Rupert Christiansen

Plunging into the hurly-burly

Rupert Christiansen on Alex Ross' new book

‘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’).

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