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.
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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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