Review by James Forrest

James Forrest

This article originally appeared in Issue 40:2 (Nov/Dec 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.

How I missed the first edition of this vastly interesting book when Robert R. Reilly published it in 2002 I cannot say, but I am grateful the editor offered the chance to read and review this “revised and expanded edition”—expanded, indeed, to include a co-author. The description seems entirely justified, since this second edition is nearly double the size of the original volume, 13 entirely new chapters have been added (eight by Reilly and five more from Laurson), and several more chapters have been revised and expanded. Ted Libbey’s Forward to the 2002 publication is also included. In all, a substantial volume.

This has proved, as well, to be a popular book, with any number of admiring reviews. Although I have a couple of reservations, one major, one minor, I certainly add my voice to the general praise this new edition has received. It is well written, thought provoking, and a terrific “read” for anyone with an interest in the topic.

My primary disagreement is with the authors’ major premise as indicated in their subtitle. They believe that Schoenberg and the atonalists stole or were about to steal (or take over) music in the 20th century, that beauty in music had become of little or no importance and that, only in the latter part of the century, a group of composers reclaimed the art. The authors argue their case with fervor, but I don’t think the facts bear them out. In my opinion, 12-tone music was never more than a side-issue. The vast majority of composers did not follow it: The nearly 70 composers discussed here (five of the chapters are excellent interviews), and also a considerable number of 20th-century tonalists not individually treated by the authors.

Bartók, Bloch, Copland, Cowell, Creston, Gershwin, Hindemith, Honegger, Piston, Prokofiev, Schuman, Walton, to name only the first dozen who come to mind were all writing tonal music during the time the atonalists were most active. I obviously don’t remember the 1920s and 30s personally, but it seems to me they, and others, more than held their own in comparison to Schoenberg and his followers. There is a particularly fine interview with David Diamond, surely one of our greatest symphonists, but to ignore two more of the finest, Walter Piston and William Schuman, seems to me to stack the deck. I respect the authors’ opinion on the matter, but I am unconvinced. Others, however, may agree.

An area of less significant disagreement stems from a question the authors pose following the preface: “Is Music Sacred?” They return to this at the end of their discussion of individual composers and clearly it is a topic that has meaning for them. It is not one to which I can relate. Elsewhere in this issue a DVD of a concert and interview featuring the venerable conductor Herbert Blomstedt is discussed. In the interview Blomstedt was asked about the spiritual content of music. He looked puzzled, finally put his hand near his heart, and said (I paraphrase from the translation): But, that is in here. I take the meaning of that to be that music is not in and of itself intrinsically spiritual (or, by extension, sacred) but that it can touch those aspects of ourselves. That would be my view.

Another comment, frequently made in the text, is that the atonal movement killed or tried to kill “beauty” in music. Again, I can’t relate to that. Obviously, Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra are not “pretty” or melodic such as Brahms’s Haydn Variations. But I recall well, after hearing Solti and the Chicago Symphony play the Schoenberg in the then new Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, how much impact the tonal variety and complexity had. I was similarly moved one warm summer afternoon at Tanglewood hearing Joseph Silverstein play the Schoenberg Violin Concerto with his colleagues of the BSO. Beauty exists in many forms. In music, beauty does not reside only in melody. It also, let us not forget, exists in the ear of the listener. We are not all going to agree, just as not all hear things the same.

Having indulged myself, and so as not to try patience, let me return to what I find excellent here and the reactions which support a strong “buy” recommendation. As noted, this book is well written, entertainingly written. It is also chock full of useful information. Having read it, you will return to it (as I have during the past couple of months) for facts or opinions regarding the individual composers and music discussed. Although a new author was added for this edition, his style is much the same and there are no incongruities. In addition to a provocative discussion of each of more than five dozen composers, there is a brief, selected discography at the end of each chapter. I surely do not own all of the recordings listed, but I own a sufficient quantity, and share the esteem of the authors for those discs, as to have confidence that all of their recommendations are well considered.

The book is nicely turned out. I have not seen the hard-bound edition, but the copy I received has a very heavy stock outer cover, glossy finished, looks well, and after several weeks of heavy use looks (still) like new. Editing is excellent. I didn’t pick up any misprints (not saying I could not have missed one), but in all, a splendid job. While you might well choose to spend the additional money for a hard-bound copy, because it is, I repeat, a book to which you will return, I would say that those who decide to save 10 dollars will do so with impunity. There is a web site which is also of interest: SurprisedByBeauty.org. I suppose it will be maintained over time. For all of my carping and complaining, I recommend this revised edition. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying perusing and returning to it.

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