When I told her there is a renaissance in the arts under way in our country, largely below the radar scope, she was only half-believing. What prompted her comment was the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Robert Sandall put it in the London Sunday Times, “This was the moment when anybody under 25 knew that the values system with which they had grown up was history. Caution, sexual reticence, patient acquisitiveness and all the hallmarks of a decent life, as defined since the Victorian era, suddenly looked bogus. By one of the cosmic strokes of luck that marked their career, the Beatles chose this instant to release an album that straddled the emerging rift.” Just so.
What is the depth of the cultural shift we are undergoing today, the shift away from the disorder of modernity toward measurable standards of musical and artistic excellence? Can this shift be measured, and what is its nature? The rebirth of the high and fine arts all across America is a rebirth in figurative painting and sculpture, demonstrable standards in arts education, formal and narrative poetry, structural melody and tonality in music, and the civic and symbolic ideal in architecture and memorials.
In the world of contemporary classical music, no names rate higher than John Corigliano, John Adams and Richard Danielpour. They are names that classical music lovers know and respect. But how about creative individuals who strive for excellence in all the arts and whose achievements often go unreported and unfunded because they are seen as less avant garde? How do they comprise this renaissance in music, for instance, that gets beyond an endless succession of bar rests and back to inspired notation?
A survey of the signal achievements of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, whose death this year underscored how he spent his professional life swimming against the cultural tide, believed beauty and excellence in music was worth defending despite prevailing, stylish tastes. He had high and immutable standards. His life showed that, as Flannery O'Connor said, sometimes you have to push back against the culture as hard as it pushes against you. That is, as a talented young artist with standards, he had to be willing to make his contribution whether there was anyone waiting to give him an award for excellence or not. The public loved and relished his music; the critics, ever in search of “the new,” did not approve. Menotti once told a friend of mine, “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.” This rings in one's ears of angel bells, so powerful and lovely is its evocation of the roots of great music.
Menotti's operas - there are 25 - achieved a high degree of popularity, for which he was punished with condescension. He was deemed too old-fashioned. In fact, 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 critics ... The insults that most of my operas had to endure through the years.”
Despite the criticism, he never surrendered the role of beauty. We can now hear one of his strongest expressions of it in his masterpiece, Missa: O Pulchritudo, released on a recording for the first time earlier this year. My first reaction upon hearing it was: What kind of cultural prejudice kept this remarkable piece on ice for 25 years?
This may be the most beautiful music Menotti composed. Beauty is actually its theme, and one of the most tender passages is thus: “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You.” The piece was dedicated to God, echoing Bach's credo “soli Deo Gloria,” dedicating every piece of music he ever wrote to the glory of God.
There is in all his work a kind of spiritual fervor that takes the path of beauty to God in a way that nearly overwhelms with its magnificence and passion. The tenor in the performance I listened to, John Vorrasi, recounts in the liner notes that he saw Menotti “in the darkened church listening intently. At the climactic moment of the Sanctus (which is 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 the luminosity of the composers Puccini and Poulenc, leaning toward the latter.
Menotti once said, “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,” which in my mind raised a rhetorical question, namely that maybe God has asked him a question and He is the one waiting for an answer. Music has a way of answering questions without words, and the answers are in Menotti's music. What shines through is Menotti's faith-longing. Another great composer, 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, though he seems to have had a modest understanding of himself. He once said, “I do not know my own worth - I'm not Bach, but I like to think I'm not Offenbach either!” Very clever, very humbling. Indeed, Offenbach could not have written a Mass like Menotti's. Beauty wins out in the end; excellence lasts. Why? Because God is beautiful, and he embodies an excellence and radiance pre-eminent that brings a glimpse of the eternal into our temporal lives.