The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

by Alex Ross

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Winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism

A New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book of the Year

Time magazine Top Ten Nonfiction Book of 2007

Newsweek Favorite Books of 2007

A Washington Post Book World Best Book of 2007

In this sweeping and dramatic narrative, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, weaves together the histories of the twentieth century and its music, from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties; from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies up to the present. Taking readers into the labyrinth of modern style, Ross draws revelatory connections between the century's most influential composers and the wider culture. The Rest Is Noise is an astonishing history of the twentieth century as told through its music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427719
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/14/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 720
Sales rank: 121,943
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism, a Holtzbrinck Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre, and a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for significant contributions to the field of contemporary music. The Rest is Noise is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Rest is Noice

By Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Alex Ross
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-24939-3

Chapter One

When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale-an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

Giacomo Puccini, the creator of La Bohème and Tosca, made a trip north to hear what "terribly cacophonous thing" his German rival had concocted. Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna Opera, attended with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky and no fewer than six of his pupils. One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend, who later recalled the "feverish impatience and boundless excitement" that all felt as the evening approached. The widow of Johann Strauss II, composer of On the Beautiful Blue Danube, represented old Vienna.

Ordinary music enthusiasts filled out the crowd-"young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage," Richard Strauss noted. Among them may have been the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. Hitler later told Strauss's son that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip. There was even a fictional character present-Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, the tale of a composer in league with the devil.

The Graz papers brought news from Croatia, where a Serbo-Croat movement was gaining momentum, and from Russia, where the tsar was locked in conflict with the country's first parliament. Both stories carried tremors of future chaos-the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917. For the moment, though, Europe maintained the facade of civilization. The British war minister, Richard Haldane, was quoted as saying that he loved German literature and enjoyed reciting passages from Goethe's Faust.

Strauss and Mahler, the titans of Austro-German music, spent the afternoon in the hills above the city, as Alma Mahler recounted in her memoirs. A photographer captured the composers outside the opera house, apparently preparing to set out on their expedition-Strauss smiling in a boater hat, Mahler squinting in the sun. The company visited a waterfall and had lunch in an inn, where they sat at a plain wooden table. They must have made a strange pair: Strauss, tall and lanky, with a bulbous forehead, a weak chin, strong but sunken eyes; Mahler, a full head shorter, a muscular hawk of a man. As the sun began to go down, Mahler became nervous about the time and suggested that the party head back to the Hotel Elefant, where they were staying, to prepare for the performance. "They can't start without me," Strauss said. "Let 'em wait." Mahler replied: "If you won't go, then I will-and conduct in your place."

Mahler was forty-six, Strauss forty-one. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods-childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. In Vienna, as he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the opera house on the Ringstrasse, cabdrivers would whisper to their passengers, "Der Mahler!" Strauss was earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical, a closed book to most observers. The soprano Gemma Bellincioni, who sat next to him at a banquet after the performance in Graz, described him as "a pure kind of German, without poses, without long-winded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, an indecipherable expression." Strauss came from Munich, a backward place in the eyes of sophisticated Viennese such as Gustav and Alma. Alma underlined this impression in her memoir by rendering Strauss's dialogue in an exaggerated Bavarian dialect.

Not surprisingly, the relationship between the two composers suffered from frequent misunderstandings. Mahler would recoil from unintended slights; Strauss would puzzle over the sudden silences that ensued. Strauss was still trying to understand his old colleague some four decades later, when he read Alma's book and annotated it. "All untrue," he wrote, next to the description of his behavior in Graz.

"Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain," Mahler said. "One day we shall meet." Both saw music as a medium of conflict, a battlefield of extremes. They reveled in the tremendous sounds that a hundred-piece orchestra could make, yet they also released energies of fragmentation and collapse. The heroic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from Beethoven's symphonies to Wagner's music dramas, invariably ended with a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. Mahler and Strauss told stories of more circuitous shape, often questioning the possibility of a truly happy outcome.

Each made a point of supporting the other's music. In 1901, Strauss became president of the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein, or All-German Music Association, and his first major act was to program Mahler's Third Symphony for the festival the following year. Mahler's works appeared so often on the association's programs in subsequent seasons that some critics took to calling the organization the Allgemeiner deutscher Mahlerverein. Others dubbed it the Annual German Carnival of Cacophony. Mahler, for his part, marveled at Salome. Strauss had played and sung the score for him the previous year, in a piano shop in Strasbourg, while passersby pressed against the windows trying to overhear. Salome promised to be one of the highlights of Mahler's Vienna tenure, but the censors balked at accepting an opera in which biblical characters perform unspeakable acts. Furious, Mahler began hinting that his days in Vienna were numbered. He wrote to Strauss in March 1906: "You would not believe how vexatious this matter has been for me or (between ourselves) what consequences it may have for me."

So Salome came to Graz, an elegant city of 150,000 people, capital of the agricultural province of Styria. The Stadt-Theater staged the opera at the suggestion of the critic Ernst Decsey, an associate of Mahler's, who assured the management that it would create a succès de scandale.

"The city was in a state of great excitement," Decsey wrote in his autobiography, Music Was His Life. "Parties formed and split. Pub philosophers buzzed about what was going on ... Visitors from the provinces, critics, press people, reporters, and foreigners from Vienna .. Three more-than-sold-out houses. Porters groaned, and hoteliers reached for the keys to their safes." The critic fueled the anticipation with a high-flown preview article acclaiming Strauss's "tone-color world," his "polyrhythms and polyphony," his "breakup of the narrow old tonality," his "fetish ideal of an Omni-Tonality."

As dusk fell, Mahler and Strauss finally appeared at the opera house, having rushed back to town in their chauffeur-driven car. The crowd milling around in the lobby had an air of nervous electricity. The orchestra played a fanfare when Strauss walked up to the podium, and the audience applauded stormily. Then silence descended, the clarinet played a softly slithering scale, and the curtain went up.

In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the princess of Judaea dances for her stepfather, Herod, and demands the head of John the Baptist as reward. She had surfaced several times in operatic history, usually with her more scandalous features suppressed. Strauss's brazenly modern retelling takes off from Oscar Wilde's 1891 play Salomé, in which the princess shamelessly eroticizes the body of John the Baptist and indulges in a touch of necrophilia at the end. When Strauss read Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Wilde-in which the accent is dropped from Salomé's name-he decided to set it to music word for word, instead of employing a verse adaptation. Next to the first line, "How beautiful is the princess Salome tonight," he made a note to use the key of C-sharp minor. But this would turn out to be a different sort of C-sharp minor from Bach's or Beethoven's.

Strauss had a flair for beginnings. In 1896 he created what may be, after the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth, the most famous opening flourish in music: the "mountain sunrise" from Thus Spake Zarathustra, deployed to great effect in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The passage draws its cosmic power from the natural laws of sound. If you pluck a string tuned to a low C, then pluck it again while pinching it in half, the tone rises to the next C above. This is the interval of the octave. Further subdivisions yield intervals of the fifth (C to G), the fourth (G to the next higher C), and the major third (C to E). These are the lower steps of the natural harmonic series, or overtone series, which shimmers like a rainbow from any vibrating string. The same intervals appear at the outset of Zarathustra, and they accumulate into a gleaming C-major chord.

Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein's "Maria" opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.

In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. There's a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.

The first part of Salome focuses on the confrontation between Salome and the prophet Jochanaan: she the symbol of unstable sexuality, he the symbol of ascetic rectitude. She tries to seduce him, he shrinks away and issues a curse, and the orchestra expresses its own fascinated disgust with an interlude in C-sharp minor-in Jochanaan's stentorian manner, but in Salome's key.

Then Herod comes onstage. The tetrarch is a picture of modern neurosis, a sensualist with a yearning for the moral life, his music awash in overlapping styles and shifting moods. He comes out on the terrace; looks for the princess; gazes at the moon, which is "reeling through the clouds like a drunken woman"; orders wine, slips in blood, stumbles over the body of a soldier who has committed suicide; feels cold, feels a wind-there is a hallucination of wings beating the air. It's quiet again; then more wind, more visions. The orchestra plays fragments of waltzes, expressionistic clusters of dissonance, impressionistic washes of sound. There is a turbulent episode as five Jews in Herod's court dispute the meaning of the Baptist's prophecies; two Nazarenes respond with the Christian point of view.

When Herod persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, she does so to the tune of an orchestral interlude that, on first hearing, sounds disappointingly vulgar in its thumping rhythms and pseudo-Oriental exotic color. Mahler, when he heard Salome, thought that his colleague had tossed away what should have been the highlight of the piece. But Strauss almost certainly knew what he was doing: this is the music that Herod likes, and it serves as a kitschy foil for the grisliness to come.

Salome now calls for the prophet's head, and Herod, in a sudden religious panic, tries to get her to change her mind. She refuses. The executioner prepares to behead the Baptist in his cistern prison. At this point, the bottom drops out of the music. A toneless bass-drum rumble and strangulated cries in the double basses give way to a huge smear of tone in the full orchestra.

At the climax, the head of John the Baptist lies before Salome on a platter. Having disturbed us with unheard-of dissonances, Strauss now disturbs us with plain chords of necrophiliac bliss. For all the perversity of the material, this is still a love story, and the composer honors his heroine's emotions. "The mystery of love," Salome sings, "is greater than the mystery of death." Herod is horrified by the spectacle that his own incestuous lust has engendered. "Hide the moon, hide the stars!" he rasps. "Something terrible is going to happen!" He turns his back and walks up the staircase of the palace. The moon, obeying his command, goes behind the clouds. An extraordinary sound emanates from the lower brass and winds: the opera's introductory motif is telescoped-with one half-step alteration-into a single glowering chord. Above it, the flutes and clarinets launch into an obsessively elongated trill. Salome's love themes rise up again. At the moment of the kiss, two ordinary chords are mashed together, creating a momentary eight-note dissonance.

The moon comes out again. Herod, at the top of the stairs, turns around, and screams, "Kill that woman!" The orchestra attempts to restore order with an ending in C minor, but succeeds only in adding to the tumult: the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise.

The crowd roared its approval-that was the most shocking thing. "Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage," Decsey wrote admiringly. Strauss held court that night at the Hotel Elefant, in a never-to-be-repeated gathering that included Mahler, Puccini, and Schoenberg. When someone declared that he'd rather shoot himself than memorize the part of Salome, Strauss answered, "Me, too," to general amusement. The next day, the composer wrote to his wife, Pauline, who had stayed home in Berlin: "It is raining, and I am sitting on the garden terrace of my hotel, in order to report to you that 'Salome' went well, gigantic success, people applauding for ten minutes until the fire curtain came down, etc., etc."

Salome went on to be performed in some twenty-five different cities. The triumph was so complete that Strauss could afford to laugh off criticism from Kaiser Wilhelm II. "I am sorry that Strauss composed this Salome," the Kaiser reportedly said. "Normally I'm very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage." Strauss would relate this story and add with a flourish: "Thanks to that damage I was able to build my villa in Garmisch!"

On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over his colleague's success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece-"one of the greatest masterworks of our time," he later said-and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God-Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question.

The younger musicians from Vienna thrilled to the innovations in Strauss's score, but were suspicious of his showmanship. One group, including Alban Berg, met at a restaurant to discuss what they had heard. They might well have used the words that Adrian Leverkühn applies to Strauss in Doctor Faustus: "What a gifted fellow! The happy-go-lucky revolutionary, cocky and conciliatory. Never were the avant-garde and the box office so well acquainted. Shocks and discords aplenty-then he good-naturedly takes it all back and assures the philistines that no harm was intended. But a hit, a definite hit." As for Adolf Hitler, it is not certain that he was actually there; he may merely have claimed to have attended, for whatever reason. But something about the opera evidently stuck in his memory.


Excerpted from The Rest is Noice by Alex Ross Copyright © 2007 by Alex Ross. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Where to Listen

PART I: 1900-1933

1. The Golden Age: Strauss, Mahler, and the Fin de Siecle

2. Doctor Faust: Schoenberg, Debussy, and Atonality

3. Dance of the Earth: The Rite, the Folk, le Jazz

4. Invisible Men: American Composers from Ives to Ellington

5. Apparition from the Woods: The Loneliness of Jean Sibelius

6. City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties

PART II: 1933-1945

7. The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia

8. Music for All: Music in FDR's America

9. Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany

PART III: 1945-2000

10. Zero Hour: The U.S. Army and German Music, 1945-1949

11. Brave New World: The Cold War and the Avant-Garde of the Fifties

12. "Grimes! Grimes!": The Passion of Benjamin Britten

13. Zion Park: Messiaen, Ligeti, and the Avant-Garde of the Sixties

14. Beethoven Was Wrong: Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists

15. Sunken Cathedrals: Music at Century's End



Suggested Listening and Reading



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Rest Is Noise 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alex Ross has the ability and the resources to write about the music of the 20th Century and to establish himself as the creator of the definitive volume with the publication of THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. His depth of knowledge is matched only by his ability to communicate with a writing style that places him in the echelon of our finest biographers. This book is indeed a comprehensive study of the music created in the 20th Century, but it is also a survey of all of the arts and social changes, effects of wars, industrialization, and quirks and idiosyncrasies that surfaced in that recently ended period of history: Ross may call this 'listening' to the 20th century, but is also visualizing and feeling the changes of that fascinating period. Ross opens his survey with a detailed description of the premiere of Richard Strauss' opera SALOME and in doing so he references all of those in attendance (from Mahler to Schoenberg, the last of the great Romantics to the leader of the Modernist innovators) and focuses not only on the chances Strauss took using a libidinous libretto by the infamous Oscar Wilde to the astringent dissonances that surface in this tale of evil and necrophilia. The ballast of that evening is then followed throughout the book, a means of communicating music theory and execution in a manner that is wildly entertaining while simultaneously informative. Ross studies the influence of nationalism in music (the German School, the French School, the British and the American Schools) and then interweaves the particular innovations by showing how each school and each composer was influenced by the simultaneous destruction and reconstruction of the world borders resulting form the wars of that century. He dwells on the pacifists (Benjamin Britten et al) and those trapped by authoritarian regimes (Shostakovich et al), following the great moments as well as the dissonant chances that found audience at times far from the nidus of origin. Ross crosses the 'pond' showing how American music nurtured in the European schools ultimately found grounding in a sound peculiar to this country (Ives, Copland, etc) and allows enough insight as to the influence of jazz to finally satisfy the most critical of readers. Ross, then, accompanies us on the journey from melody to atonality and back, all the while giving us insights into the composers that help us understand the changes in music landscape they induced. The book is long and demanding, but at the same time it is one of the finest 'novels on a music theme' ever written. Highly recommended not only to musicologists, ardent music lovers, and students of the arts, but to the reading public who simply loves history enhanced by brilliant prose. Grady Harp
addisondewittNYC More than 1 year ago
THE REST IS NOISE is one of the finest books of its kind. Mr. Ross has done a magnificent job, first of research, and then in writing in a clear, informative and entertaining way. I read the book in its entirety, and find myself going back to it from time to time to check on certain references on a particular composer or period. I have given the book as a gift on many occasions and will do so in the future. A truly wonderful achievement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Rest is Noise' is one of the best works of non-fiction I've ever read 'and I've read tens of thousands'. Alex Ross is stunningly learned and wonderfully fresh in his ideas. He somehow manages to be erudite and plain-spoken at the same time. He is a great spirit and a truly gifted writer. Every sentence is beautifully composed, but never over-written. I also learned a ton about 20th-century classical music. This is an incredibly good choice for someone who has a serious interest in the arts but doesn't know much about recent classical music. I can't imagine anyone not loving this book. Kudos to the NY Times for naming this one of the 10 Best Books of 2007. Superb choice.
Garth_66 More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book that explores the music and the personalities of the composers throughout the Twentieth century. Also examines the political and economic forces that influenced music in the twentieth century, from Stalin's Soviet Union to FDR's America to Hitler's Germany. A wonderful interweaving of history and art.
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is about 20th century classical music. You might think, as a result, that it has a potential reader base about as big as those who listen to such music, but you would be mistaken. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century encompasses so much more. One of the blurbs on the back uses the adjective "sprawling" to describe it, and I think it's truly the best word for it. From opera to minimalism, Strauss to Britten, a glimpse of Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin (particularly from the point of view of the musicians), Alan Ross includes much information that would interest a history buff, a music major, or anyone in between.If the book is hard to summarize on its own, summarizing my reading experience is even more so. I first started reading in February. Since I knew very little about classical music, and even less so about 20th century classical music, I determined to listen to many of the pieces mentioned in the text. Thankfully Ross includes an appendix of recommended recordings - a "top ten" and then 20 additional recommendations. I focused on the main ten, especially when I realized how much of a time commitment symphonies and operas truly were. And mind you, he sometimes lists more than one piece for one composer, so this was still more than 10 CDs I committed to.What an experience! I didn't like everything I listened to, but it made the book come alive wonderfully. I listened to my first opera. I started to hear the atonality, the dissonance, that Ross so often refers to, especially in the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (I noted next to this that this was "not music to wake up to"). I really enjoyed the connections I was able to make between the text and other, outside elements. For instance, in my notes on the pieces I listened to, I noted that one of Schoenberg's orchestral pieces reminded me of the orchestra playing at the end of "I am the Walrus." I was delighted to read a bit later on that a portion of Sibelius's 7th symphony is referenced in the Beatles song "Revolution 9" - a different song, yes, but I felt the comfort of having a similar idea and bringing together something familiar with the new information I was learning. And the learning will continue - I've made a note of music I want to look into, both referenced in the text and not (after all, now I need to learn about earlier classical music, too!), and of a few composers - Mahler and Stravinsky come immediately to mind - that I enjoyed enough to find more.A truly memorable read.
sopekmir on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The reading of "The Rest is Noise" by Alex Rose was one of the best experiences I could have. Among others, it describes the period of 1933 to 1945 - the most tragic period of XX century. What is shocking is how close was music to politics of all sorts. The figures of Richard Strauss or Anton Webern on the one side and Shostakovich or Prokofiev, and their close relations to Nazis and communist regimes - is just horrifying. Honestly, before reading this incredible book I was unaware how abused was (maybe still is ....) music by politicians....But it also shows that in the later part of XX century, music became less "political" and more engaged in itself - in creation of "The imaginary country that cannot be found on a map" (Debussy).Alex Rose, shows us what makes the great music, free from politics, when he writes:"The debates over merits of engagement and withdraw [of music] has gone for centuries (...)Composition only gains power from failing to decide the eternal dispute. In a decentered culture, it has a chance to play a kind of good-father role - able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past".I do not see, and I believe, the author also does not think that way - that the music CAN in fact be motivated by what happens in the world - it cannot be isolated. But, what is the great hope, that the music is not, and will never be played to fulfill some crazy dictator's agenda ....I strongly recommend this book for everyone who is interested in modern music.
BrianDewey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great reference on 20th century music. It's most valuable if you already know the composers. For me, this worked for parts (Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Glass, Shostakovich). I don't have a lot of atonal music, and those sections were a little lost on me.Learning about the role of music (& culture in general) during the cold war was the most fascinating bit of the book. It reminded me how politics will pervade everything.
teaperson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A readable and accessible introduction to 20th century classical music. Some chapters read like adaptations of New Yorker articles (they are), but it still holds together and creates a great picture of things that I (a non-expert, non-classical-music fan) really didn't know much about.
Katong on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
He has a wonderful way of setting music in contexts, personal, historical and in terms of development of musical ideas. It's a fine way to read the history of the century, through the music. Much ammunition for arguments with friends who are still enthralled with an avant garde, and many discoveries of music I didn't know (Strauss' Four Last Songs, Copland's later chamber music, and I am sure there more to come as I work through the "listening list").
jasonlf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent. I listened to most of the book on audible, it's a shame you just get the text and not interspersed music.The middle section on the period surrounding World War II worked te best because of the integration of history, mini-biography and music. The chapter on Benjamin Britten, focusing on Peter Grimes, was also very strong, but essentailly functioned as a standalone chapter rather than an integrated part of a larger narrative. Which is true of much of the book. But also true of much of 20th Century classical music -- which isn't exactly Alex Ross's fault.
ninjafinity on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading this book was amazing.I love classical music. I play and write it, and I wanted to learn more about it. Twentieth century music has always amazed me, but I never knew much about it. A teacher recommended [The Rest is Noise], and I'm glad he did. The book talks about a huge range of styles and composers, from nineteenth century Romanticism to minimalism, from Mahler to Adams. In the process of talking about techniques and styles of music of the twentieth century, Ross also told of the era's history. It's amazing how intertwined music and the rest of history are.The only reason that I didn't give this 5 stars is because people who haven't studied music might not have fully understood it. Besides that, [The Rest is Noise] is a masterpiece. I would highly recommend it.
JoyceanMachine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book surveys 'classical' composers from Mahler and R. Strauss up to the present. One of the things I really liked about it was the way he pretty much doesn't care about the distinction between who's 'progressive' and who's 'conservative' - Shostakovich and Copland get as much coverage as Messiaen and Boulez. (You can contrast it with Paul Griffiths' Modern Music, which very much takes the orthodox modernist line, devoting tons of space to Stockhausen, Maderna, Nono etc. and being utterly patronising about Shost and Britten.) Also, he does a very good job of placing the music in its broader cultural and political contexts without that ever being overbearing. Another plus is that he has the extremely rare gift of being able to describe pieces of music in a way that gives an idea of what it sounds like, and without bewildering the reader with technicalities.He also has many 'ah yes!' insights along the way. I'll just give a couple of my favourites. He argues, based on features of the physical way people perceive music, that twelve-tone music will always be unsettling in a way that can't be wholly accounted for by the fact that it's an unfamiliar idiom. (He's not *anti*-twelve-tone music, far from it, but just thinks that we should acknowledge that it really is difficult to listen to, and that that's not just down to closed-minded listeners.) Another bit I liked was the way he tells the history of post-WWII American music, where Cage comes out as a major liberating influence, not just from tradition, but from the European avant-garde as well. So he traces a lineage from Cage to Feldman to Lamonte Young to Riley and Reich. (Sadly, Alan Hovhanness gets left out of Ross's story here, whereas I think he should have been mentioned as a key figure. He and Cage were good friends, and admired each others¿ music despite the obvious differences.)Another point I liked was where he quoted Duke Ellington objecting to people saying that jazz is 'modern classical music' or 'black classical music.' Ellington thought that to call jazz any type of classical music was to deny jazz its own `original genius¿. I've always thought something like this, but it's good to know that I have the authority of Ellington on my side! Incidentally, some of the reviewers made a big point of the supposed fact that Ross tells the whole story of 20th century music from Mahler to the Velvet Underground. The truth is that it is a history of classical music compositon in the 20th century, with jazz and rock being discussed a bit, but only as part of that broader cultural context I mentioned earlier.Of course I have some reservations. One minor one is the journalistic tone of some of the writing - e.g. on the first page Gershwin is introduced as 'George Gershwin, creator of Rhapsody in Blue''. I can't fully articulate why this phrase annoys me so. I think it's got something to do with the facts that (1) Gershwin didn't 'create' Rhapsody in Blue, he composed it; (2) one would think that anyone wanting to read a book on the history of 20th century music would know who George Gershwin was. Also, people who use "[sic]" when quoting people as often as he does really should look to the beam in their own eye. (You'll see what I mean if you read it.)That might just be me, but a more serious complaint I have is that British composers are almost totally neglected. He talks about the influence of folk music traditions on composers, and he discusses the usual suspects - Bartok, Janacek, etc. - but *where is Vaughan Williams??* Likewise, Tippett barely gets a mention. The only British composer to get extended treatment is Britten. He gets a whole chapter to himself, including a ten-page summary of Peter Grimes. Now, I like Britten but this seems excessive, and only makes the neglect of other British composers all the more galling.He does *almost* compensate for this at the very end with one nice remark, on how British music went through many of the same phases as music elsewhere,
adavidow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I finally have a sense of 20th century music--not all avant garde. What a wonderfully written book. Alas, it is not all-inclusive--nothing about the St. Petersburg Folk Society--but it is one of those wonderful treasures that informs and delights simultaneously. Who knew 20th century music was so damn interesting?
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Romantic, Impressionistic, neo-Classical, Avant-garde, Minimalism, Populist: musical styles were in a constant state of flux throughout the century. Technology allowed composers to experiment in ways never before possible. Powerful influences attracted the intellectual composers on direction (such as atonality) while popular demand shifted it back. During the first half of the century, Classical Music was in lock-step with the rapidly changing political scene...indeed, it would be the death of some composers to be politically incorrect. Composers were larger-than-life figures, and often considered national heroes even if their personal conduct was every bit as reprehensible as modern, drug-and-alcohol-ridden rock stars. Herein lies the most remarkable transformation -- classical music by and large escaped political repression in the latter half of the century, composers lost a good measure of glory, and classical music became another genre in a diverse musical landscape; entertainment for society's elite (or would-be elite). Yet despite the decline of power and prestige, by the end of the century, more people were consuming classical music by 1999 than any time in history.Ross does a terrific job telling the story of the history of music, the composers, national agendas and influences, and trends. The personalities, friendships and rivalries all come alive. Most important is how Ross describes the music. As the title indicates, he tells the reader what to listen for in the music, what exemplified a particular style, what signature passages made the composer worthy of note. I was pleasantly surprised on how complete the book is considering the vast scope. Major composers, influential as they were, command a large part of the text but minor composers also got their due, whether they were perfecting the style set forth by a mentor or helped change the course of music, even slightly. While today an uninformed listener might consider pop and classical to be opposite ends of the spectrum, in reality, the distinction has always been somewhat blurry. One of Sibelius' greatest hits was a waltz that became wildly popular in Vienna. Prokofiev and Korngold, among others, wrote notable scores for Hollywood or the movie industry. Jazz developed as almost a spin-off; many jazz greats either had classical roots or greatly influenced classical composition, like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. In modern times, the likes of Brian Eno, David Byrne, Bjork, and even the pop-hit producer Timbaland are entwined with classical influences. The emergence of China as a political power is mirrored by it's rise on the cultural scene as well...and a wealth of eastern music and musicians are part of the new repertoire gracing concert halls throughout the US and Europe. For me personally, prior ages of classical music have always been easy to understand. The baroque era is marked by ecclesiastical influences as composers experimented with polyphonic tones. Music of the classical age is is orderly and generally predictable -- not surprising as it was born during the Age of Reason. Romantic and Impressionistic music captures imagery and emotion. The 20th Century styles have all seemed less easy to grasp, mostly because I've always tried to listen to it as I had earlier music. I'm not sure if I'm going to suddenly like Schoenberg or Cage or Reich any more than before, but now I understand better where they are coming from, and what they were trying to accomplish. A greater understanding of the trendsetters will also help me better follow stylistic themes among their disciples. It'll take a few months to know for sure, but this book could represent an "eureka" moment that removes a barrier erected by ignorance.
clogbottom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This ranks with some of the best non-fiction for laymen out there (much of which is written by John McPhee.)A glut of information, generously larded through with singular anecdotes and quotes, surrounded by the obvious and intense love for the subject felt by Alex Ross.In some ways it is the chronicle of necessity of the implosion of an art form. In other ways it suggests a crippling hubris in those who imploded it. It is also the story of how technology changed society. It is also the story of how war changed art.If you have any passing love for any composer who lived in this century, this book is a trove of eye-widening information. If there were to be one critique, from me, about this book, it would be the author's tendency to focus on, in what is an otherwise even-handed historical overview, the topics he has a personal affinity for. Namely, Benjamin Britten. This isn't a problem for me because I knew nothing about any of these people, so any information was equally welcome. But he got a whole chapter to himself where no one else did. Just sayin'.Lovely anecdotes re: Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Boulez and Stravinsky, Reich and Glass...Lovely book.
omphalos02 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Comprehensive (and remarkable) research support this very readable and well-written tour of twentieth century music. From my personal standpoint, I wish Ross had given a little more time to Scriabin, and even a mention of Walter/Wendy Carlos, but those are really quibbles regarding this tremendous achievement.
gregtmills on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The subtitle of this book is "Listening to the Twentieth Century", and that what Alex Ross does. The result is a slightly idiosyncratic reading of twentieth century composition -- all the highlights and big names are here, more or less, but Ross is here to tell the story his way. (His longish foray into the tragic life of Sibelius is fascinating, though he's composer who wasn't well served by modernity, and could be characterized as the last 19th century composer, despite dying in 1957.) Ross loves this music, and it's clear that he lives with the pieces he writes about. He write with affectionate detachment throughout, and doesn't gloss over the moral failings of great artists (Strauss in particular is shown to be tragically bullheaded) He dips lightly into musicology and often meanders into funny, sometimes dishy, anecdotes about these sometimes comically grave characters that made music in the twentieth century. Ross also is willing to let the music speak for itself -- odd to say about a book, I know -- but in this book Ross is very careful about decoupling the music from the pretensions of its creators. I can't speak for true music people, but if your curious dilletante like me, this book is invaluable.
theageofsilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This history of 20th century music reads more like a novel with an exploration of the lives and moments in history of great, albeit often unpopular, composers. The agony of Shostakovich in Communist Russia, the Europeans artists who find themselves in Hollywood and the attitude of the Third Reich toward music are explored in great and interesting detail. I would have preferred more time given to composers working after the 1950's and especially Ross's thoughts on the direction of "classical" music in the future.
willyt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The unifying structure of this book is a description of the main composers and music of Western Classical music in the 20th century. Off this main theme the author describes how these composers responded to the politics and culture of their times. The book is quite comprehensive (over 500 pages), although as in any book of this type, readers who are somewhat conversant in this subject may find a composer or two that they wish were covered (or covered in more detail). Ross's main method is to provide the reader a picture of the composer's personality, connections to those pieces or composers to whom the composer may have been influenced, and a detailed description of portions of the composer's important pieces. This method allows the reader to make connections to related musical pieces and provides instructions on what to closely listen for when one next listens to those pieces. Despite the level of detail, I found the book to be quite readable; I was able to read the book at hundreds of pages at a time instead of tens of pages, the pace that I would have to use for some detailed texts, such as a scientific text. If the reader wants more information, Ross provides approximately 60 pages of detailed notes at the end of the text, a portion of his blog that contains links to some of the music that he describes in detail in the book, and a list of suggested recordings. Ross's opinions on the music and composers are apparent, but I like this in a non-fiction work.I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand classical music, especially classical music from the 20th century.
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