Robert R. Reilly
Senior Fellow, the American Foreign Policy Council
2010 was a year of some amazing discoveries on compact disc. When the history of 20th century music is written in the next several hundred years, will it bear much resemblance to how we think of it now? I have long suspected that there is a hidden history of classical music that would one day surface. It is surfacing now. Most of the CDs below are première recordings. Why is this music being presented now, and not before? Perhaps because the ideological fetters that kept it offstage have fallen. Not only are contemporary composers writing some beautiful things, but their predecessors in the 20th century, who kept the flame alive, are finally getting a hearing.
New CDs of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music confirm in my mind that he was one of the neglected greats of the past century. A Pole who spent most of his productive life in the Soviet Union, Weinberg (1919-1916) spoke the musical language of Shostakovich and shared in the harrowing experiences of that world, including the Gulag, from which he was released only because of Stalin's death. However, he never embraced the acidic sarcasm and wild banalities which Shostakovich used to poke his fingers in the eyes of the authorities. Weinberg was gifted with a natural musicality that is expressed in everything he wrote. He used all the convention forms—symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, etc.—but imbued them with a heartfelt directness and expressive power. If music is a language, one can always hear Weinberg speaking—cor ad cor, sometimes of difficult things, but always with an enduring human spirit. Having seen some of the worst things the 20th century had to offer in its totalitarian brutality, Weinberg did not look away, but he did look up—which makes all the difference.
First off, the Danel Quartet continues its superb traversal of Weinberg's complete (17) string quartets with CPO release (777 393-2) of volume three, containing numbers 6, 8, and 15. At this point, I am ready to say that this cycle is comparable in quality to the Shostakovich quartets, which is saying a great deal because Shostakovich's quartets are his best music. This is intimate, very private music, dearing in places, ineffably sad and sweet in others.
CPO has also begun a cycle of Weinberg's Violin Sonatas, volume one containing numbers 4, 5, and Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (777 456-2). Like most of Weinberg's music, there is a marvelous feeling of spontaneity to these works, beautifully captured by violinist Stefan Kirpal and pianist Andreas Kirpal. These pieces lament, sing, and dance. They are, in turns, deeply ruminative and wildly passionate. If I were doing a list of the best chamber music CDs of the year, this would surely be on it.
Chandos has issued a new recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7, played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under Thord Svedlund (CHSA 5078). As far as I can tell, the First Symphony is a recording première, while the Seventh Symphony has had only one prior release with its dedicatee, Rudolph Barshai, at the helm of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. However passionate and superbly played, Barshai's effort was compromised by Soviet recording engineers in somewhat harsh and cavernous 1967 sound. The Chandos Super Audio CD has some of the best orchestral sound I have heard. The richness and detail are superb. Audio-wise, it does not get better than this.
April 29 was Harold Shapero's 90th birthday. Every single work I have heard by Shapero has been notable. One has to go well beyond the word notable to describe his brilliant, scintillating Symphony for Classical Orchestra (you simply must hear this work on either Bernstein's mono Sony recording or Previn's stereo one New World Records 80373). The only problem is that I have not heard enough Shapero works—for the insupportable reason that they are not available on recordings. Why not? My own guess is that his music was neglected because he was too much against the grain of 20th century angst and the doctrines of the serial killers who expressed it in unrelieved dissonance.
Shapero is a composer of real spirit and verve, writing in ways that would bring a smile to Haydn's face if he were alive today. I can only image that his nerve in writing works like the Symphony or his wonderful Serenade in D for String Orchestra infuriated the dodecaphonists. But this 20th-century malady in music is well behind us now, and it is way overdue to celebrate this man and his music. There should be music festivals and new recordings for the nonagenarian, who is still composing. For now, run out and get the Symphony and another New World Records release (80569) of Shapero's chamber works that entrance in every way. The longest work, the Serenade for String Quintet (a chamber reduction of Shapero's Serenade for Strings), is 35 minutes of sheer delight. I defy you not to be charmed by this neo-classical confection, a work of wit, gorgeous lyricism, and spiky rhythms.
In 2007, British composer John Joubert turned 80. This occasion drew mush needed attention to his music, which at that time was new to me. I was astounded at the quality of what I heard and puzzled that works of this quality could have been overlooked for so long. I have lauded the recordings of his song cycles on Toccata Records and of the Symphony No. 1 on Lyrita. Now add to this the British Music Society's release of Joubert's work for string orchestra, Temps Perdu, the Sinfonietta, and the song cycle The Instant Moment (BMS 419CD). The string work and the Sinfonietta immediately leap to the very front order of such works in 20th-century Great Britain—a highly competitive field with the likes of pieces by Holst, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Britten, Tippett, etc. They are simply exquisite. As one might imagine from the Proustian title, Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra is drenched in a marvelous sense of expectancy, yearning, and nostalgia. It is written with great refinement. I have fallen in love with it. The Sinfonietta is another gem, with echoes of Sibelius floating through the first of its three movements. If you cannot find this CD locally, try The British Music Society.
A significant 20th-century symphonic cycle reached completion in the Dutton label's traversal of Richard Arnell's six symphonies. I have gone from reluctant listener to avid fan of Arnell's music. At first, I found his massive Third Symphony a lot to digest, but finally grasped its ambitious idiom and have gone on to devour the other Dutton recordings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates. The Third is music of enormous tumult. There is always an underlying excitement and the sense of reaching for and finally achieving something magisterial. There are moments of almost Bruckernian magnificence. Arnell's facility with orchestral colors reminds me of both Benjamin Britten and Arnell's American friend, the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. Arnell's time has finally come, and he lived to see it before dying at age 92 last year. I can only wonder how works of this magnificence and of such noble striving could have been overlooked for so long, particularly in Great Britain where they are given to doting on even their third-rate composers. Arnell is decidedly first-rate.
Lastly, I will sneak in an amazing Toccata Classics discovery: the chamber music of Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916), even if the music, properly speaking, belongs in the 19th century. Gernsheim is labeled, and therefore dismissed, as a Brahms clone. I was mildly impressed by his four symphonies (Arte Nova label), but had never heard his Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2, on offer here (TOCC 0099). They rise to a far different level of genius and accomplishment than his symphonic works would lead one to expect This is not an infrequent phenomenon—that a composer excel in one particular genre and not another (for instance, Sergei Taneyev). I am staggered by these two works. They are incredibly alive, passionate, rhythmically dramatic and melodically blessed. Brahms clone? Here Gernsheim is in competition with the master for the top rung. The Art Vio Quartet and Pianist Edouard Oganessian play as if their lives depended on it. This is a major find.
In conclusion, I think you will discover that the 20th century was not as bad as it sounded.
* * *
Bruce C. Sanborn
Chairman Emeritus, the Claremont Institute's Board of Directors
The old uncle in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away lives on a farm down South and understands that his mission is to get his nephew's son baptized. His nephew, who teaches science in the city, finds the uncle and his mission offensive. He knows baptism is not what ought to be done with a mentally retarded child—even if, as is true for the nephew, the child is his only son and even though the nephew's love for his son gets the best of him, as it often does. At the howling center of this funny, upsetting, artful novel is a baptism or drowning. Running throughout the story are questions about the limits of love and knowledge.
In Works of Love and in his own name Soren Kierkegaard explores what love means, especially what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." This discourse helped me understand better Lincoln's "proposition that all men are created equal," among other important things.
This year Yale University Press published David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. The enemies Hart calls to account are historians like Gibbon and philosophers like Nietzsche. The revolution Hart discusses sprang from Christianity's introduction of a new, improved view of who and what is human. Hart ends the book pointing to the growing success of the enemies of the revolution and the dire consequences of their success. In that I try my best to stay out of the enemy's camp, I wish you a peaceful, merry Christmas!
* * *
Professor of Political Science, Loyola College
Use Well Thy Freedom: This is the motto written in stone on the wall of the college building beneath which mother and daughter quarrel in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. That bit of lapidary advice goes mostly unheeded in this tale of modern familial and societal dysfunction. Although it is a much overrated novel, the ambitious scope of the saga Franzen creates and the moral seriousness of his theme (the perils of choice) are reminiscent of classic 19th-century British and American novels. A better use of one's leisure might be to stick with the grandest of them all: George Eliot's Middlemarch. The agonizingly misguided marital choices of her main characters provide material for Eliot's unrivalled psychological acuity—not to mention her superior command of language and novelistic structure. Eliot was of the Left, as is Franzen. For both, pity figures as the most needful and redemptive of virtues. Unlike Franzen, however, Eliot actually helps the reader experience (in believable and imitable ways) how freedom might be used well. She does not rest content with the ironic disjunction between motto and life.
Eliot declared "there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it." Thomas Chatterton Williams would agree. He has written a terrific autobiographical account of the debasing effects of hip-hop on young middle-class African-Americans. Luckily for Williams, he was subject to a paternal counter-current strong enough to rescue him from the downward whirlpool into thuggishness. His book is called Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. It is eye-opening and disturbing, especially in its graphic portrait of black student life at elite Georgetown, where the values of the 'hood still manage to dominate, destroying for many what ought to be the entrance to a wider world. As we all know, white kids have followed black kids in embracing gangsta rap. What Williams explains so insightfully is that the white embrace has been ironic, whereas the black embrace is earnest—and thus ruinous. The story of Williams's own transformation may be the most gloriously real presentation of the saving power of liberal education I have ever read. His earnestness (once attached to new and better objects of desire, like wondering "what does it mean to live ‘the good life'—that is, ‘to flourish'?") transported him to realms of inquiry and experience that most college students are too cool (verging on hypothermia) to rediscover for themselves. Thomas Chatterton Williams has thrown them a lifeline.