Robert Reilley & the ‘revival of modern music’

Our local cable station recently added EWTN to its list of channels, and this Sunday morning I had the
opportunity to see Deal Hudson interview Robert Reilley on his show The Church & Culture Today. Readers might recognize Mr. Reilley as a music critic and frequent columnist for Crisis Magazine, and who has recently published a collection of his critical essays entitled Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.1.

The content of Reilley’s dialogue with Mr. Hudson is derived from an essay for Crisis magazine on the question “Is Music Sacred?”2. According to Reilley, until the twentieth century “it was generally accepted that music approximates a heavenly concord, that it should attempt to make the transcendent perceptible and, in so doing, exercise a formative ethical impact on those who listen to it.” (And as Jean Sibelius and Igor Stravinsky demonstrated, one did not necessarily have to be a believer to hold this conception).

The metaphysical ground upon which this conception of music was rooted dissolved with the onset of philosophical nihilism and the disintegration of belief in an intelligible order. Reilly quotes the popular American composer John Adams, who said that he “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” Says Reilly:

The death of God is as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order. If there is no pre-existing, intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it—which is the Creator—what then is music supposed to express? If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself and degenerates into an obsession with techniques. Any ordering of things, musical or otherwise, becomes purely arbitrary. . . .


Arnold Schoenberg

Reilly places the blame for the degeneration of Western music chiefly upon the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who renounced tonality in favor of an “emancipation of dissonance” by way of his own method of twelve-tone method of composition, or “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Related Only to Each Other”:

[Schoenberg] contended that tonality does not exist in Nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical character of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of Nature. Schoenberg was irritated that “tonality does not serve, [but rather] must be served.” He preferred to command. As he said, “I can provide rules for almost anything.”

Schoenberg took the twelve equal semi-tones from the chromatic scale and commanded that music be written in such a way that each of these twelve semi-tones is used before any one of them is repeated. If one of the semi-tones 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. . . . Of his achievement, Schoenberg said, “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” This is nowhere more true than when he declared himself “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.”

Reilly goes on to explain why Schoenberg’s denial of tonality had such a devastating effect on the composition of contemporary music:

The loss of tonality was also devastating at the practical level of composition because tonality is the key structure of music. Tonality is what allows music to express movement away from or toward a state of tension or relaxation, a sense of motion through a series of crises and conflicts, which can then come to resolution. Without tonality, music loses harmony and melody. Its structural force collapses. Gutting music of tonality, as Schoenberg did, is like removing grapes from wine. You can go through all the motions of making wine without grapes, but there will be no wine at the end of the process. Similarly, if you deliberately and systematically remove all audible overtone relationships from music, you can go though the process of composition, but the end product will not be comprehensible as music. This is not a change in technique; it is the replacement of art by an ideology of organized noise.

It is interesting to note that Schoenberg’s believed “arbitrariness” could only be attained by a decisively non-arbitrary adherence to his twelve-tone system, the slightest deviation from which might result in the frustration of his plan by harmony. In so doing, Schoenberg merely replaced the alleged convention of tonality by willfully imposing his own (ultimately conventional) method of composition.

Predictably, some of Schoenberg’s disciples opted to do away with convention altogether. As Reilly says: “If you’re going to emancipate dissonance, why organize it? Why even have twelve-tone themes? Why bother with pitch at all?” — citing as an example the compositions of John Cage, who believed “that the goal of music was a ‘purposelessness,’ and that the role of the composer was to create situations in which sounds could ‘simply be.'”3


George Rochberg

Fortunately, says Reilley, the last few decades have witnessed an “extraordinary recovery from the damage that was inflicted by Schoenberg and his disciples.” Moreover,
those behind this recovery are — “almost without exception” — composers who had previously adhered to and were now rebelling against Schoenberg’s system, advocating a return to tonal music. The first to turn against Schoenberg was George Rochberg, dean of the twelve-tone school of composition in the United States, whose reevaluation and eventual return to tonality was provoked by the death of his son:

in 1961 the Rochbergs’ seventeen-year-old son, Paul, fell ill with a brain tumor. He died three years later, throwing his father into despair. Confronted with his son’s death, Rochberg struggled to give that tragedy some meaning through his music, but the serialism upon which his career had been built he now found empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow.4

According to Reilly, Rochberg’s Third String Quartet was a turning point in that it signified a return to tonality, and was accompanied by a manifesto repudiating his earlier preoccupiation with Schoenberg’s method:

The pursuit of art is much more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artists ego. In my time of turning, I have had to abandon the notion of originality in which the personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values; the pursuit of the one-idea, uni-dimensional work and gesture, which seems to have dominated the aesthetics of art in the 20th century; and the received idea that it is necessary to divorce oneself from the past ….

In these ways, I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with re-activated powers of melodic thought, rhythmic pulse and large scale structure; and, as I see it, these things are only possible with tonality.


John Adams

Another composer who rejected atonal composition was John Adams, who while emulating the antics of John Cage found his aesthetic experience of such unfulfilling:

[Adams] had been studying the writings of John Cage and began organizing elaborately anarchic Cagean happening. For one piece, “lo-fi,” he and his students assumed various positions around the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park and played 78-r.p.m. records that had turned up in Goodwill stores. This activity proved no more satisfying than the highbrow work that he had done at Harvard. In an autobiographical essay, he wrote that “the social aspect of these events was piquant, and the post-concert parties were always memorable, but the musical payoff always seemed ‘lite’. I began to notice that often after an avant-garde event I would drive home alone to my cottage on the beach, lock the door, and, like a closet tippler, end the evening deep in a Beethoven quartet.”5

Discovering that “tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon”, Adams went on to compose the symphony Hamonielehre (“Theory of Harmony”), which according to Reilly nothing less than “a total repudiation of Schoenberg.”

[Hamonielehre] powerfully reconnects with the great Western musical tradition. In this work, he wrote, “there is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool in building my work.” . . . Even more importantly, Adams explained, “the other shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.” Adam’s description of his symphony is explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explains that “the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and spiritual sickness; . . . it has to do with an existence without grace. And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at all . . . that’s the way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace.” It is clear from Adarns that the recovery of tonality and key structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to spiritual loss.

I confess that most of this is new to me, as I grew up listening to pretty much anything but classical music. I don’t have much of an appreciation for John Cage, although I do enjoy experimental and some minimalist music. I was fortunate enough, however, to be blessed with a father who imposed upon his sons the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Antonin Dvoràk such that I’ve
developed some measure of appreciation (which has increased with age). But having majored in philosophy in college I’ve found the underlying worldviews of the musical theories in Reilley’s essay most intriguing, and I’m looking forward to reading his book on the revival of modern music.


  1. Here’s a review of the book by Joshua Gelder National Review Online Feb. 20, 2003.
  2. “Is Music Sacred?”, by Robert Reilley. Crisis Sept. 1999.
  3. Cage, John (1912-1992). Entry – essentialsofmusic.com.
  4. “George Rochberg’s Revolution”, Michael Linton. First Things 84 (June/July 1998). pp. 18-20.
  5. The Harmonist: John Adams takes the agony out of modern music, by Alex Ross. The New Yorker Magazine, January 8, 2001.

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