No one could ever accuse me of being a prolific book reader.
I’m not a speed reader, and with a wife, two kids, a busy schedule and a job that demands a lot of reading, the large swaths of time needed to devour a book are few and far between for me.
I do have a pile of good intentions — books that were started but faded from mind as more fetching reads emerged.
So, when a book overcomes those hurdles and continues to reassert itself, I know I’ve found something special. “Special” is an understatement for Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century.
At this point, I might be the last journalist to sing this remarkable tome’s praises, but I’m going to sing them anyway because this book is essential for knowing and understanding the history of classical music in the 20th century. It’s an important period to understand for anyone who cares about the genre. The 20th century was the time in Western culture when classical music went from enjoying a prominent place in society to more of a niche genre that struggled to figure out whom, if anyone, it was supposed to address.
There are all kinds of theories as to why this happened.
Everyone from avant-garde, academic composers to the uncultured masses gets some blame, depending on whose ideas you ascribe to.
The Rest Is Noise offers a much clearer picture of the changes that were afoot in music and in the world — particularly regarding the two World Wars — that affected classical music. Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker magazine, equally adept at writing lively pieces about Beethoven symphonies and modern minimalist composers and frequently relating them to pop culture touchstones such as Radiohead.
Speaking at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute on Classical Music and Opera, the workshop I attended in October, Ross told the two dozen journalists there that a major part of his technique to draw in readers who might not be predisposed to reading about classical music is creating a threshold moment early in a piece that relates the work to a topic of more general interest. That works in two-page magazine articles, but the key to this 640-page book is a compelling narrative and characters. Figures such as Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt play as much a role in this history as composers such as Benjamin Britten and Arnold Schoenberg.
One of the major stories is certainly the fact that Germany, which had nurtured much of the classical canon during several previous centuries, fell prey to evil men such as Hitler, who used grand, German music to bolster his regime’s claim that Germans were the master race. We also see the influence of Joseph Stalin in Russia, manipulating and in many cases destroying the careers of composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. The middle chapters of The Rest Is Noise, “The Art of Fear” and “Death Fugue,” are particularly heartbreaking.
Early in the book, Ross juxtaposes the composition of Anton Webern’s Three Pieces for Orchestra with Germany’s first atrocities in World War I and writes: “In a few short weeks, Germany had done irreparable damage to its reputation as a cradle of modern civilization.”
American composers are hardly left unscathed, as artists such as Aaron Copland are caught up in the post-World War II communist witch hunt.
And throughout the century, with the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring a key moment, there is a constant debate between populist and modernist composers. Though the debate is hardly over, and the history of classical music marches well into this new century, Ross neatly ties up the 20th, lithely shifting between his historical, critical and, late in the book, journalistic voices.
The book is complemented online at Ross’s blog, which holds myriad audio samples. Or you can be like me and engage in a
season-long frenzy of downloading and listening.
Reading and/or listening, it’s all time well-spent.
~ The Jan. 7 New Yorker has another great Ross piece, this one being about Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony.