Musical Beauty Makes A Comeback

Classical music has been a long time recovering from its nihilism, and the other arts still appear far behind.


Talk about reclaiming the culture is endless on the right these days, but it is all much too vague. One exception stares us in the face, but we mostly miss him. He was at the Philadelphia Society 50th Anniversary meeting of right intellectuals, discussing music and the arts, his usual amusing self, debunking the ugliness of popular culture while staying optimistic about the future. Everyone enjoyed him, but he soon sunk in the memory hole. After all, it was just good old Bob Reilly.

Robert R. Reilly is too familiar, clever, incorrect, and ironic to attract mass attention. He is a specialist on foreign policy and is often pigeonholed as such. But his true expertise is music, and he has much to tell us about this most systematic of the arts. He wrote a wonderful book a decade ago that has been mostly unread, but deserves a serious revival. It is called Surprised by Beauty and is available from Amazon. If one wants to do something about the culture, buy it now.

Even a cultural illiterate like your author can hear that music took a radical turn for the worse in the early 20th century. The change affected both popular and classical music, but the highbrow arts led the way and are the source of the problem. Its origins go deeper still, to the 19th century roots of nihilism under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, who questioned all Western order, value, and beauty. Nietzsche’s adherent in music was the incredibly influential Arnold Schoenberg, the dominant intellectual force in 20th century music. He composed originally to reconcile Brahms and Wagner, and was praised by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. By 1910, Schoenberg wrote his Theory of Harmony, which remains to this day one of the most influential music theory books ever written, developing a large and influential school of artists who helped spread his radical views.

Reilly explains that the center of Schoenberg’s revolt was his rejection of tonality. He denied tonality existed in nature as the property of sound itself, a view of music held from ancient Pythagoras right up until his day. His revolutionary view was developed not from scientific advances in acoustics but from Schoenberg’s desire to escape all of the ancient restrictions on sound, saying “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” As Reilly clarifies:

Schoenberg took the twelve equal semitones from the chromatic scale and commanded that music be written in such a way that each of these twelve semitones be used before any one of them is repeated. If one of the semitones is repeated before all eleven others are sounded it might create an anchor for the ear, which could then recognize what was going on in the music harmonically. The twelve tone system guarantees the listener’s disorientation. Schoenberg proposed to erase the distinction between tonality and atonality by immersing man in atonal music until, through habituation it became the new convention. Then discords would be heard as concords. As he wrote, ‘The emancipation of dissonance is at present accomplished and twelve-tone music in the near future will no longer be rejected because of discords.’

Schoenberg was not exaggerating. He overcame 2,000-year-old conceptions of tonality, concord, and harmony to set discordance as the new standard for modern music. But once beauty in the classical sense was upended, why stop there? His disciple, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, took it further and applied the same principle of tone row pitch to all the elements of music—pitch, duration, tone production, intensity, and timbre. Another French disciple, Edgar Varese, asked why even 12-tone at all? Even he could not abandon all order, though. The American composer John Cage went the whole way and simply “created noise through chance operations.” Now you know why it sounds so ugly. That is its point.

This dreary story of the nihilistic revolution in music—as well as in culture generally—is somewhat well known, but Reilly lets us in on the little secret that this revolt in music has spent its course. How does he know? He interviewed the counterrevolutionaries, starting with the most important, University of Pennsylvania composer George Rochberg–who was a leading 12-toner when in 1964, his son died. Rochberg became frustrated that he could not express his deep emotions in the new orthodoxy and dramatically turned back to tonal passages. Reilly’s interview with him must be read in full, but let me note two things. Here is Rochberg on his feeling at the time:

I couldn’t breathe any more. I needed air. I was tired of the same round of manipulating the pitches, vertically and horizontally … What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you can’t come to a natural pause, that you can’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.

Asked about Schoenberg’s remark that artists must be “cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty,” Rochberg replied: “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness, absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music.” He ends with the ultimate praise for Reilly: “I have to say you really understand my music.” One must read the full discussion to comprehend similarly.

Reilly’s interview with Gian Carlo Menotti, whose beautiful operas ignored the new orthodoxy from the beginning, discusses Menotti’s difficulties with the critics, and his having the last laugh with enormous popularity and even growing critical acclaim. His story of meeting Padre Pio is disorienting in these skeptical times, with Menotti refusing to tell its outcome as being too “private” to reveal. Reilly even interviewed perhaps America’s most honored composer just a few years before his death, David Diamond, who told him:

So much of the music that was written during the 1950s and part of the 1960s, music that was basically textural in the sense that the sonorities were the important thing, or patterns of sound, have not lived on. In fact, they’ve disappeared. Nobody ever listens to them. It’s because there is a lack of real musical language which communicates. In other words, there is no melodic substance and there’s no feeling in the sense of emotion, whether it’s lighthearted emotion or whether it’s dark and profound emotion.

Diamond claimed that even Schoenberg at the end told him 12-tone was not for everyone.

Reilly writes much more about dozens of composers. Yes, one would not know 12-tone was dead listening to many public radio stations and the critics; but as Stravinsky associate Robert Craft remarked, audiences will not take it. They will simply walk out at the discord they have not accepted, regardless of what their betters tell them. Even if the critics blame it on popular ignorance, the beautiful classics dominate almost every program where people actually have to pay cash. Atonality is not gone; and in fact, most of the modern composers Reilly mentions incorporate it into their works in some sense or other. But the rigid orthodoxy is dead, and that is good news indeed for those looking for beautiful music.

My own view, perhaps derived from a statement of Reilly’s years ago and hinted at by references in the book such as Rochberg’s, is that Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Shubert, the other classical composers, and even Wagner took the heart from those who followed. The masters had gone so far in attaining the beautiful; who could surpass or even advance them (Mahler and Stravinsky perhaps excepted)? One of Rochberg’s critics asked, “Why does George want to write beautiful music? We have done that before.” Better discord than failing to surpass the masters in beauty. As Rochberg emphasized, World War I then destroyed idealism and even nostalgia outright, which led to Schoenberg and the triumph of nihilism.

Each composer’s escape from that nihilism was personal and driven by different circumstances, but each was left dissatisfied with the emptiness of nihilistic nothing and Nietzsche’s super-self. Each started searching for something beyond method and abstraction. For many, it was religious, as with Menotti, or “almost” religious to the more skeptical like Diamond, or even just explicitly spiritual as with Rochberg. To all of the counterrevolutionaries, it was a search for beauty and truth.

Classical music has been a long time recovering from its nihilism, and the other arts still appear far behind. But Reilly gives hope; and who can ask for more in these dark days of sordid popular culture, where the beautiful truly is such a surprise?


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