Distinguishing the noise from the melody

Alex Ross has written a useful and user-friendly history of 20th century music—from an American point of view

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, can lay some claim to being the music book of the decade. Though the acknowledgements suggest that it might have been written by a committee of about 140, its style, judgements and opinions are so direct, firm and assertive that there can be no question but that this is the work of a solitary writer getting on with the job he knows and loves. Which is to write about music. Real music. And in The Rest is Noise he has written an immensely readable history of, what for want of a better word we will continue to call “classical,” music in the twentieth century.

Opera may be his greatest love—the book opens with Richard Strauss conducting his Salome in Graz in 1906, and ends with John Adams’s opera Nixon in China (premiered in 1987)—but this focus neither inhibits nor diminishes his attention to the interconnected worlds of orchestral, ballet, chamber, solo and electronic —music. All the great names are here, and many of the lesser ones too, and in almost every case, from Stravinsky to Pärt, Shostakovich to Messiaen, Poulenc and Prokofiev via Berg and Webern to Glass, Ross concentrates on the music: where, when, and as far as can be teased out, why it was written; where and how well it was performed; how it was received. This is a great and inclusive history, with an extensive range of sources and reference, and a degree of erudition—including the occasional useful discussion of technical aspects of music theory—that nonetheless doesn’t (or shouldn’t) deter the non-specialist.

Ross is a social analyst of music. One is almost tempted to say Marxist in his approach (it is social conditions which determine man’s consciousness) because without stating so clearly, he implies that context is what drives composition. For him, biography is the surest guide to a composer’s sensitivity, musical values and artistic intentions. Social class, ethnicity, religion, educational experience, the surrounding surface features of politics—these are the forces that mould new works. Aaron Copland is unthinkable without the New Deal. Shostakovich without the Revolution, Stalin, Zhdanov and Apostolov. Schoenberg and Stravinsky without the experience of exile. And so on. There is much to be gained from this approach, particularly in stimulating an interest in recent classical music by illuminating the human (and humane) sources of creativity.

Sometimes Ross’s inclusiveness is to my taste over-indulgent. He devotes a long chapter—“Beethoven Was Wrong”—largely to the so-called avant-garde composers of California and New York (like La Monte Young, “the master of the drone”) whose events and happenings in the 1960s and 70s generally contained little that was musical and much of the posturing ninny sort. I remember a derivative though original work being produced in Christchurch in the 1970s by a university lecturer in music, the climax of which had the main performer naked and urinating from a certain height onto the platform stage against an accompaniment of sounds empty of musical content. Nothing can, or should be said in praise of this kind of thing, which was a sure sign of the arrival of the age of trash, and further evidence (as if we needed it) that there is no end to the foolish things that may be done or said by very clever people. The best of late modernist material, such as it is, is built on the minimalist use of silence, but silence (if you can find it) is interesting largely because, as the location of rest, it may permit us to identify and appreciate sound. It is the place from which music comes, and to which it returns. But as with nothingness there is little (if anything) of much interest that can be said about it, and the minimalist “music” that sought to embrace it has always reminded me of the hapless pursuers of the Invisible Man, endlessly clutching at something that wasn’t there.

This aberration in an otherwise persuasive book is linked to a more general weakness. Though Ross describes and generally writes as if approvingly of each new development in the moves from modernism to serialism, from the officially approved ‘state’ music of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to the ‘rediscovery’ of tonal composition in the 80s and 90s, critical evaluation of a kind is sometimes concealed in judgements that appear to be more transparent than they really are. He is hard to tie down on Copland and his followers: is this a backwater or a main current? He seems occasionally to want to have it all ways on Shostakovich, seeing him now as fearful adherent of the regime, then as skillful dissident, then as willing collaborator. There are occasional misleading uses of language too. For instance, Richard Strauss’s supposed political naivety and poor judgement is illustrated in the sentence, “The name [Hitler] first crops up in Strauss’s published utterances in November 1932, when, in the wake of the most recent German elections, he matter-of-factly wrote, “Hitler is apparently finished.”” Given that we know that Hitler came to power shortly afterwards this does seem almost recklessly complacent. However, the facts are more complicated. There were two Reichstag elections in 1932, and Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, did significantly worse in the second, November 6 elections, than it had done in the first, July 31 elections. It was a commonplace of contemporary commentary that Hitler’s appeal had peaked and was in decline. Hitler feared as much himself. He could hardly believe his luck when Hindenburg invited him to form a government at the end of January 1933. Strauss no doubt shared the public’s surprise.

Perhaps a larger criticism of the book is that, inevitably given the writer’s credentials (he is music correspondent of The New Yorker), this is a very Americo-centric, even New York-focused book. Ross is to music what Robert Parker may be to wine: confident from a particular cultural perspective of what is to be written about, and how. But the world of music and its history do not sound the same from Bristol or Toulouse, Brescia or Minsk. And Ross is silent on the even larger stage of Japan and China, India and Australasia. Many concert goers believe that music travels well, that they are open to the works of many different composers from a wide range of countries and times, but the reality is that outside of a relatively small number of works from an established repertoire, the great bulk of the music that reaches the concert hall has come from very nearby.

I was made intensely conscious of this at a concert in Warsaw 10 years ago when I heard a performance of Kwiaty Polskie (Polish Flowers) by Weinberg. This is an orchestral work with choir and solo singers that includes settings of poems by Julian Tuwim. The poems are literary equivalents of Monet’s Water Lilies, elegies written immediately after the Great War, and the music they are set to is among the most powerful and absorbing that I have heard. Weinberg was apparently a contemporary, friend and colleague of Shostakovich, lived in the same apartment building in Moscow after the Second World War, but born a Pole in what was then Eastern Poland (today the Ukraine). I have never heard anything by Weinberg played in the West, and Kwiaty Polskie is a work completely unknown to every music enthusiast to whom I have ever mentioned it. It doesn’t make it into Ross’s book either.

But never mind these sorts of details—food for after-dinner conversation. And never mind, too, that against the notion implicit in everything that Ross writes about composition as a reflection of social and intellectual circumstance, there is a counter purist view that music is about nothing other than itself. For lovers of good music will find much to enjoy in this stimulating book, and they will also—thanks to its exemplary index—be able to use the book as a work of reference, and return to it repeatedly (as I surely will) as a reliable, erudite source of musical knowledge. Praise be for good writers and their publishers.