’. Ives wrote it in 1897, a sort of memorial for a Dr. Griggs, a choirmaster Ives was close to. This is my favourite recording: