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The Rest is Noise...Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2007. ISBN-10: 0-374-24939-3; ISBN-13: 978-0-374-24939-7. 543 pages plus preface, notes, acknowledgement, suggested listening, index. 21 B/W photographs. 6-1/3 inches by 9-1/8 inches. USD 30.00 CND 34.50.
Experience Classicsonline


A candy bar for musicologists, but perhaps too much meat and not enough potatoes for average music lovers.

For me, this book was a real page turner; I read the 543 pages at lightning speed in two days. The style is lucid, expansive, relaxed, at times hilariously witty, pretty much like the best of Alex Ross’ commentaries published in New Yorker magazine, from which much of this book comes. I learned an awful lot I didn’t know; but then I’ve spent 56 years building up the background: I’ve spoken to Darius Milhaud, Lukas Foss, Wilhelm Kempff, Russell Oberlin, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, heard Stravinsky conduct (magnificently) his Symphony of Psalms, been lectured to by Tikhon Khrennikov and Blas Galindo via interpreters, twice heard Glenn Gould in concert1, saw Andre Previn, Pierre Boulez, and Simon Rattle conduct before anybody else had ever heard of them. So for me this book was bar gossip, home movies; whereas the average music lover might find it quite a bit of an overload. Whereas I can check it out of the library and read it through like a paperback novel, the average music lover might better buy the book, read twenty pages a day, then read it again — and again. And, beg, borrow, and buy about a thousand CDs to listen to. In spite of laments on the death of classical music, I think just about every piece of music Ross discusses here is available on CD.

The book’s greatest weakness is that it is, and reads like, a collection of essays and reviews, carefully fitted together, but nonetheless selective, variable, with enormous lacunae. The long chapter on the musical politics of Adolf Hitler is a masterpiece of reporting. Ross’s very extensive, perceptive, penetrating comments on Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Benjamin Britten and Pierre Boulez amount to drafts for psychological biographies. But Edward Elgar gets two sentences and of Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Alan Hovhaness there is not a single word, merely their names listed in passing. Thus three of the most popular, powerful and influential composers of the 20th century are totally ignored. The omission of Hovhaness is particularly crippling since Ross otherwise writes extensively on the origins of minimalism, at least as seen from New York and, occasionally, San Francisco; how can he ignore the originator of it? And, Bohuslav Martinů was using technique in the late 1950s. Black American composers are extensively chronicled. There are entirely too many mentions of jazz and blues; the author runs out of adjectives and starts repeating himself; there just isn’t that much to say, but he says it anyway. While he refers obliquely to the idea of 20th Century American women classical musicians, and does say some good things about Ruth Crawford Seeger, he is totally silent about Marga Richter, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, JoAnn Faletta, Sylvia Marlowe, Elinor Remick-Warren, Rebekah Harkness, Rosalyn Tureck, Ina Ray Hutton, Olga Samarov and Lilian Fuchs. Then he extensively praises women blues singers by name. The bit of badinage in the title suggests that this book is intended as a compendium, while this is just not true.

Ross’s rhetoric varies oddly. Where he skewers Copland and Poulenc over and over with the word gay, for Benjamin Britten3 and John Cage he only briefly, discretely remarks on a “companion” and never registers the tiniest hint about Barber, Cowell, Diaghilev, Menotti or Gershwin. This further suggests that these essays were written at different times under different circumstances for different audiences, and leaves one to wonder what else has been slanted or left out.

What hasn’t been left out is politics. If you are an Ann Coulter fan or an unreconstructed Reagano-Friedmanite you’d best avoid this book; you’d just have to tear it into pieces and then smash half your CD collection. The important part played in American music throughout the 20th century by left-liberal individuals and institutions is well documented. Although American composers went hungry at home, in Europe the CIA, having decided that tonal music á la Shostakovich was all Stalinist propaganda, poured millions of American taxpayers’ dollars into promoting serial composers, concerts, and music festivals in the idea that twelve-tone composing was expressive of freedom and promoted democratic capitalism, to the dismay of democrats as well as capitalists. Will Boulez in his memoirs tell us what it felt like to be a CIA operative?

The pictures are about a third familiar, but the remaining two thirds are new, new. Mahler smiling? Who ever would have thought it.

Ross can’t quite make Theodore Adorno into a thoughtful human being but he tries. His comments on Elliot Carter are, for a New York critic, remarkably acerbic, not the effulgent, effusive pæan one usually gets. But I challenge one comment of his: On page 515 he says “…young audiences crowd into small halls to hear Elliot Carter’s string quartets ….” I challenge Mr. Ross to substantiate that statement, quote me some sources, some ferinstances. I don’t think he can. I don’t think anybody of any age flocks to listen to Carter string quartets, not even in New York. I assert that this is pure Manhattanist propaganda. Our local university music school finally did buy the Carter quartets CD and so far I’m the only person who’s checked it out. I really tried to like it — again — but got nowhere, as I have for the last 40 years. If Elliot Carter has ever written any music I have yet hear to hear it2; I find more to applaud in Richard Nanes.

1 The last time at a concert his official biography says never occurred.

2 An exception may be his early piano sonata which I found worth a half-dozen hearings.

3 His extensive comments on Britten’s alleged compulsion to friendship with “underage” boys makes it even curiouser that he avoids the “g” word.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 

 

 


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