Music: High and Low


High and Low by Robert R. Reilly

In response to my February/March 2007 Crisis rant against the general decline in culture (particularly in music and dance), I received a letter from a lady in the Midwest that so touched me I have to quote it at length. First, she recalls the shared role of music in her family, then how “families stopped enjoying the same music in the late 50s and early 60s”: “My music had disappeared . . . the music of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern—it was gone—except for the occasional musical. No one took their place.”

Then, this dark epiphany: “Saturday night I was at a popular restaurant for a birthday party for my brother-in-law. He’s 84. I’m 86. From where we were sitting I was not conscious of an orchestra, but when we were leaving I became conscious of them. The worst music I had ever heard in my life. I mean this very sincerely— it was horrible. Sunday morning I did not go to church on account of the ice. So I turned on TV and saw My Fair Lady. When the music of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ came on, I started to cry—crying for all we’ve lost in this country. Had to tell someone and in your sadness I found a friend.”

I especially felt the poignancy of this experience of my new friend because one of my first musical memories is singing songs from My Fair Lady with my late mother, whose voice I can still hear.

My own children are young, and I have endeavored to expose them to classics from the era of great popular music, including musicals like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, which they love and sing from. My first son became quite familiar with big-band music from the swing era because I played it in the car when he was a baby. When he could barely talk (in the two languages in which he is now fluent), he protested against some harsh 20th-century classical music that I was playing. “Feo [ugly], Papi, feo,” he complained. “Oh,” I responded, “and what would you like to listen to?” He answered, “Miller.” “Glenn Miller?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. This from a child who could not yet string a sentence together.

Exposing children to the best popular music works in more ways than one. My son has since listened to many of the great classical composers. When he was only nine, he had an experience similar to that of the lady in the Midwest. After a Star Wars movie, he got a ride home from the father of a friend, who blasted rock during the whole trip. My son was very agitated by the music, which he described as “horrible.” “What was wrong with it?” I asked. “It is irritating to the mind,” he answered. Exactly. He knew, and had learned, through osmosis. That is how a healthy culture works. As the assault in the Midwestern restaurant shows, ours has broken down.

High culture, when healthy, has a trickle-down effect. Popular culture is in some way rooted in it. Just as operetta came from opera, so musicals came from operetta. The audience for them may have been different, but the quality within each of these genres was high so long as the link between them was maintained.

Somehow this link was broken in the mid-20th century. High culture went berserk, losing its moorings and then its audience. In 1958, Milton Babbitt, one of the American classical composers who helped to achieve this discord, wrote an article in High Fidelity that was famously titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” The response from the audience was, appropriately, “Who cares if you compose?” When modern classical music was programmed, the concert halls emptied. No more trickle-down effect. Instead, popular music found a new source of inspiration that bubbled up from below.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Many composers refused to abandon beauty. (This is the story I tell in Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.) They paid a price in terms of condescension when they were noticed, or obscurity when they were not. One of these brave souls recently died: Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) passed away at a ripe age on February 1. I met him when he was a spry 90 and had come to Washington to direct the 50th-anniversary production of his opera The Consul for the Washington Opera Society at the Kennedy Center. In his interview for Crisis, we spoke of the Catholic Faith, with which he had struggled, and his mission as a com-poser. He remarked, “I say, at least in music, that beauty is a search for the inevitable, that great music is music that can only be that way and no other way. And only God can give you the inevitable.”

Menotti’s operas (there are 25) achieved a high degree of popularity, for which he was punished, typically, with the aforementioned condescension. He was deemed too “old-fashioned.” In 1971, Menotti wrote a letter to the New York Times in which he said, “I hardly know of another artist who has been more consistently damned by the critics. . . . The insults that most of my operas had to endure through the years would make a booklet as terrifying as Malleus Maleficarum [The Witches’ Hammer, a medieval guidebook for prosecuting sorcery cases].”

Despite criticism, Menotti never surrendered the role of beauty. We can now hear one of his strongest expressions of it in the appropriately named Missa: O Pulchritudo. Menotti told me about his Missa, written in 1979, and I have since been intrigued to hear it. The Missa was actually recorded by the superb William Ferris Chorale at a live 1982 concert at Saint James Cathedral in Chicago, but was never released until now. A Chicago label, Cedille, has just issued it at mid-price (CDR 7001), paired with French composer Louis Vierne’s powerful Messe Solennelle, Op. 16 (1899).

My first reaction was: What kind of cultural prejudice kept this recording on ice for 25 years? This may be the most beautiful thing Menotti wrote. Beauty is its theme. Menotti replaced the Credo with a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions on the experience of beauty: “0 Beauty, ever ancient ever new, late have I loved You.” I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that Augustine’s experience with beauty mirrored Menotti’s own.

The Missa is inscribed, “In honor of the most sacred Heart of Jesus.” In this offering, Menotti deploys his operatic skills with a spiritual fervor that takes the path of beauty to God in a way that nearly overwhelms with its magnificence and passion. The tenor in this performance, John Vorrasi, re-counts in the liner notes that he saw Menotti “in the darkened church listening intently. At the climactic moment of the Sanctus (a drum stroke on the phrase ‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’) he fell forward to his knees, his head bowed down.” Vocally gorgeous, the style of the Missa is somewhere between Puccini and Poulenc, leaning toward the latter. The performance and recording are superb, as is the production value of the CD booklet, which is adorned with a reproduction of Sassoferrato’s lovely 17th-century painting The Virgin in Prayer.

During our visit in 2001, I read to Menotti his own words: “I have to face Him [God] one of these days, and we have little discussions, private discussions. . . . I’m trying to get an answer from God.” I suggested to him that “maybe God has asked you a question, and He’s the one waiting for an answer.” Menotti replied, “Yes, I know. He has asked me a few questions. That’s the trouble, that’s the dialogue, because I don’t know what to answer.” The answers are in Menotti’s music, and nowhere is that answer stronger than in the Missa: O Pulchritudo. What shines through is not Menotti’s unbelief but his belief. Anton Bruckner said of his magnificent Te Deum: “When God finally calls me and asks ‘What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?’, I will present to Him the score of my Te Deum and I hope He will judge me mercifully.” One hopes and prays that Menotti gained a similar reception.

Menotti had a modest under-standing of himself. In 1998 he said, “I do know my own worth—I’m not Bach, but I like to think I’m not Offenbach either!” Indeed, Offenbach could not have written a Mass like this. It must have been a source of great satisfaction to Menotti at the very end of his long life to know that this recording was finally being re-leased. Beauty wins out in the end— because God is Beauty.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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