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Surprised by Beauty


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Greg K
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« on: April 10, 2018, 05:14:47 pm »

"Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music" by Robert Reilly & Jens Laurson

Has anyone here read through this volume, - apparently a series of about 70 essays (2016 edition) on twentieth-century tonal composers?

Would appreciate any "pocket-sized" reviews as to its quality and perspective.

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Greg K
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« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2018, 11:16:21 pm »

I've still not acquired this, - but it's on my mind again.

There's an abundance of reviews around, - at Amazon and from other online sources, and extracts - so I get something of its features and qualities now, and even the distinct "philosophy of music" underlying Reilly's approach.

But will no one here opine (Colin?)?

I imagine it a fitting companion to the "PIMLICO Dictionary of Twentieth Century Composers" by Mark Morris (which Colin has previously extolled here or elsewhere), likewise quirky and opinionated, but so suggestive and stimulating (much more than a mere Dictionary).
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2018, 12:08:11 am »

Ok, Greg, since you mentioned me by name  Grin..........

I have just ordered the book Smiley
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Greg K
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« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2018, 12:57:32 am »

Wonderful.  I'll duly await your evaluation here before judging it worth purchasing myself.

But please confirm you ordered the (2016) 2nd edition, which almost doubled in size, I believe, with dozens of additional composers added.
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #4 on: June 27, 2018, 11:34:25 am »

Wonderful.  I'll duly await your evaluation here before judging it worth purchasing myself.

But please confirm you ordered the (2016) 2nd edition, which almost doubled in size, I believe, with dozens of additional composers added.

Yes, I can confirm that Smiley
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #5 on: July 06, 2018, 02:16:32 pm »

So..."Surprised by Beauty" has just been delivered to me and I have had a very brief and initial run-through the book.

My preliminary observations will not surprise you:

The choice of composers is idiosyncratic. Many of them I would have included, a few I would not (partly through choice and partly sheer ignorance of their music)
Some of the chapters on individual composers are so short that I am left oddly deflated and unsatisfied.
The book could have been better edited: in the end of chapter discographies there are repetitions of the same cds
The book is-in relation to the current cd availability of certain works-obviously and unavoidably a snapshot in time and will (hopefully!) be steadily outdated.
The particular works discussed are chosen with care but reveal some anomalies: eg the last few symphonies of Roy Harris are ignored (probably wisely!), Robert Simpson's Ninth (which many, including myself, regard as his masterpiece) gets barely a mention
There is some considerable variation in the accuracy of the listings of currently available cds (eg Harald Saeverud).

........but, the book is written in a throughly accessible style (ie it eschews overly technical analysis), seems never less than interesting and, no doubt, at times thought-provoking, and is full of that enthusiasm which I have always found infectious (no surprise there then Greg Grin). I even smiled at the reference (in the chapter on Richard Arnell): "Now 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" (my italics)

I don't know, Greg....there will be much which will almost certainly have you raising your eyebrows in scepticism or grinding your teeth in derision but I would still suggest you see for yourself Smiley Smiley
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Greg K
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« Reply #6 on: July 06, 2018, 08:12:33 pm »

Thanks for that, Colin.

In fact, you immediately touch on something that has me waffling whenever I consider acquiring this volume, - which is the idiosyncratic and less than ideal choice of composers included (at least, given my own biases and enthusiasms).  It's a major disincentive.

Not that a majority of the author's inclusions aren't just fine, - figures I would be keen to gain more insight about, and better understand the personal, social, and historical context of their work and its possible meaning(s).

But so many other names (mostly Americans) induce a disappointed wince, not out of any disparagement (like with you, I'm mostly ignorant of their music), but because certain more familiar and (to my mind) more important figures I'd wish to read the authors' reflections on and evaluations of are thereby excluded.

I do understand most (all?) of these essays originated as magazine pieces, enough inspired by the occasion and the authors' then inclinations to make them appropriate subjects at the time of writing.  But now as a book they take on the inevitable flavor of a piecemeal collection (in anticipation at least), incidental and kind of random rather than well planned and calculated, - a discomfiting effect to someone with my characteristic mindset.

I therefore await further apologia from you as to the discerned coherence of and derived satisfaction from the authors' overall vision and treatment (as well as the wisdom of its chosen cast), - if you can give it.  Until then I'm going to hold off, - short of a cheaper copy than I can now find available turning up somewhere.

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Dundonnell
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« Reply #7 on: July 06, 2018, 10:06:12 pm »

I am revising"idiosyncratic" to"eccentric" and I may move very shortly to "just plain daft"!!

The selection of American composers??Barber -yes, Harris-yes, Rochberg-yes from my perspective, but the rest??? No Schuman or Mennin or Piston or Hanson or Creston!!! Instead a wierd mix of also-rans and nonentities.

At least Mark Morris's selection made more logical sense. This is-as you say-so obviously cobbled together. Elgar and Nielsen rubbing shoulders with "who?" and "who??"
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Greg K
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« Reply #8 on: July 07, 2018, 01:08:45 am »

Ouch, - yeah.

Schuman, Mennin, Piston, Hanson, Creston, (one might add Thompson, Persichetti, and others) - exactly the characters I myself would wish to read about.

But Stephen Albert, Kenneth Fuchs, Steven Gerber, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, Peter Schickele(!), Morton Gould, Lowell Liebermann, (a few others also I could name)?

Are these truly worthy of much more than passing recognition?  (Perhaps they are, and I too would be Surprised by some exceptional Beauty were I to engage with their music as the authors have).

Enough essays on the more intriguing and commanding composers may redeem any felt inconsistencies, -  or your antipathies converted to curiosity and even admiration in some cases.

But from outside it seems just so much a hodge-podge.

Please update your evaluation as you make your way through.
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Jolly Roger
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« Reply #9 on: July 19, 2018, 09:48:14 am »

I fail to see why Hibdon is included in any book about modern music of any quality.
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soundwave106
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« Reply #10 on: July 20, 2018, 02:24:45 am »

Morton Gould

This one I can see to be honest, depending on how deep the book wanted to go. Although more varied than what he's best known for, Morton Gould was probably one of the leading composers at the time of what would now be called "crossover music".

Anything "crossover" or "light" is not as rigorous as the more academic stuff, but this area (and cinema and theater) were areas that always tended to remain tonal overall in the 20th century, and can produce crowd-pleasing stuff. I do feel that some interesting things can be found in this area, given the constraints of course. (I feel the same about the British "light music" too that I've heard.)

I would've included some of the ones Dundonnell mentioned (like Hanson and Piston at minimum) before Gould though! But Gould is more worthy of inclusion than PDQ Bach. Smiley

My guess is for a lot of that list, there was a reach for anything relatively modern. These days there probably there really aren't any "big names" of mostly tonal American concert hall composers. For relatively modern examples of American orchestral "beauty", I would've stuck with film composers personally...
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Greg K
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« Reply #11 on: September 03, 2018, 10:26:23 pm »

Have you made your way all the way through this by now, Colin, and (leaving aside the sometimes odd choice of composers we've noted) able to conclusively evaluate its merits?
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2018, 02:08:00 am »

Have you made your way all the way through this by now, Colin, and (leaving aside the sometimes odd choice of composers we've noted) able to conclusively evaluate its merits?

I shall attempt to give a considered response when I have the time to do so, Greg. I am very busy at present, juggling several balls simultaneously Roll Eyes
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