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205 of 221 found the following review helpful:
Not Noise But The Sound of the Twentieth Century in WordsOct 19, 2007
By Michael Salcman
This magisterial book will, for many years, remain the definitive account of classical music (or art music, if you prefer) in the twentieth century, from the time of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler to the age of Steve Reich and John Adams. Ross situates his history of an art form within the swirl of contemporary developments in culture and politics. The many individual stories of composers and their chief works are unified through the use of literary themes, the philosophical musings of Theodor Adorno and a close analysis of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faust. Along the way, Ross gives us an absolutely riveting account of the musical scene in the Third Reich, covering the composers who stayed and were complicit with the regime, as well as those artists who either fled or perished. He covers music in the concentration camps and the life of composers under Soviet dictatorship. He makes links between modern performance practice and the rise of jazz, bebop and adventurous rockers like the Beatles and Radiohead. His knowledge is encyclopedic and his research prodigous. Here and there his enthusiasms betray him. The heavy emphasis on German music as the spine of musical development turns Wagner into the main 19th century ancestor to modern music, a leit motive throughout the book; he scants the incipient modernisms of Tchaikovsky and the Russian School, the contributions of Liszt, Berlioz and other French composers. The chapter on Sibelius is so long it feels like a Bruckner symphony, ditto the scene by scene analysis of Britten's opera Peter Grimes; these sections are among the few longeurs encountered in a historical text that generally reads like a mystery novel. This book is highly recommended for anyone who is afraid of modern music but be warned, it will make you go out and compulsively expand your library of discs!
82 of 92 found the following review helpful:
A feast, a delight, a partyOct 20, 2007
By Kevin McMahon
A history of 20th century music with the history left out, thankfully. Ross writes vividly about specific compositions and imparts his enormous enthusiasm. Everyone who dips into this book will compile a list of works to hear. His avidity is a model for other listeners: he approaches Metataseis with the same eager expectation of enjoyment as the Firebird. And happily his enthusiasm is focused solely on the music--the ideologies, manifestoes, movements and politics of 20th century classical music he approaches with extreme scepticism. He is especially good at teasing apart a composer's words from a composer's music. Naturally he has preferences: he provides several full-length portraits of Strauss and Stravinsky at different points in their long careers, and movingly profiles Shostakovich and Britten, but Schoenberg and Cage appear more as instigators than artists, and Boulez is given up as an obnoxious enigma. But overall, I can't imagine a better guide. While modernism in the visual arts has been pretty much embraced by culture at large (e.g. the crowds at MOMA or Tate Modern), musical modernism, the tradition of 20th century classical music, has not. Whatever the explanation, Alex Ross thinks it's a shame that more people don't know it and love it. He certainly loves it, and it's prompted some of the best writing on music since Bernard Shaw.
36 of 39 found the following review helpful:
A Social History of 20th Century MusicNov 12, 2007
By B. R. Townsend
Alex Ross' excellent book is what you might call a 'social' history. He doesn't ignore the analytical side (though following recent practice, there isn't a single bit of notation in the whole book) and gives pretty good prose evocations of how a lot of music was put together--Webern's partition of a twelve tone row into three-note segments, for example--but focuses rather on the whole flow of things, on the relationships between composers and with society. He isn't afraid to quote Webern's sycophantic praise of the Third Reich, for example.
The book is non-ideological in the sense that he steps back and views the infighting and political jockeying for position from outside. It becomes clear that virtually all 20th century music is political or politicized to a considerable degree. Or suffers from politics! The truth Ross isn't afraid to recount is that a lot of 20th century composers, especially among the 'progressives', were playing the avant-garde game of achieving fame through being merely annoying. Many accounts of 20th century music, when they weren't mere chronicles, are either dryly analytical or manifestos for one camp or another (such as Rene Leibowitz' book on Schoenberg and his school).
Ross is particularly keen to rescue certain composers from the condescension of the 'progressives'. Three in particular are Sibelius, Shostakovich and Britten. Boulez comes across as a particularly nasty piece of work on the condescending side. There is a large section on Hitler's musical tastes which is surprisingly relevant because, as Ross points out, it was the Nazis and their love of certain music (and in return the loyalty a remarkable number of composers and conductors showed them, Karajan, for example) that cost 'classical' music its moral authority. He points out that, pre-WWII, classical music was coded in popular culture with higher things. But afterward, we find that every villain loves classical music. The example that springs to mind is Hannibal Lector and the Goldberg Variations.
One interesting point Ross makes is that while there were few religious pieces written by major composers in the 19th century, the 20th century teems with them--everyone from Stravinsky to Messaien to Arvo Part. (He calls works like the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems concert music with Latin text, which is fair enough.)
Ross' book reminds me that we tend to forget how really beautiful a lot of 20th century music is: Messaien, Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms), Shostakovich, Part, Adams and on and on. I will forgo the near-obligatory list of people he left out or said too much about.
This book is possibly the best history of 20th century music I have read and I have read most of them. It is refreshingly free of adherence to one camp or another and, while idiosyncratic, is enjoyably so. I would say that this would be the book on 20th century music I would most recommend even to a non-musician.
61 of 71 found the following review helpful:
A Richly Informative, Engrossing Examination of Twentieth Century MusicDec 07, 2007
By Grady Harp
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, December 07
60 of 72 found the following review helpful:
Big and Long DisappointmentJun 05, 2009
By R. Williams
I plowed through this book on my Kindle when I first got it. I found it compelling, but ultimately, disappointing. Here are the main reasons why: 1. for the amount of pages and time, I did not really learn a lot new about 20th Century music, and 2. like many long books that take on topics of absurdly ambitious scope, this book rolls out in a very uneven way. The usual failure is to go at it at a normal pace, then break into a gallop as time wears on. This book is really a ton of books. For instance, the whole section on soviet composers deserves a book of its own, but since it doesn't get one, it gets a kind of sorry, desultory treatment that we learn almost nothing new from.
Everyone is going to come to a book like this wanting to see their heroes achieve greater glory than they have hitherto been granted. I plead guilty to this on so many counts. Ironically, though, even the ones who do achieve greater reverence, were disappointing. For instance, Sibelius. Like so many great artists, Sibelius is known through but a few works. His masterpieces are his dark, more probing works, like Symphonies 3, 4 and 6. His first symphony is one of the great debut symphonies of all time. None of these works are considered. In fact, the author is satisfied to engage Sibelius only as a kind of conceptual puppet: representing a kind of strange symbol of the counterrevolution.
Another case, for me are the Russians. Stravinsky is a giant. We all know that. We have all heard the story of the premiere of Rite. But what about all the other fascinating stuff? Like Rimsky-Korsakov's wife saying 'you still have Glazunov' to him at her husband's funeral (S said it was the most painful thing anyone ever said to him). Stravinsky's quixotic relationship with Tchaikovsky, and things like the fascinating Le Baiser de la Fee, where he completed an unfinished Tchaikovsky work. But then, there is nothing really about the many rebirths Stravinsky experienced: my favorite being his popping out and feeling the influence of other greats. For instance, the symphonies from the 40s, where he openly quotes Bartok, represents a fascinating cycle of influence and evolution. But it also would have given this book more soul: as it is, it reads like a student showing off his collection of pinned insects. THE most important thing about music is the degree to which it evolves as a language together.
Also, there is Prokofiev. I was sorely disappointed that there was no real coverage of his work. What about The Fiery Angel? His 7 symphonies are actually great. 2, 3, and 6 are raging masterpieces. (Recently, Valery Gergiev has been touring the US playing the whole cycle [great man!] trying to convince people of this, finally!) And as another reviewer notes: where is ballet, for god's sake? Prokofiev produced so many great ballets, many of them completely unknown.
Even obvious things, like Bartok trekking Eastern Europe and Varese being part of the NYC scene of the 40s, are not here. (Nevermind more fascinating things like Bartok's having to sum up his career, while simultaneously doing a mise en scene of the just ended war, deconstructing Shostakovich's 7th, all on his deathbed..)
Was hoping even Pehr Nordgren would make it into this book, but no. I end with this because it shows that perhaps my delusions are the problem here, but this is, whatever others may be seeing here, not a convincing treatment of the insanely ambitious mission. Calling it definitive just smacks me as bizarre: it's a swath, a cross-section, and some of it is interesting, but it's mostly a long string of missed opportunities.
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