Rupert Christiansen

Plunging into the hurly-burly

Rupert Christiansen on Alex Ross' new book

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The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross

Fourth Estate, pp. 624, £

‘Avoiding both the pigeon hole and the blackboard I have tried to trace a connecting line between the apparently diverse and contradictory manifestations of contemporary music,’ wrote the composer and conductor Constant Lambert in the preface to Music ho!, his marvellously breezy survey of modern music published in 1934. Some 70 years later, the New Yorker’s brilliant critic Alex Ross has tried to do very much the same thing, covering the broader canvas of the entire 20th century and a musical hurly-burly which can no longer be drawn into a single ‘connecting line’: Ross’ own preface talks instead of a disintegration ‘into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures’. There is no over-arching thesis here, only the patient effort to listen to — and make sense of — a staggering variety of created sounds.

Like Lambert, Ross makes an urbane and companionable guide to this bizarre jungle. He writes with unfailing grace and clarity for a non-specialist audience (there is some technical stuff, but those who don’t know a tone-row from their elbow will not find it wearisome) and he alludes without pretension or glibness to a wide range of aesthetic, social and political contexts. He is enthusiastic without being pushy or naive, and his tastes are both wide and discriminating. The book is, in sum, a remarkable achievement, quite outstripping comparable surveys by the likes of Paul Griffiths, H. H. Stuckenschmidt and Wilfred Mellers.

Ross divides his history into three sections. The starting-point is unconventional ; not the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, not the riotous première of Le Sacre du printemps, not Schoenberg’s atonal Three Pieces Op.11, but the première of Salome and Strauss’ uneasy relationship with Mahler (‘Strauss could never comprehend Mahler’s obsession with suffering and redemption. “I don’t know what I’m meant to be redeemed from,” he once said’). Then come Debussy and Schoenberg, and the breakdown of tonality (‘Schoenberg’s atonality… may have been a kind of musical Zion, a promised land in whose dusty desert climate the Jewish composer could escape the ill-concealed hatreds of bourgeois Europe’).

Stravinsky is considered alongside Bartok and Ravel, united by their interest in folk music. The European vogue for Black America is wittily dissected (of Cocteau and Poulenc’s flirtation with le jazz, Ross writes that they enjoyed ‘a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the following day’). Sibelius, in his lonely Nordic eminence, is given a chapter to himself — like Lambert, Ross sees him as a beacon. But the young turks of the Weimar Republic — Weill, Hindemith, Eisler, Orff — jostle together in the shadow of the Viennese Schoenberg and his serial method.

In a second section covering 1933 to 1945, the perspective is more nakedly ideological. Stalinist Russia drives the tragi-comedy of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Nazi Germany casts a spell over the likes of Hindemith and Pfitzner, and FDR’s New Deal sets the agenda for American composers. The post-war section covers the denazification of German music, Cold War culture, the interrelated radicalisms of Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage, through to the Velvet Underground and minimalism. Britten is the figure afforded his own chapter here, and Ross’ analysis of Peter Grimes is without doubt the best I have ever read.

The book’s mindset is anything but Whiggish — ‘when the concept of progress assumes exaggerated importance,’ Ross reminds us, ‘many works are struck from the historical record on the grounds that they have nothing new to say.’ But inevitably, being written by a Harvard graduate who lives in Manhattan, there is a distinct bias towards Americana. Copland is treated as a major master, and the last chapters seem from this side of the water to afford excessive space to some shallow, sterile West Coast avant-garderie (Harry Partch’s 43 note scale, for example).

I don’t think that it is chauvinist to point out that English music, on the other hand, gets a raw deal, despite Ross’ deep passion for Britten. Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton and Tippett barely rate a mention, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies get two perfunctory paragraphs between them, and of the younger generation only that overrated golden boy Thomas Ades is singled out. Surely Mark Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir, both of whom enjoy major international reputations, deserve some sort of acknowledgment. None the less, this is a highly enjoyable book of impressive scholarship and critical intelligence that every music lover should read.