Friday, July 25, 2014

The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise is an impressive if not completely comprehensive history of classical music in the twentieth century. Ross does a good job explaining the culture, the geography, the personalities, the context and even the theory of modern classical music 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.)
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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 the really important classical music in the century came from only four cultures: Germany, Russia, France and the US.
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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.

8 comments:

seana graham said...

Still have this on my shelf and still haven't read it.

Alan said...

Adrian,Sounds like a book that might well cure me of my modern classic illiteracy.Wagner always impressed me but I still have trouble separating "Man from Music."On a another note just read a rather cheerful noir(Oxymoron?2805) Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller.I wonder if you have read it.I found it a real delight.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its REALLY good. A little dry perhaps but GOOD.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

I'm always up for suggestions! I'm reading the new Le Carre in pbk at the mo but I'll put Norwegian on my list!

Gavin said...

I'm not sure there is any formal difference between a musical and an opera. The closest I've found is that a traditional American musical has dance numbers while operas don't, but that leaves out a whole slew of European musicals.

It's also a book that's on my to-read list, though your bit about the 4 cultures is a bit of a turn-off for me. I think the 20th century is when the various nationalist movements become really important (de Falla, Bartok, Villa-Lobos, and so on), and I think that ultimately they're more influential than the dodecaphonic music of Webern and Schoenberg.

adrian mckinty said...

Gav

Well he does cover other cultures too - there's a big Benjamin Britten bit, but I think its fair to say that Russia, France, Germany and the US get the most space...

Thanks for the musical/opera definition.

Anonymous said...

Off the subject a bit...Good 'contextual' review of your latest, Adrian, by Declan Burke in the "Irish Times".

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

Thanks for that! I shall check it out.