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!)


Carl Ruggles

At age 4, Charles Sprague ‘Carl’ Ruggles started learning the violin. Two years later, he built his first instrument. It was a ‘violin’ he had constructed from a cigar box. Three years later, he appeared as local prodigy in a concert given for President Cleveland. (On this occasion he used a real violin.) He went on to study at Harvard and afterwards directed the Winona Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota. He was throughout this time a reasonably successful, if unremarkable, professional musician, spending much of his time teaching.

And that’s about all we know about the young Carl Ruggles. He destroyed all the pieces he wrote at the time, which mostly consisted of trite parlour songs. But at about the age of 40, after failing to write a planned opera, he composed a little song for his son’s fourth birthday. Take a listen:

From Toys onward, Ruggles only composed this kind of dissonant, contrapuntal, modernist music. His output would total less than an hour-and-a-half’s worth of music. And let’s be honest, if he had produced twenty hours of this music instead of just one-and-a-half, it would probably be intolerable. His had one musical trick and he pretty much exhausted it.

And what was that musical trick, you say? Ruggles was minimalist of sorts. We always use the term ‘minimalist’ to refer to Steve Reich et al. But their music is extremely busy. When we use the word ‘minimalist’ to describe it, we actually mean it lacks movement, mainly harmonic movement. It is motionless music. The real, literal minimalists are the composers whose aesthetic desire was to be as austere as possible. Ruggles went by the principle that there must be absolutely no excess notes. He would therefore write each piece excruciatingly slowly, spending possibly weeks writing many iterations of a single bar.

He adapted this style to the compositional method of dissonant counterpoint (not unique to Ruggles; Ruth Crawford Seeger used it too, and her work is well worth checking out). Counterpoint is quite simply one musical line against another. Traditionally, one studies counterpoint so as to make simultaneous musical lines sound harmonious. Dissonant counterpoint is an academic exercise in doing the exact opposite. So when coupled with his ideal of simplicity (especially compared to his fellow modernists), Ruggles is, in a way, the anti-Palestrina.

The interesting thing about dissonant counterpoint, as opposed to many other 20th century musical systems, is that you are guaranteed to have some consonance, in the same way you are guaranteed to get dissonance in Bach. Ruggles’ music can actually be quite beautiful. Angels is my favourite piece. Before listening, I should also point out another main component of Ruggles’ music, that he generally avoided repeating a note until a certain number had passed. The later his works, the more severe this got. Angels is peculiar in that it partially discards the principle of no pitch class repetition. (Notice the Bb repeats in bars 2 and 4 on the second trumpet; and the C repeats in bars 5 and 7 on the first trumpet). And because he’s not using a deliberately atonal system like twelve-tone serialism, there is always the slight hint of a root note. One could argue, as composer Lou Harrison did, that Angels is in Ab major.

The last characteristic of Ruggles music is the wave-like structure, with its huge dynamic swells. The result is music that sounds massive — almost tectonic. And the pieces are even more powerful given that most have a strong pulse. Below is Men and Mountains. At the premiere, fellow composer and his good friend Charles Ives reportedly chastised a heckler, shouting ‘you God damn sissy … when you hear strong masculine music like this, get up and use your ears like man’.  The piece has another connection to Charles Ives. Listen to the violent third movement, ‘Marching Mountains’, and at the end you’ll hear the Beethoven 5 rhythmic motif on the brass. Of course, Ives was obsessed with this, what he would consider ‘masculine’ theme, making it central to his great Concord Sonata. 

Nicolas Slominsky describes ‘Marching Mountains’ as ‘growing more discordant with every bar, scaling heights, plumbing depths, proclaiming polysyllabical millennia’. The unfavourable take, as one critic described another Ruggles work, Sun-Treader, is that the music sounds like ‘bowel constrictions in an atonal Tristanesque ecstasy’. Take your pick:

There has been something of a cult of personality developed around Ruggles. He was undoubtedly a character. He would write his scores with coloured crayons on large sheets of heavy butcher’s paper spread across the floor. You’ll often see him described as stubborn, temperamental or irascible. And he was undoubtedly an unpleasant man at times, with many accounts justly describing him as anti-Semitic and racist. (Though other accounts also depict him as a charming and likeable.)

There are plenty of anecdotes about Ruggles. A particularly delightful one was told by composer Henry Cowell:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

Ruggles got the idea of dissonant counterpoint from Henry Cowell, who in turn got it from Ruth and Charles Seeger. There seems to have been a close relationship between American composers of the time. Ruggles, Cowell and the Seegers would even gather to sing folk songs in loft of Thomas Hart Benton.

Ruggles was good friends with Benton too, such that Benton painted a remarkable portrait of him. Titled The Sun-Treader, the portrait has to be among the best of any composer. The pouting lower lip, the curl of the eyebrows, the meditative look, the disorderly, slouching scores, the way he’s tucked away in the corner of a room, and the heaviness of his clothes’ fabrics. It’s brilliant:


Ruggles found composing painfully difficult. Throughout his life he was also a painter, and this came much more naturally to him. Nevertheless, his character was such that he felt compelled to take the harder path. When he stopped composing in the late 1940s and retired to Vermont, he spent much of his time on abstract paintings until his death in 1971. An example, Flowers:


Although he had stopped composing, he did write a little hymn, Exaltation, when his wife died in 1958. It isn’t like his other works. It’s essentially tonal but with several Ivesian wrong notes. Nor does it follow the dissonant counterpoint or ‘wave’ structure of all his other available work. It’s a nice piece, with an effective humming section at the end: