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The Rest is Noise: Listening to The Twentieth Century



Book by Alex Ross.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

"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 U.K. — rivals the ruckus that greeted [Arnold] Schoenberg early in his career."

From any other critic, that statement might sound like an exaggeration, but Alex Ross never pronounces anything in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century without a convincing case.

We all know the reaction to the Sex Pistols. Here is Ross's description of May 29, 1913, opening night of "Rite of Spring." "Howls of discontent went up from the boxes, where the wealthiest on-lookers sat. Immediately, the aesthetes in the balconies and the standing room howled back. There were overtones of class warfare in the proceedings. The combative composer Florent Schmitt was heard to yell either ‘Shut up, bitches of the seizième!' or ‘Down with the whores of the seizième!'—a provocation of the grandes dames of the sixteen arrondissement."

But as Ross points out, "the bedlam on the avenue Montaigne was a typical Parisian affair, of a kind that took place once or twice a year." In fact Parisians took quite quickly to Stravinsky's atonal masterpiece. Where Schoenberg is different from Stravinsky — and yes, the Sex Pistols — is that people in the know, critics, composers, even Schoenberg's friends and mentors had a very difficult time accepting his provocative dissonance.

That would change. By mid-career, Schoenberg would be considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Still, he was not above gestures of petulance that verged on the Johnny Rotten-esque. The first time Schoenberg received massive adulation from an audience, he took his sweet time walking out to the podium, then "bowed to the musicians but turned his back on the crowd."

It's hard for us to imagine an era where people took classical music this seriously. But the attention composers received less than a century ago was not all that different from the A-list pop stars of today. The fall and rise of Schoenberg is just a tiny slice of a story in a book that seems to condense about 10 encyclopaedias of music into 500 riveting pages (not including close to 100 pages of notes, recommended recordings and indexes).

What will strike anyone who reads this is how early the major composers heard historical forces that were impossible to see. Consider this pronouncement by Antonin Dvorak after a visit to the U.S. in 1893: "I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."

Much of The Rest Is Noise is the story of how this happened. Alongside the story of Europe's most renowned composers is the story of black composers who where shut out of the musical establishment, others who rejected it and who eventually seized it and reshaped it. Ross travels from the golden age of Strauss, Mahler and Wagner, through the mid-century struggles of composers — American, European, black and white, classical, jazz and pretty much everything else. He takes this story all the way to the minimalism of John Cage and Public Enemy, and then loops back calling Welcome to the Terrordome the "Rite of Spring" of black America.

Early into The Rest Is Noise, I felt like I was reading a book I had been waiting for all my life. This is not a book concerned with making classical music easy, understandable or interesting (although it does all those things). This is a book that makes classical music relevant. It does exactly what it promises to do, translates the music of the last century into a fascinating, complex symphony of historical forces. It is quite simply a masterpiece about masterpieces.

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