Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beethoven's Birthday Eve: the Book Review

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Being both an escapist and something of a numbskull, I read oodles of fiction but very little non-fiction. But then, there's not much non-fiction as good as The Rest is Noise, a cultural history of classical music in the Twentieth Century. Alex Ross writes with a lively mastery, serving up a blend of big ideas, supporting evidence, amusing incident, and juicy gossip that keeps you entertained even as it ensmartens you. I assumed this ability and his comprehensive mastery of the subject came from a long lifetime immersed in libraries and concert halls, but it turns out that he's exactly my age, which makes me kind of hate him.

Now, I happen to be interested in classical music, but this is the kind of book that might be worth reading even if you aren't interested in its specific subject matter. It tells a story of how culture works, how it is generated within a community of artists with complex agendas and personal relationships, and how cultural production exists in relationships with the political and economic institutions of its society. Twentieth Century music -- and by implication, all professional music everywhere -- is frightfully political, Ross shows, and representatives from all points of the spectrum come out looking pretty bad, and pretty silly, for their attempts to control the masses by controlling the symphony orchestras.

The Rest is Noise is especially valueable, though, in showing why the community of composers threw classical music so radically off the rails after the 1910s. Arnold Schoenberg himself -- the man who declared the death of tonality, the inventor of the "twelve-tone" system, and mentor to yet more abraisive composers like Webern and Berg -- emerges as a relatively sympathetic character. Ross explains what drove his experimentation, and reveals that he was not nearly as dogmatic as the later composers who seized on his methods would be. Teaching at UCLA after fleeing Nazi Germany (like myself, he became enamored of Pac-10* football), he startled a composition class by insisting that "there is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major."

Music became so radicalized in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, however, that composers openly declared that music should be written without reference to the listener. Anyone who incorporated traditional harmonies in their work was effectively ostracized from the cool kids' club. This is, as Ross shows, a hyperextension of a churning faddishness that gripped composition in the early years of the Century, with each composer attacking the work of their immediate predecessor in an attempt to carve out space in a repertoire dominated by the Big Names of the Past.

Too, the preference of Hitler and Stalin for conservative tonal music was used to denegrate all tonality. Indeed, you can still today find a few hard-cores who consider use of the major and minor scales to indicate a "fascist mindset." More than anything else in Ross' history, it is astonishing that such a patently absurd idea was accepted for so long by so many people. Hitler was, after all, famously fond of dogs and children, yet we do not consider a love for puppies or kids to betray some sinister personality flaw. That the connection could even be made with a straight face betrays how long it took Western Civilization to recover from the twin traumas of the World Wars.

Ross gets special commendation for continuing his narrative up to the present, and even daring to speculate on future trends (he sees increasing fusion of formal and popular music, and a chance for China to become the leading center of the European music tradition if it can relax a tendency to ignore everything that happened after Tchaikovsky). Also, for recognizing the importance and radical excellence of my man Jean Sibelius, whose sad fate it was to live to a very old age, drinking heavily, his music enjoyed by audiences but his nerves shattered from being used as a whipping boy by whole generations of younger composers who needed a corrupt, unworthy old music to constrast their newer music to.

In Sum: A fine book. Recommended Beethoven's Birthday Resolution: Read it by next year!

*At the time, of course, it was the Pac-8.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 15

Ukrainian Postage Stamp, 2001.

Fifth Night


DrSchnell said...

Looks like a groovy book - it's on my holiday list, and if I don't get it, I'll buy it. I just love the idea that one could control the masses by controlling the symphony orchestra. If only! Of course, we just finished playing the entirety of the Nutcracker ballet and next semester are playing Dvorak #9, so I spoze that means that the Kutztown masses are firmly under our bourgeoise yoke. Then again, a few semesters ago, we played Tracy Silverman's concerto for electric violin and orchestra, so maybe our masses will just be conflicted and confused.

Elaine said...

This is the loveliest stamp/menorah display yet....sigh. Rich colors...restful sights...all is calm, all is bright. :0)

Peace be unto thee!


sister jen said...

I'm trying to remember if I realized, when I gave you this book, that it was about classical music-- I sort of think I thought it was all about all music. Hmm. Clever of me to pick so well.

DrSchnell said...

I'm now about halfway through this book and am loving it. Although I'm sad to realize what a prick and a whiner Stravinsky was.

Michael5000 said...

Good, innit!