Modern music in recovery

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Here is an interview by Paul Senz of the Catholic World Report of Robert R. Reilly, who amid a career in the foreign-policy establishment discovered that modern classical music has undergone a renaissance. In fact, he finds that this revival has been under way for quite a while, but mainly underground. Here is a link to his thoughts via the Future Symphony Institute. Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music was published a decade ago or so ago and has just been revised and reissued. Beneath the lovely photo that accompanies it at Future Symphony is his interview with CWR, called “Surprised by the Beauty of 20th Century Music.”

Although a day late, we may feel free to give thanks for this aspect of a broader renaissance. Here is a taste:

Modern art strove hard to earn its bad reputation. It succeeded. People fled the concert halls because they did not want to hear what sounded like a catastrophe in a boiler factory. Likewise, many people shunned modern painting when canvases looked like someone had spilled a plate of spaghetti. Modern architecture seemed to be a contest as to who could design a building that best disguised the fact that human beings would be in it.

Unfortunately, the avant-garde gained control over the levers of the art world – by which I mean the commissions, the prizes, the positions in academe, the cultural press, etc. Unless you played ball with the avant-garde, your artistic goose was cooked. This was not true for some of the giants who continued to write in the traditional tonal manner, but it was decidedly true for the up-and-coming younger composers from the mid-20th century until about 20 years ago. They suffered a lot.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Modern music in recovery

  1. Pingback: Music and architecture, cont. | Architecture Here and There

  2. Maybe the German critic Jens Laurson, who Reilly says might write two thirds of the next edition, will take that job upon himself. I was on a train a couple of years ago and sat next to a classical music student named Antonio Espinoza who was studying in Boston. I also have run an essay on my blog by a classical opera singer, Justin Lee Miller, who seems involved in the movement toward a classical music renaissance. Over my career I’ve heard from young architects or students of architecture who told me of the cruel methods used to try to beat tradition out of them. I suppose it is the same in music and other art. I hope Reilly’s work will give courage to many.


  3. Steven Semes says:

    I’ve just read Reilly’s book and am grateful to him for providing this very valuable resource, particularly given that at least half of the many composers discussed were completely unknown to me. I am really enjoying tracking down their music on Youtube! The half I did know had already given me reason to see the recovery of beauty in concert music as a reality, even if ignored by the cultural mainstream. I must say, however, that there is also a long list of tonal composers that did not make the cut for Reilly’s book and equally deserve our notice, like Paul Hindemith, Lou Harrison, Ned Rorem, Alan Hohvaness, Tobias Picker, Aaron Jay Kernis, Richard Danielpour, and my cousin Jake Heggie, composer of “Dead Man Walking,” perhaps the most successful opera in half a century. Where are Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman, and Lukas Foss? And this is just to mention Americans. Reilly admits he could not include all the deserving names in a single volume and, in any case, the book is a compilation of individual reviews of recordings, not the book we really need– a comprehensive historical/critical survey of all this music to understand what these artists were trying to achieve and how they did it. I personally would have liked more analysis of the music itself and fewer adjectives. As much as I myself love the Romantic tradition in music as in other disciplines, sometimes it seems Reilly’s taste for the “achingly beautiful” and “transcendent” music that continues that tradition may obscure the reality of other aesthetics, such as neo-classical and even new music based on Renaissance polyphony (though he does devote a chapter to Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, and John Tavener). His dismissal of Olivier Messaien (some, but not all of whose music certainly belongs in this survey) is puzzling, also because he was the most prominent Catholic composer after Poulenc. I wish Reilly had, at least, put the essays in chronological order and edited them into something like a single narrative. I am grateful for what he has given us, but I hope that someone (maybe he) will now write the more scholarly work that the subject deserves..


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