Transcendence in music

SURPRISED BY BEAUTY: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. By Robert R. Reilly (Morley Books, 1814 ½ “N” Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, 2002), 351 pp. PB $19.95

Robert Reilly is a man of many talents. From Chicago, he is a graduate of Georgetown University in the same class as former President Clinton though perhaps not of the same easy bent of mind. He initially was an actor. He still carries himself as if he were a member of the British Foreign Service playing in the theaters of London. He worked in the Reagan Administration on Central American affairs, where he learned much about religion and politics, about what liberates and what does not. Eventually for a time, Reilly became Chairman of Voice of America. He remains much concerned about how America presents itself to the world. He was recently on special assignment in Iraq for the Defense Department, yet another sort of lesson in religion and politics. His wife Blanca is Spanish. They have three small children.

I am fond of recalling an incisive essay Reilly wrote in the National Review on how easily “compassion” can be used to overturn the basic principles of natural law. Readers of Crisis magazine recognize Reilly for his regular music columns. Reilly’s home has one of the largest CD and other musical technologies that I have ever seen. What Reilly has sought to accomplish over the years is to call our attention to the quite extraordinary amount of music, especially sacred music, that has been written and performed in recent decades—Masses, Oratorios, operas, arias, concerti. We are perhaps wont to say that we love “classical” music, by which we mean Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, or Palestrina. Reilly rather calls our attention to various Scandinavian, Polish, Latin American, English, French, Italian, and, yes, American composers who have overcome the tremendous intellectual confusion put into modern music by Stravinsky.

This book is also profoundly philosophical. Reilly’s initial chapter, “Is Music Sacred?” and his later one, “Recovering the Sacred in Music,” ought to be carefully read by every clergyman and seminarian, by anyone in parishes or academia who deals with music, particularly sacred music. Reilly is particularly good on the specifically Christian contribution to music. He does not mean here merely a list of composers of sacred music, but rather how Christian theology of the transcendence of God and the Incarnation of the Word directly relate to all art forms and in particular to music. “But music’s goal became even higher because Christ is higher. With Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible. The transcendent was a notion alien to the ancient world” (21). One can hardly overestimate the importance of Reilly’s ability to associate the sacred and the art of music with the theological concepts that lie behind them. How we sing about and in the world is also a result of how we understand the world, indeed how we understand the Word in the world.

In addition to a profound, clear, but brief discussion of the philosophical side of music, Reilly’s book is also a handbook. It is quite useful as a guide to learn something of the many composers about whom he tells us. Not only that, Reilly calls on his vast collection of discs, DVD’s, tapes, and even old records to tell us about who plays this music, where we can find it, even sometimes where we can hear it live.

Reilly had given me a CD of Mieczyslaw Vainberg’s Symphony #19, “The Bright Way.” At the end of the chapter on Vainberg in this book, Reilly lists twelve various recordings of his works. Vainberg was Jewish, his whole family killed. He managed to escape. Of “The Bright Way,” Reilly writes that “it is the music of a man who more than simply survived and who did not return empty handed from the hell through which he lived” (243). This is not only a book about modern composers that incites us to take a look at them, but it is also more importantly a guide to where to find them, how to listen to them.

Another characteristic of Reilly is that he has sought, wherever possible, to interview either personally or by phone or correspondence the composers themselves. The last section of the book contains seven interviews with composers—Robert Craft, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochbert, and Carl Rutti. Reilly asks Carl Rutti, for example, “You seem unafraid to address the deepest mysteries of Christianity in your music. And that must take great faith.” Rutti, “Yet, if I take a commission for a new work, it’s always a very strong act of faith, because I have no ability to compose. I just have the hope that I’ve got the inspiration for it. And probably that’s why there’s a certain sense of faith in every work” (345).

To conclude, Reilly’s chapter on the recovery of the sacred in music is particularly concerned with the composers Henryk Gorecki from Poland, Arvo Part from Estonia, and John Tavener from England. Reilly writes, “It is undoubtedly surprising, if not disturbing, to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling, spiritual compositions should come not only from scripture and liturgy, but from the 20th century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. Pope John Paul II would not be surprised.” Reilly’s final point is not merely about the philosophy and history of music or the importance of modern music, especially sacred music, but also its beauty. It is this beauty that Reilly makes every effort in this excellent book to teach us how to find.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.

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