Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise sets out to be a comprehensive history of classical music in the twentieth century. Ross explains the culture, the geography, the personalities, the context and even the theory in a lucid and interesting way. I particularly enjoyed the stuff on turn of the century Vienna, a milieu I knew a little bit about from the novel The Man Without Qualities. The dynamic between Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg was fascinating and the five or six pages on the debut of Strauss's opera Salome was brilliant. Like Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, it seems that everyone who was anyone was either there or later claimed to be there. (Ross is skeptical of Hitler's claims to have been in the audience.)
A lot of the information in the book was eye opening: even after he became famous (but not well off) Philip Glass worked as a plumber and taxi driver, for whatever reason half of all the important American classical composers were gay, Thomas Mann was consistently the most important novelistic influence on composers of the century, and it seems that classical music was only really significant in four cultures: Germany, Russia, France and the US.
After finishing The Rest Is Noise I still wasn't sure that I understood the formal difference between a musical and an opera (he doesn't discuss any of the famous musicals of the 60s, 70s and 80s) and I think Ross underplays the role of pop music but not, of course, the intellectual's friend - jazz. I was also a bit annoyed that the playlist which the publishers have promised to maintain on their website (and on iTunes) doesn't seem to be working anymore - it would have been handy to read about a composer and then hear an example of their work, but alas it was not to be.