recommended books

Robert R. Reilly
Surprised by Beauty

by Mark Nowakowski

It is rare that one can offer such unbounded enthusiasm for a book about modern music, yet I can confidently state that Robert Reilly's Surprised by Beauty: A Listeners Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music is a joy for both layman and music expert alike.

Reilly takes us on a guided voyage of the lesser-sung musical heroes of the twentieth century, namely those composers that did not fall to unabashed modernism and abstractness in their efforts. Whether dealing with famous figures such as Jean Sibelius or lesser-known figures such as Gerald Finzi, Reilly clearly does his job with intellectual relish and musical love.

While this book provides a tantalizing list of quality recordings -- one which might inspire financial irresponsibility on your part -- it is much more than a glorified listening-list. In exposing undervalued composers of the 20th century, Reilly provides a necessary service by also exposing us to new worlds of beauty: the very beauty that an ugly century has tried to cover up.

On the intellectual side, Mr. Reilly does not shy away from bold statements regarding the modern aesthetic and its potential affects on mankind. Of particular appeal is his chapter on John Cage, "Apostle of Noise." In this section, Reilly clearly spells out the philosophy of modernism, as well as its pitfalls for both art and the human spirit: it should be required reading in our nation's conservatories. I kindly ask you to go to the "articles" section of the Foundation website. Mr. Reilly has kindly agreed to allow us to provide the chapter "Recovering the Sacred in Music." This article provides both orientation and hope in what have been troubling artistic times.

Reilly is no reactionary, however, and the final section of the book may surprise you. Therein, he conducts interviews with composers as diverse as George Rochberg and Rautavaara. In his conversation with conductor Robert Craft on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he goes as far as to recommend several recordings of the former's works.

It is unfortunate -- yet spiritually speaking, somehow not surprising - that Reilly's incredible effort on behalf of modern music has gone out of print. Yet it is worth the increased price-tag of a rare book, and can be readily obtained on websites such as (as well as our Foundation web store.) In addition, the author informs us that there is an effort underway to do a new release of this book.

Whether fans of music or professional composers, many of us have a confused and tortured relationship with the modern aesthetic. "Surprised by Beauty" provides a valuable and illuminating perspective on the topic, all while providing the surprise promised in the title.

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