Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Alex Ross on the Music of an Untamed Era

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Alex Ross on the Music of an Untamed Era

Article excerpt

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. …

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