Music Media Review Print

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

March 10, 2008 - Williamsburg, MA:

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, © 2007, ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7, Pp. xiv + 624, $30.00. See also

Ross, The New Yorker’s classical music writer, has accomplished a seemingly unachievable synthesis in the fifteen chapters of this encyclopedic yet eminently readable examination of the last century’s classical music output. The text is divided into three parts, which are in turn divided into chapters of varying numbers and lengths: six for Pt. I, three for Pt. II, and six for Pt. III, though the final one also takes the reader into the present century. These are surrounded by a four-page Preface and an three-page Epilogue, and completed with 49 two-column fine-print pages of reference notes and a 24-page fine-print index, these latter separated by a page of Suggested Listening (top ten CDs + twenty more) and four pages of Acknowledgements. The breadth and depth of the preparatory research and the clearly attentive accompanying listening are astounding; their scholarly weight is surely far heavier than what he has so skillfully distilled into the book. It has obviously been a long but passionate journey for Ross, “a labor of love,” as they say.

The narrative is organized around pivotal moments, such as the 1913 Paris première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, important figures such as Schoenberg, Strauss, Debussy, Messiaen, Bartók, Janácek, Gershwin, Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc., seminal writings, such as Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and defining compositions such as Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) and Bernstein’s West Side Story, which form the centers or apotheoses of the chapters around which other tales are told and facts are fitted. Twentieth century musical creation begins with Strauss’ Salome and ends with Adams’ Nixon in China. Only two composers merit chapters all their own: Sibelius and Britten; perhaps not the two you would have expected?

Ross provides capsule biographies of composers, succinct synopses of styles, and nutshell analyses of compositions, always pointing out the interconnections among the people and interrelationships among the works. These latter, such as between Wozzeck and Porgy and Bess (p.148), are often unexpected, sometimes surprising to the amateur music lover as opposed to the musicologist. He also relates both to their cultural context: philosophies, other arts, other musics (minimalism with the Velvet Underground [p.509], for example), and to historical events which they influenced or which influenced them. His concise descriptions are spot on, often among the best this writer has read (his treatments of Debussy [pp.39-45] and Messiaen [pp.446-456 and elsewhere] spring to mind), and his assessments are accurate and authoritative.

The book is a kaleidoscopic compendium of information presented in an enjoyable manner, readily accessible to the layman; esoteric concepts and practices are carefully explained without being over-simplified or dumbed down. Works with this much content are often tedious and slow-going for the overwhelmed reader. Ross’ engaging style generally avoids this problem and offers numerous “quotable quotes.” He writes (p.541) of “the interconnectedness of the musical experience”; this is really the thesis and guiding principle of the entire book itself.

There are, however, a few curiosities of omission and organization. While Ross devotes more than a few pages to some 19th-century composers who lived on into the 20th, such as Mahler (d.1911) and Debussy (d.1918), he neglects others such as Saint-Saëns (d.1921) and Fauré (d.1924, who lived even longer, almost a quarter of the way into it, but receive mere mentions in passing of individual works . In praising (p.533) the BBC for its constant inclusion of 20th century music in its repertory, he writes: “...any British orchestra would offend its audience if it neglected the symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams...”; yet he has done so himself in his coverage of their parts of the century. Walton, who lived entirely in the 20th century, is, like Saint-Saëns and Fauré, granted only a mention in passing. These absences from the stage are startling, his statement (p.xiv) that he is not attempting to be comprehensive notwithstanding. Perhaps Ross is pandering to his American readers and indulging American audiences’ long-standing love affair with the Germanic and Russian traditions, relegating to the sidelines if not nearly totally excluding the French and British ones, their preference for large-scale orchestral and operatic works over smaller scale chamber pieces, and their almost universal aversion to the art song? Perhaps he is himself unwittingly a partisan of these unfortunate inclinations? While the alternatives are not totally ignored, the focus is overwhelmingly on the former, and either way, an opportunity to educate readers on the pleasures and values of those alternatives has been missed.

Although Part II ostensibly covers the years 1933-1945, its first chapter dealing with Soviet music extends to the deaths of Stalin and Prokofiev (on the same day, it will be recalled) eight years later in 1953, while the first chapter of Part III (1945-2000), “Zero Hour,” deals with “The U.S. Army and German Music, 1945-1949,” the latter year being that of Richard Strauss’ death. Part III’s second chapter deals with the '50s and the Cold War; Copland was summoned to appear before McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953. One wonders why the former chapter was not placed in Part II, and the dates of both Parts modified accordingly: WWII did not start in 1933; neither did its consequences for classical music end abruptly, in Europe or America, upon its 1945 conclusion. Such decisions are arbitrary, of course, but this one seems to betray the otherwise logical chronology divisions.

While I can’t pronounce this book to be absolutely perfect, I can wholeheartedly declare it difficult to beat; at more than 1.5 times Ross’ age, I’d have been very hard put to do anywhere near as well! I can enthusiastically recommend it to all classical music lovers, especially to those who resist distinctly modern 20th century music. They owe it to themselves to read it cover to cover; even if they still don’t like this music, at least they’ll understand it. Reading the book is an intellectual and a literary treat.

© 2008 Marvin j. Ward