THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Alex Ross.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 624 pages.
Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, presents a highly
researched and documented history of 20th century classical music.
Beginning with a performance of Salome, in Graz, the attendees of
which included Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Puccini, and perhaps Hitler,
he brings his historical account up to John Adams. His stated aim is
to give an account of the 'cultural predicament of the composer in the
twentieth century,' and thus the social and political conditions in which
composers lived. To this end he devotes chapters to Berlin in the 20s,
music in Stalin's Russia, FDR's U.S. and Hitler's Germany. He tends
to focus on representative figures from various times and places, whom
he makes vivid and real, rather than to give balanced accounts of other
composers. To be sure it would be impossible to do justice to all the
significant composers of the past century, even in such a lengthy book.
He says quite a lot about Strausss, Schoenberg, Messiaen and the
minimalists,little about Ravel, nothing about William Schuman, a bare
mention of Rochberg, a line about Shapero (his early interest in jazz,
not his symphony). Strauss comes off badly in his account; Orff rather
better: Carmina Burana was dismissed with an offensively racist epithet
by a Nazi reviewer when it first appeared, though when it became popular
the Nazi aesthetic was modified to accommodate that fact. Orff's School
Work project, Ross says, 'probably touched more lives than any music
described in this book.'
For me, the most interesting chapters come in the middle of the book.
In mid-20th century, when the Cold War was beginning and Germany was
widely in ruins, some thought that musical tonality was largely destroyed
as well. Less well known than these matters, and news to me, is that
there was a significant connection among these matters. Ross relates
that both denazification and Cold War politics included financial
assistance to atonal composers, initially at Darmstadt and later, through
funds covertly provided by the CIA, even for such commissions as the one
Stravinsky received for Threni.
In the U.S., the end of the New Deal support for the arts was followed
by official encouragement for Darmstadt atonality. 'Uncompromising'
standards were framed in terms of Western freedom of expression versus
Stalinist socialist realism. At first this was an attempt by American
occupation forces to change German musical taste; they encouraged jazz
and works forbidden by the Nazi's, notably Mendelssohn at first. They
actively discouraged performances of the still-living Richard Strauss.
I was surprised to see Ross, in a late chapter, permit himself to say
that 'uptown' (Lincoln Center) audiences enjoyed some of Hitler's favorite
works. Sixty years after Hitler's death some German pundits could still
be heard declaring that use of triads showed a fascist mentality. The
German musical establishment opposed minimalism in any form.
I would be hard pressed to pin down Ross' own aesthetics. As a
detached observer, he nearly always avoids any evaluative terms in
reference to the music he discusses. At one pole, he devotes whole
chapters to Sibelius and Britten. He also describes particular chords
that many composers use. At the other pole, he quotes the extreme views
of some avant-gardists to the degree that suggests a middle of the road
viewpoint. He reports that Adorno, in Philosophy of New Music, proposed
destroying tonality and neoclassicism, which were 'symptoms of the Fascist
personality.' Adorno also 'decreed' that the work of the composer was
to write music that would 'repel, shock and be the vehicle of 'unmitigated
cruelty." Rene Leibowitz wrote a book called Sibelius, the Worst Composer
in the World, and strongly influenced the direction that the Darmstadt
composers took. Boulez was even more nasty and condescending to composers
whose music he did not like than I had been aware of. But Ross shows
no interest in the expressive aspects of music and very limited interest
in neoclassicism or neoromanticism. His treatment of the avant-garde
in the early part of the century is limited, but he spends a great deal
of space on the twelve-tone and serialist composers.
Benjamin Britten 'provocatively compared the regimentation of culture
in totalitarian states to the self-imposed regimentation in democratic
countries.' The uncompromising standards of some composers, such as
Carter and Babbitt led to works of enormous complexity. Their disdain
for popularity led to some statements close to aesthetic solipsism,
Carter saying 'to hell with the public and to the performers too.'
Babbitt's article, entitled by its editor 'Who Cares if You Listen'
is well known.
Much of the material Ross covers is well known. But his extensive
research, evidenced by nearly a hundred columns of documentation in
small type, has turned up a great deal that I at least did not know.
And his description of the music of at least one composer I never paid
attention to, Morton Feldman, has aroused my interest. His book is well
written and well worth reading. There are some photos and an index.
Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin
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