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!)


The Best (and Worst) Settings of the Stabat Mater

These are ranked in vague accordance with what my idea of what a perfect Stabat Mater is: introspective, painful, but ultimately beautiful. Of course, many are absent (Dvorak, Poulenc, A. Scarlatti, etc.) as I’m too unfamiliar with them. From horrendous to sublime:

Karl Jenkins (2008)

Hollywood does Baroque in Arabia. By far the worst Stabat Mater ever. Neither reverent nor introspective, with plain harmonies and child-like melodies, held together by Middle Eastern drumming. This is the kebab-pizza-burger kind of multiculturalism, where everything that is good about the separate cultural components is made cheap and sickly. Yet Jenkins is quite popular, which just might prove that collective madness is a genuine condition. Why are audiences so easily taken in? Are they so starved of contemporary melodious music that they’re happy to give in to this lacklustre kitsch?

Marco Rosano (2004)

Rosano is an obscure chap who has, in terms of classical music, seemingly spent much of his time programming Bach and Vivaldi onto an electric synthesiser. Otherwise, he has apparently been involved in ‘film composition, advertising jingles, children’s lullabies and popmusic’. Yet somehow he got the great countertenor Andreas Scholl to sing his setting of the Stabat Mater. Had it not alright been invented for another style, I would use the term Baroque Pop to describe this Stabat Mater. Song-length movements with accessible tunes but Baroque orchestration and, for the most part, loosely Baroque-like harmony and style, but with 21st century pop sensibilities. The movements vary greatly in quality, and the most complimentary thing I can say about any of them is, ‘huh, that’s a pretty nice tune’. This one is probably the nicest, and the orchestra in the video sounds much better than in the studio recording, which is incredibly boxy. Of course, Scholl sounds heavenly as always:

Rossini (1841)

This would be a really good piece if it weren’t a Stabat Mater. Bombastic and completely the wrong mood. Sounds way too much like one of his operas.

Vivaldi (1712)

From here on out the quality dramatically improves. This is a very lyrical, and very likeable Stabat Mater. It won’t knock your socks off, but you’ll find it impossible to not to be charmed. It’s also quite short, as Vivaldi only made use of the first half of the poem. Philippe Jaroussky’s understated version is my favourite. Here he is singing the Eia Mater:

Pergolesi (1726)

It might be over-exposure, but I’ve become a bit numb to this one. It has parts that still sound amazing, but I can’t listen to the whole thing without getting bored.

Domenico Scarlatti (1715)

Written a decade before Pergolesi’s, this is definitely my preferred Baroque Stabat Mater. Scored for ten voices, It’s more polyphonic and complex (in fact it can sound much older than it is) and utterly sumptuous. (Also, it’s much better than his father’s setting, I’d say.)

Haydn (1767)

A terrifically underrated work. It is unusually sombre and heavy for Haydn, and startlingly beautiful for it. But perhaps what holds it back is that it isn’t especially empathetic — one never really feels Mary’s suffering in it. However, he does the more more brilliant aspects of the poem, especially the end, very well.

Arvo Part (1985)

This is, not atypically for Part it must be said, a sparse work. It is haunting, especially when the vocals first enter on high and descend angelically (heard in the video extract below). It might be the most sorrowful Stabat Mater on the list. There’s a version for orchestra but I much prefer the intimacy of the double trio version, which is also the original version. Here’s the Goeyvaerts String Trio playing a section from it, and, interestingly, in just intonation.

Szymanowski (1926)

An underrated composer. In his late period he wrote perhaps some of the best works of the time: his fourth ‘piano’ symphony, the opera King Roger and this, his Stabat Mater. Syzmanowski wrote his Stabat Mater as much for Poland as for the sacred, incorporating into it Polish folk, as it was in this period that his music took a distinctively nationalist turn. It is a mesmerising, colourful work, and has the most radiant ending of any Stabat Mater I’ve heard, exactly what Paradise should sound like.

James MacMillan (2016)

MacMillan’s stands out for its anger. It is often quiet, and always reflective, but it is also tormented and furious, grinding its way towards glory. I love some of the vocal effects in it, the way the voices at one point blend and imitate such that they sound like a wash of tears — almost uncontrollably emotional — or an argumentative section which seems to see sections of voices pitted against one another. And the aggression of the music is often remarkable considering this just uses a string orchestra. Yet it’s no less beautiful for it, with the first movement ending on the most wonderful violin melody — which returns twice more in the piece, and each time more beautiful than the last. It’s worth noting that this piece begins where MacMillan’s Seven Words ended, with G and F# playing simultaneously at almost a whisper. So I’d strongly recommend giving that a listen too, if not first. Here’s the Spotify embed as it’s not available on YouTube:

Palestrina (ca. 1589)

I don’t want to at all spoil this one, in case you haven’t already heard it. It’s one of those pieces that when you first hear it, it’s obvious within the first five seconds that it’s going to be sublime. I don’t know what perfection sounds like, but this would be my best guess. The Sixteen again:

James MacMillan — Since it was the day of Preparation…

mi0004072841I’m loath to review music because of how difficult it is to describe, especially as a layperson. Yet in this work composer James MacMillan has taken on the opposite challenge: how to explain one of the most remarkable and confounding texts through music. Somehow, he does so with incredible clarity and majesty, in what is one of the greatest sacred works in decades.

Since it was the day of Preparation… depicts the burial and Resurrection of Christ, and the sightings and miracles that came after. The text is taken word-for-word from the bible (RSV, not Latin), giving musical context to what is a difficult biblical passage to comprehend. What are we to make of the fact that so many miracles were left untold, for instance? The Gospel of John, from which the words are taken, ends incredibly: ‘But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’. As if the story up to that point were not mysterious enough.

I say this as someone who is yet unable to believe in God. The Resurrection is perhaps an even stranger story to me, then, as it’s so outside the secular world I live in. But it is through music like this that I find myself tentatively rediscovering Christianity, or at least desiring it, having been born into a kind of limp, undefined Catholicism. This is what music is best at — conveying and compelling one towards the mysterious.

MacMillan has said that it is a stranger narrative than the Passion, and that for this reason the music had to be stranger. But this doesn’t mean the music is weirdly dissonant, as one might expect. Rather, it owes its strangeness to the odd instrument choices, and the beauty that comes from them. 

This is because the ensemble is surprisingly intimate for a story so great. Indeed, it’s the most miraculous of stories, yet the music is the opposite of what you’d expect: a small ten-person ensemble rather than an impressive orchestra. The instruments, performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, are a peculiar mixture: cello, clarinet, horn, harp and theorbo (a type of lute with a longer neck and, thus, a greater range). In addition there are five solo voices. The performance is remarkable, with an especially powerful performance by bass Brindley Sherratt, whose awesome vocals make it impossible for you to mistake them as anything other than the voice of Christ.

There are moments of astounding beauty, more so than any other work I’ve heard by Macmillan. Rather than flood the screen with adjectives, I’ve embedded an excerpt from the work. Christ is singing, telling Mary Magdalene to return to the disciples and tell them of his Resurrection. Notice how Christ is ‘haloed’ by the bells. When he first appears Christ twice sings a minor seventh interval — F to Eb — as he does here. Later, when appearing to the disciples, Christ instead holds a single note — D — but with the accompaniment playing D to G#, a tritone, or the so-called ‘devil’s note’. It demonstrates the Burkean idea that fear and the sublime are bound together eternally. Anyway, here’s the clip:

So few instruments, yet so much sound.

Every other movement of the work is an interlude, sometimes played by the five instruments or, more frequently, by a solo instrument. These are sort of like cadenzas, wild and virtuosic moments for each instrument. But each one is much more than an extravagant solo. The accompanying notes in the CD describe them ‘as monologues, or perhaps soliloquies; at all events, they provide extended points of deep reflection, both musical and theological, on the unfolding of the story’. The most beautiful of these is the harp, which follows when Mary Magdalene sees Christ, alive, outside his tomb. It wrenches at many dissonances, then the confusion and anguish passes and the simple, soothing melody from the last movement is played: Jesus is alive, and the mourning is over.

The piece ends in A minor, what always sounds to me, perhaps superstitiously, as the purest key. I often see it called the ‘natural’ minor, the sixth mode of C major. The music fades on a single note of A. Both mysterious and simple simultaneously.

I’ve listened to it several items this week, and am beginning to see it as a masterpiece. Even if that is too strong, this is undoubtedly MacMillan at his best. Recently he wrote a brilliant essay on the quest to rediscover the sacred in modern music. In this piece, he may have found it.