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by Alex Ross

624 pages

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2007

Hardback: 0374249393, £10.76 $30


An excellent overview of twentieth-century classical music


"Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics," said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and blogger has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesnít count, but Ross focuses more on the "why" than the "what".

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that "illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change," Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didnít just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.

Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a birdís-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for differenceís sake (it "begins in mystique and ends in politics"). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, "The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases," or, "the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords." He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Brittenís Peter Grimes and Stravinskyís The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; thereís no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And thatís probably the weakest part of this book: even though itís not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Rossís writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovich and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay which could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibeliusís music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th. His analysis of music during the Nazi era in Germany, and in the United States during the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing whatís being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, itís not clear how much Ross actually likes the music heís writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But itís clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and itís a shame that thereís not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of Americaís most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to ignore totally the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While itís only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, itís time to go out and listen.

Kirk McElhearn



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