If someone told you "Hey, I've got a great beach book for you, it's about 20th century classical music!" you would no doubt think they were pulling your leg. But that's what we have here, quite an accomplishment by Alex Ross, the music writer for The New Yorker. Ross's breezy combination of biography, social history and musical analysis makes the 543 pages fly by. I noticed at least one reviewer complain that Ross uses too many big words -- now there's someone who should stick to Dr. Seuss. The typical book on this topic is, indeed, dense and difficult to read, but Ross is a journalist and his practiced writing style is very reader-friendly. The opposite criticism, that THE REST IS NOISE is too shallow, is, I believe, misplaced. There are plenty of other books that go deeper into music theory and the avant-garde than Ross -- Morgan's Twentieth-Century Music
is still essential -- but they are not going to reach as big an audience. I am quite glad that Ross has written this book, mainly because I am confident that it is going to expand the audience for modern and contemporary classical music.
Anyone who listens to a lot of 20th century classical music, as I do, is going to disagree with some of Ross's emphases and find omissions. One book cannot do justice to a century worth of music. Most of my disagreements, some of which I will outline, fall in the category of legitimate differences of aesthetic opinion. I would write a different book, but I haven't written it yet! But there is one bias of Ross's that I think he should have checked at the door, hence the four stars instead of five.
Of the six chapters in Part I (1900-1933), I enjoyed "City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties" the most. This is a fascinating period to me, and I was happy to learn more about Weill, Hindemith, Krenek, Wolpe and others. Ross profiles Alban Berg, clearly one of his favorites. The chapter on "Schoenberg, Debussy and Atonality" is a good introduction, though far from definitive. His repeated reference to Thomas Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus," based on Arnold Schoenberg, becomes quickly annoying as Ross uses it to stand in for insight into the actual composer as opposed to his Faustian fictional counterpart. The actual Schoenberg made no pacts with the Devil, regardless of how much some people over the years have disliked his music! Ross devotes an entire chapter to Sibelius, and while I love Sibelius's symphonies, he could have included Nielsen, Martinu and others in a chapter on how unfashionable the symphonic form became in the 20th century. His Chapter 4 on "American Composers from Ives to Ellington" stretches to include jazz composers in the classical canon, and I think this is admirable except that for everything he includes, something gets left on the cutting-room floor. When we get to the late 20th century he doesn't get to the Chicago AACM composers (Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill), for instance, a fantastically inventive group of African-American composers.
Part II (1933-1945) is probably the strongest part of the book, with chapters on Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and FDR's America. Dmitri Shostakovich and Aaron Copland are central to the Russian and American stories, while Strauss, Hindemith and Hartmann all feature in the German chapter. Ross shows his knack for social history to best advantage here, and of course the drama is strong.
The postwar coverage is more haphazard, an unavoidable problem which no music writer yet has been able to solve. The music fragments and becomes less central to most national cultures as it is increasingly pushed aside by amplified rock and other "art in the age of mechanical reproduction." Ross situates classical music in the context of the Cold War, and reveals the deliberate development of academic serialist composition as an alternative to Left-oriented populism. Ross includes a great quote from Schoenberg on "the Schoenberg clique" which reveals insight on the part of both Schoenberg and Ross. The author again indulges his preferences with an entire chapter on Britten. In this case I don't share the author's enthusiasm, and would much rather have seen a broader chapter devoted to the development of 20th century opera, but I will grant that for a journalist a 20 or 30 page profile (of Sibelius or Britten) offers a chance to break out of the otherwise surface skim of a survey. So I can't argue with Ross's choice too much -- he is a compelling writer who tells a good story.
The last chapters, 13-15, are a typical blur as Ross tries to cover everything from the 1960s on. He does a profile on French composer Olivier Messiaen, and a shorter one on Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. He reduces much of the '60s avant-garde to "textural music," which says more about Ross than about the music. Like most people he clearly prefers conventional music that is tonal, melodic, pretty and representational -- the latter becomes clear in his summaries of various compositions, which invariably involve painting a picture of something. In this regard he may be an excellent guide for most people, but not for the listener who is attracted to the avant-garde. Ross's coverage resembles walking past a carnival marvelling and laughing at the strange goings-on. He warms up to tonal Minimalism, and includes Cage, Feldman and Partch in the same chapter. I could list all the great late 20th century composers that Ross either briefly mentions or leaves out entirely, but suffice it to say that he leaves out more than he covers. It seems that this is always the problem with history -- it becomes harder the closer you get to the present.
My one real objection to THE REST IS NOISE is Ross's knee-jerk anti-Left bias. I noticed this when I first read the book a couple of years ago in his discussion of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." Ross says "the libretto was widely understood as a protest against rampant capitalism, although it reads just as well as a critique of the fake utopia of the Soviet Union" (205). Now if Ross wants to critique the USSR that is one thing, but to say that that is what Weill and Brecht were doing is just flat out wrong. Like the better known and more popular "Threepenny Opera" (with "Mac the Knife") , this is a story about gamblers, prostitutes and other criminals, meant to caricature greedy capitalists. Ross wonders why Brecht prefers to portray petty criminals, apparently missing this obvious point. Ross makes clear his absolute hatred of Brecht, going out of his way to paint him and his musical collaborator Hanns Eisler as "thuggish," "brutish," and "ruthless," pursuing a "will to violence." Ross ends the section on Weil and Brecht by seeming to celebrate the death of a Communist partisan in a brawl with Nazis. Later he mentions Helmut Lachenmann's avant opera "The Litte Match Girl" and condemns Lachenmann for "terrorist chic" for quoting Gudrun Ensslin in the libretto (a passage that is actually not even audible to the listener). The relevance of the passage is that Ensslin, a teen-age German girl in the 1960s, set fire to a shopping mall during the Vietnam War to protest the high-consumption life of the middle class while bombs were being dropped on Vietnamese peasants. And the same liberal Ross who equates the Nazis and the Left as a bunch of thugs nowhere finds room to criticize the U.S. or any of its allies for dropping more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II, or Hiroshima & Nagasaki, or numerous CIA coups and military invasions, or any misdeeds whatsoever on the part of the U.S. for that matter. Ross apparently employs a very selective definition of thuggishness.
But this is the one serious flaw in an otherwise superb book that, as I said, seems to have the potential to attract lots of young, new listeners to contemporary classical music. My recommendation to counteract Ross's bias is to listen to Eislermaterial
, the collection of Hanns Eisler's music and Bertolt Brecht's lyrics assembled by German composer Heiner Goebbels (see my review). The Weill/Brecht collaboration Berlin Requiem
(see my review) is another fine work that you might not have the pleasure of hearing if you allowed Ross to turn your head.
Good reading, and good listening!