At the annual fundraising dinner of the Morley Institute, the sponsor of InsideCatholic and the late Crisis magazine, I have sometimes been asked by polite guests if my work as a music critic is full-time. I have smiled painfully and said, "No," usually without revealing my day job as a warmonger at the Defense Department.
Now that too has passed, and I actually am a full-time writer. I have discovered this makes for great fun at parties. When people ask me what I do and I answer, "I am a writer," they naturally ask what it is I write about. This gives me an almost unbounded opportunity to talk about myself and the things in which I am interested. As I have a book in the works, I can hold the floor for a painful amount of time. No matter how bored they are, my patient listeners tell me how "fascinating" it sounds. But, alas, I write mostly on subjects other than music. You must know that there are probably no more than a half-dozen people in the world who make their living writing about music, and the number is declining.
Nevertheless, music dominates my life as it is my love. I take every opportunity to listen to it and go to concerts and operas as often as I can. Here is how it works, in the form of a musical diary from my early summer.
In June, the fun started in London where, over the course of four evenings, I was able to attend two concerts and an opera. Review tickets to the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House are compensation for the meager wages of music writers. Without them, musical evenings in London would soon impoverish anyone whose principal holdings are in dollars. The British pound has since faltered, but it was still two dollars per pound when I was there, and an opera seat can run up to £150. You and your guest thus start the evening nearly $600 in the hole, and you have not had dinner yet.
On my first evening in the city, I was able to accompany the brilliant British critic Martin Anderson to the world premiere of Matthew King’s Odyssean Variations. The venue was a converted church (complete with a Crypt Café), St. Luke’s on Old Street, and the players were students and tutors from the Hackney Centre for Young Musicians. I had never heard of King, but his orchestral work describing the adventures of Odysseus on his journey home to Ithaca centered on a huge cello part, played by Natalie Clein. It was intriguing in its highly descriptive, narrative way, and the writing for cello was gorgeous.
Perhaps King had the superb artistry of Clein in mind, whose playing effortlessly met the considerable demands of her part. This accomplished piece was obviously not written for children, but the children in the orchestra, some of whom looked no older than ten, played remarkably well. It is astonishing what children can do when they are not condescended to. After the concert, Anderson remarked, concerning the Variations: "As advertised" — meaning that they achieved what they had set out to do. I agreed in the sense that King effectively illustrated the story in the way of high quality movie music.
At his haunt, the Cork and Bottle off Leicester Square, Anderson disgorged the latest treasures from his CD label, Toccata Classics. This man must have the most catholic tastes in music of anyone I have met. His label is based on the premise that, as his Web site (www.toccataclassics.com) states, "The amount of good music that doesn’t get heard is staggering." If Martin has his way, you will be able to listen to it. New symphonies from the Baltics? Yes: Ester Magi’s wonderful work. A completion of Schubert’s unfinished Relique Piano Sonata, D 840, by Brian Newbould, in a premiere recording? Of course. And, bless him, a release of the first volume of the complete songs of Mieczysław Weinberg, one of the under-recognized geniuses of the 20th century. Toccata also offers a new CD of the intriguing, quite delightful piano music of another composer who, like Weinberg, fell under Shostakovich’s influence: Herman Galynin. Go to and support this label.
The reason I became a music fanatic is Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, heard almost by accident when I was already close to 20 years old. I was sustained in my fanaticism by conductor Colin Davis, who recorded the seven symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Philips — still, I think, the best traversal, and at budget price.
I had never, though, had the privilege of hearing Davis in concert. On the evening of Sunday, June 29, at the Barbican, I was able to overcome that deprivation. In an all-Sibelius program, Davis, a spry 81 years old, proved every bit as good in person as on disc, with his hometown London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO began with a crystalline if somewhat cool Oceanides that might have benefited from a greater sense of mystery. However, every strand of this impressionistic music stood out clearly in the bright acoustics of the hall.
The sensation of the evening was the Violin Concerto, played by Nikolaj Znaider. He is a very expressive player — perhaps too expressive, depending on one’s interpretive take on this concerto. Znaider played it in the tradition of the great Romantic violin concertos, and the overall impression was of fire on Nordic ice. Regardless, his interpretation was consistent and his bravura playing was gorgeous, with a breathtakingly delicate diminuendo at the close. Davis and the LSO gave stirring support.
The anti-Romantic antidote was administered in the second half of the program with the Fourth Symphony, a deeply ruminative, mysterious lament. With superb string playing, Davis and the LSO caught the melancholic heart of this brooding work. Each of the four movements — even the at-times rousing finale, allegro — ends enigmatically, softly, irresolution hanging in the air. It was a magnificent Sibelian evening, encompassing the great composer’s range from the climactic to the anti-climactic. I was thrilled.
My next outing was to the Royal Opera House for Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss. The singing was uniformly superb — as was most of the acting. This opera thrives on the juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane, the high and the low, self-sacrificing Eros and banal erotica. The humor comes from the forced contrasts, as a group of vulgar entertainers are inflicted on the performance of an opera seria depicting the subject of Strauss’s title. It is a classic play within a play.
I will not recount the plot here, but simply say that the prologue, depicting the set-up of the opera seria and the conflict between the serious composer and the entertainers, was well-produced even in its time transposition from the 18th century to an art deco era. In the second part, the actual Ariadne opera, Strauss ends up apotheosizing what he mocks in the transcendent love scene of self-surrender at the end. The sublime wins. There was a special moment when Ariadne lowered the mirror at her dressing table where once she looked only at herself to see Bacchus. Conductor Mark Elder and the Orchestra ably supported the proceedings and conveyed the sense of sublime transfiguration.
My Sunday in London brought me to the Brompton Oratory where it is transubstantiation that one witnesses at the 11:00 A.M. Mass. Is there music for that? In fact, there is. Here is a reliable refuge of liturgical dignity and gravitas, the Novo Ordo Mass in Latin each Sunday, accompanied by the music of the likes of Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, which is capable of conveying the sense of the most sacred. The respect and veneration with which the liturgy was conducted brought tears to my eyes. If I were trying to convert someone, I would not say a thing; I would bring him to this Mass and let him see and listen. The homilist said, "Here men may find beauty, the beauty they need, the beauty of truth." Indeed, when men encounter this kind of beauty, they grasp it. It is that simple.
This subject brings me back to the status of beauty, about which I wrote in my column last month on "The Supremacy of Classical Music," the chief worth of which was to generate a response from Rev. George Rutler. My article was purposely provocative, but I was surprised by some of the livid responses from readers based upon their absolute insistence that beauty is not objective; it is relative. But relative to what, one wonders? If my dyspeptic interlocutors are correct, there is no "beauty of truth" of which to speak, and my Brompton homilist should have been silent.
However, God is not only truth; He is beauty. Thus, all beauty here is reflected beauty. The reflections are not the thing reflected; they are relative to it. It is precisely by knowing what it is relative to that enables us to distinguish high art from low — sort of like judging the quality of mirrors. If the mirror is cloudy, so too will be the reflection. The very peak of art is to make the transcendent perceptible. For that, one needs a very clear mirror. Classical music can do this; rock cannot. I rest my case.
But not without giving the last word to the person who has written most beautifully and profoundly on the role of beauty in the church, Benedict XVI:
Next to the saints, the art which the church has produced is the only real apologia for her history. The church is to transform, improve, humanize the world, but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.