Alex Ross on the music of an untamed era

'The Rest Is Noise' considers the 'chaotic beauty' of 20th-century music.

Readers of The New Yorker are already familiar with music critic Alex Ross's insightful writing and his ability to bring sounds and styles alive through erudite yet passionate consideration.

The Rest Is Noise, his long-awaited tome on 20th-century music, is, not surprisingly, a brilliant, hugely enjoyable, cultural history viewed – and heard – through, as he puts it, "the chaotic beauty" of music from this past chaotic century.

Ross's title plays off Hamlet's last words, "the rest is silence." Twentieth-century classical music – "an untamed art, an unassimilated underground" – sounds, Ross notes, like noise to many listeners.

Ross's aim is to break down the boundaries between intellectual and popular repertories, to show that neither musical language is more intrinsically modern than the other, and to illustrate the ways in which popular culture and "classical music" have influenced each other.

By creating a cultural history rather than a pure history of composers and their music, Ross shows how much of 20th-century music was inextricably linked to the times and places and events during which it was written and premiered.

Luminaries making cameo appearances include Orson Welles, Hitler and Stalin (who played the role of "art-loving monarchs of yore" to perfection), John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Picasso. Two World Wars, the Cold War, Paris in the 20s, Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, the Avant Garde era of the 50s and 60s, and the century's end are some of the cultural and historical backdrops from which portraits of composers and their music emerge.

Some of the best set pieces in Ross's book occur when people from different worlds intermingle, often at a musical event, such as a 1906 performance of Strauss's opera "Salome" in Graz, Austria, conducted by the composer. "Like a flash of lightning, [this opera] illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change." The audience included Mahler, Puccini (Strauss's main rival in the opera world), and Schoenberg with six of his pupils. Also in attendance, it is believed, was Adolph Hitler, who worshiped what he considered "German" music.

In the 19th century, music, especially German music, was considered a sacred realm sufficient in itself, floating far above the ordinary world. Yet, Ross writes, "in the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses ... but a deeper loss of moral authority, acquiring, as the years passed "a sinister aura in popular culture." Much of 20th century music, Ross believes, is a struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of Hitler's "corrosive love of music." The Holocaust, Ross points out, murdered entire schools of composition.

Nothing in the annals of musical scandal – "from the first night of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to the release of the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy in the UK' – rivals the ruckus that greeted Arnold Schoenberg early in his career," Ross remarks. The deep-seated resistance to his music came not only from reactionaries and philistines but also from listeners of considerable musical knowledge.

Yet, Ross remarks, today Schoenberg's music no longer sounds quite so alien, "no longer carries the threat that all music will sound like this." Still, "it retains its Faustian aura. These intervals will always shake the air; they will never become second nature. That is at once their power and their fate."

Schoenberg was, like other Viennese Jews, "at the center of culture but the edge of society." Yet, after Ross lists plausible urges and ideas circling Schoenberg, he admits that there was no "necessity" driving atonality. "No irreversible current of history made it happen. It was one man's leap into the unknown."

From the postwar "catastrophic style," with its "instinctive attraction to the dreadful and the dire," ("Rite of Spring," "Wozzeck," "Peter Grimes," "Lulu"), Ross deftly analyzes a mind-boggling array of recent styles "between the life of the mind and the noise of the street."

Today's composers, he concludes, "may never match their popular counterparts in instant impact, but in the freedom of their solitude, they can communicate experiences of singular intensity."

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