History notes

It’s no surprise that Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s award-winning music critic, would publish a book on 20th-century music. It’s also no surprise that it’s good: Ross is one of the most omnivorous and knowledgeable music lovers out there, and he’s one of the best writers on the market. But his eagerly anticipated first book isn’t just good, it’s a significant contribution to music scholarship, popular literature, and contemporary culture.

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Ross has compiled a substantial amount of meticulous historical and biographical research, filtered by astute social, psychological, political, and musical analysis — along with sheer intuitive genius — into 600 of the most articulate, engaging, and insightful pages published on the subject to date.

“In the classical field it has long been fashionable to fence music off from society, to declare it a self-sufficient language,” Ross observes in his introduction. In the hyper-political twentieth century, that barrier crumbles time and again: Béla Bartók writes string quartets inspired by field recordings of Transylvanian folk songs, Shostokovich works on his “Leningrad” Symphony while German guns are firing on the city, John Adams creates an opera starring Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong. One of the hallmarks of 20th-century music is that it came down from the ivory tower and climbed into the actual trenches. “Musical meaning is vague, mutable, and, in the end, deeply personal. Still, even if history can never tell us exactly what music means, music can tell us something about history. My subtitle is meant literally; this is the twentieth century heard through its music.”

Ross’s musical selections are based on what they can tell us about a composer, a social context, or a radical shift in politics, form or style. Strauss’s “Salome” is used for its perpetually scandalous character. Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and his setting of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” illustrate an intelligent and straight forward discussion of the issues the composer (and society) had with Strauss’s own homosexuality. Schoenberg shows up early in the book to set the stage for 1900 Vienna, then shock the music world with formalized atonality. He maintains a stark presence as a domineering yet radically influential teacher throughout the war years, and shows up again years later, living a strange version of the American dream in 1960’s southern California.

Part I begins with Strauss and Mahler working under the specter of Wagner, pushing late Romanticism toward a more modern sound. From Schoenberg’s atonality we move through the Weimar Republic’s obsession with cabaret, the worldwide influence of jazz, and early American composers like Ives, Gershwin, and Duke Ellington.

In Part II, Ross sets up a brilliant trilogy of chapters that examine the social and political ideologies that shaped an era. The titles say it all: “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia,” “Music for All: Music in FDR’s America,” and “Death Fugue: Music in Hitler’s Germany.” Ross examines the ways each of these regimes used music, sponsorship, and censorship to promote their ideals and control the masses. Ross provides insight into the complex ways composers and audiences struggled against, bought into, and, in any case, were forced to play the ideology game.

Part III deals with the psycho-social and artistic chaos of post-Word War II Europe and the American propaganda machine of the Cold War era. Ross addresses the different natures of the avant-garde in the ’50s and the ’60s — and in one of the great chapter titles of all time, “Beethoven Was Wrong: Bop, Rock and the Minimalists.”

Given the fluid and assured writing style, the grand backdrop of the 20th century, and an amazing cast of characters, the book reads more like a novel than music history. Musical analysis is integrated organically into the text: Ross isn’t a theoretician analyzing a score so much as a passionate lover of the art form describing what he hears in an interpretive sense, and why it works structurally. He’s struck a perfect balance between scholarly music writing and accessible, straightforward, yet elegant prose. The Rest is Noise offers a much-needed paradigm shift in how we categorize “classical” music, how we think about it, and how its history might be written.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
By Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
640 pages

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