It is told of Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, that before returning—from self-imposed exile—to give laws to Lacedaemon, he sent before him a wise Cretan named Thales, who introduced such musical modes among the Spartans as to render them tranquil and orderly, uniting them in admiration of virtue and disposing their souls to embrace the best of laws. Pythagoras maintained, as Robert Reilly reminds us, that the harmony infused in the souls of men by the right kind of music was a natural harmony. He is credited with first discovering “the arithmetical relationships between harmonic intervals,” the mathematical relationships—the logoi—”that inhere in the very structure of sound.” Pythagoras speculated that the harmonious sounds that men could make with their music replicated the harmony in the very cosmos, the “music of the spheres.” Music’s beauty was an intimation of cosmic or divine beauty; it drew the souls of listeners into harmony with the musical logos of nature itself.
By the time of Boethius’ 6th-century work, The Principles of Music, this Greek musical logos had become the Roman ratio and been transformed yet again into the “new song,” in the logos known as Christ. According to Reilly, Boethius’ book “held sway as the standard music theory text at Oxford until 1856,” and “[u]ntil 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.” Thus did Western Civilization dance to the rhythms of natural law music from before the time of Plato to the threshold of our own.
Then came discord.
As modern philosophy attempted to liberate itself from God and reason, modern music attempted to liberate itself from the musical logos, from tonality—from beauty itself. Arnold Schoenberg’s “denial of tonality,” his claim that tonality is merely an arbitrary human construct, is the beginning of music’s liberation. Schoenberg’s project would succeed, as he confidently expected it to do, when he “emancipated dissonance,” that is, when “discords would be heard as concords,” and when the world would be, like Schoenberg himself, “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” Schoenberg’s disciples applied his 12-tone or serial technique not just to tonality but eventually to every element of music, producing thereby ideologically organized noise. They then realized that this organizing technique itself was also a mere arbitrary imposition and just went for the noise. The logical result was “musical” happenings like dropping a piano from a helicopter or gathering to listen to four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing in particular.
This musical nihilism became musical correctness with a vengeance in serious music circles in mid-20th century. As American composer John Adams says, he “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” Composers who did not conform to this reigning musical orthodoxy could hardly get into concert halls in Paris, Rome, or New York. They were scorned and ridiculed as old-fashioned, reactionary. But a few never gave up, and many who had been disciples of Schoenberg (John Adams included) discovered that they were heading down a dead end and made a U-turn.
These are their stories. Reilly’s book consists of 39 brief reviews of 20th-century composers, arranged alphabetically from John Adams, to Francis Poulenc, to Hector Villa-Lobos. All are composers who resisted or recanted Schoenberg’s ideological system of deliberately ugly noise and, each in his own distinctive way, returned or stuck to seeking music’s divine beauty. Each review has a discography with helpful guidance for those on the hunt for the twentieth century’s elusive musical beauty. Bracketing these reviews are Reilly’s short thematic introductory and concluding essays, “Is Music Sacred?” and “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” Following the concluding essay are charming interviews with six contemporary composers, in which Reilly conversationally tests his thesis about Schoenberg and continues his quest for the sacredness in modern music.
The central thesis of Reilly’s book is that the crisis of the modern West manifested itself in a crisis of Western music, that this crisis was most clearly a crisis of faith, and that the recovery from this crisis is a spiritual recovery, evident in the recovery of sacred beauty in our music. His book is a work of love. It is a spiritually erotic book, every page filled with longing for beauty, yearning for the transcendent to be made perceptible.
Robert Reilly has recently served as Director of Voice of America and is music critic for Crisis magazine. He is a faithful guide and will lead many of his readers to musical beauty where they did not expect to find it. I have only one quibble with his argument and one small footnote to add to mine.
The quibble: Reilly writes that, with the advent of Christianity, “music’s goal became even higher” than it had been in “the classical view.” This is because “[t]he transcendent was a notion alien to the ancient [pagan] world.” Once the logos was identified with Christ, it was recognized as both transcendent and personal. “The new goal of music is to make thetranscendent perceptible” (emphasis in the original). Reilly here forgets, I think, that in “the classical view” it is human nature to seek the ultimate good or the final end. The classical view is distinguished precisely by the erotic aspiration to this transcendent goal. In this view, every actual human society, for example, can be fully understood only in the light of a “city in speech” or a “best regime” that is, as it would later be called, a “utopia,” a good place that is no place in this world.
It is true that Schoenberg’s noise is the musical culmination of the modern effort to bring the transcendent down to earth and keep it there as the “effectual truth.” But Christianity seems to have introduced not the notion of the transcendent but a new view of what the transcendent is and how we should seek it. Modernity rejected “the classical view” in the same breath and for essentially the same reason that it rejected the Christian God.
The footnote: As Plato’s Socrates said, quoting his musical mentor, Damon, “never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.” Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting, as James Madison did in The Federalist, that however helpful Thales’ harmonies may have been in securing good laws for Sparta, Lycurgus found it prudent to use auxiliary precautions, “mixing a portion of violence with the authority of superstition,” and in the end renouncing not just his country but his life.