January 06, 2008

BOOKS: The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross (2007)

A marvelous history of classical music in the 20th century. Ross, who is the classical music critic for The New Yorker, has the gift of writing about music that makes you want to hear it -- sometimes even makes you feel that you are hearing it -- and a knack for finding telling stories and anecdotes.

He's particularly good here at detailing the ways in which real world events affected the music that was being written; musical trends were not viewed in isolation, but were thought to have very clear political implications. That was particularly true in Germany and Russia during the Second World War, but as Ross makes clear, American composers of that era struggled with similar issues.

Ross also reminds us that the composers of the 20th century were people; too often, history surveys turn into laundry lists of great works, as if a piece of music could (or should) be heard in isolation from the life of its composer. Ross devotes entire chapters to Sibelius and Britten, and a lengthy section to Messiaen, which do a marvelous job of bringing those men to life.

Would those be the composers I'd have picked to devote full chapters to? Perhaps not, and every reader will no doubt believe that some composers got too much, or not enough, attention. One of the strengths of Ross's book is that it reminds us that every such history is only one way of telling the story; different writers and critics would tell the story differently with different emphases. Ross's version of the story certainly shouldn't be taken as the only way to tell it, but it's a valuable one, beautifully written and marvelously entertaining.

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