The bulk of the publication, exactly 400 of its 510 pages, consists of a series of 64 short essays (a handful of them by Jens F. Laurson) which walk the curious listener through the recorded output of the composers—alphabetically arrayed, Adams to Weinberg—Reilly regards as having kept the flame of tonality alive during the dark night of Modernism. Part II brings 64 pages of Reilly in interview with five more composers and with Robert Craft. Each essay ends with a list of recommended recordings. The choice of composers is small-c catholic, with names from the quasi-mainstream (Barber, Elgar, Janáček, Martinů, Nielsen, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams) rubbing shoulders with less familiar ones (Braunfels, Fuchs [Kenneth], Gál, Kinsella, Lajtha, Leshnoff, Saygun, Tsontakis). Reilly must have done an immense amount of listening in his preparation for the writing of this book, and the reader at whom it is principally aimed will find this vade mecum extremely helpful. If you are faced with a list of composers’ names, some familiar, others as good as unknown, where do you start? Which works, and which recordings? Here’s where Surprised by Beauty comes into its own: Reilly has worked his way through this mass of music so that he can act as your advance ears. And no matter how much I might disagree with him on theology, I find his musical judgment difficult to fault: He manages to put his thumb on the characteristics of a particular work or the representative features of an entire output both concisely and perspicaciously. And if even I—with some 70,000 CDs in my personal collection (perhaps more: I long ago stopped counting them)—find this succession of summaries both informative and useful in pointing to the gaps in my listening, the curious music lover who is somewhere between being an outsider and an insider will derive even more benefit from it. Reilly’s style, moreover, is casual, almost conversational—another aspect of this book that will help the non-specialist navigate the body of music it chronicles.
Ultimately, you have to take the book for what it is, incense and all. You don’t have to disagree with Reilly’s basic premise—that the domination of 20th-century music by one particular style was unhealthy—to find his black-and-white approach naïve or simplistic, and his intolerance is illogical when Surprised by Beauty so obviously testifies to a healthy musical curiosity. But just as you peel an orange, you can read past Reilly’s reductive conservatism and benefit from his considered advice to expand the range of music you know, perhaps re-assess a composer you thought you knew, or fill in the gaps in your awareness of the output in question. Ultimately, too, you learn more from sympathetic disagreement than from vigorous concord. Robert R. Reilly passes through London every year or so, and we usually find time for dinner together. I expected Surprised by Beauty to come with a religious spin, since that’s how he sees the world, and I’m just as unsurprised by its judicious appraisal of such a large body of music, since he has a tidy and disciplined mind. His contention that musical Modernism explored a number of dead ends is unarguable, too, but that’s inevitable in an age of experiment. The re-assertion of the role of tonality over the past four decades or so has allowed the more resourceful composers to integrate the coloristic and textural discoveries of Modernism into a directional framework. A masterpiece like Magnus Lindberg’s Aura would not have been possible without the twin inheritance of the tonal symphonic mainstream and the Modernist revolution initiated by “music’s Dr. Kevorkian.” Reilly needs his demons, though, and perhaps could not have written this book without them. He is enough of a gentleman to be able to read the criticism in this review without deleting my name from his address-book, and so the next time we meet for dinner, I shall again try to convince him that his musical life would be richer if he cast his net a little wider. In the meantime this book will have enriched many other musical lives.