The narrative of twentieth century classical music has long worked itself out. It begins with the collapse of the tonal system of writing (mythically credited to the opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the unresolved cadence heard round the world) and the divergent, and occasionally dogmatic paths composers took through what was seen as the limitless space of life after the tonic. Mahler and Strauss become transitional figures from Romanticism to Modernism. Arnold Schoenberg wins out the atonal theory wars with his twelve tone system, although Stravinsky and Bartok were dominating on their own terms: all three came to America. But dodecophonic composition and hard-core atonality is also credited, generally, with alienating audiences and creating an aura of cult around classical composition. An energy that Pierre Boulez used to dictate taste and pedagogy for about fifty years, until a few straining voices came along, early known as minimalists, that proposed a clear reaction to tonal and rhythmic complexity. And when you arrive to today, everyone’s kind of allowed to do their own thing and nobody wants to say anybody else is wrong. Ok. That last part’s my own addition, but this is the general plot.
So far, Alex Ross’ first book, The Rest Is Noise, doesn’t sound like it’s going to deviate much from this plot. In fact, the introduction seems to suggest that his goal is to reiterate what happened to classical music in the twentieth century, not only for those already knowledgeable, but also for those who might be mystified or daunted by the “pandemonium” of the subject. It seems, more accurately, that Ross feels a need to, not apologize for the fractured course music took in the twentieth century, but to soften the edges, demystify, and bring some order to the really unmanageable breadth of what happened. He even acknowledges the limitation of his book, not wanting to people to have an expectation of definitiveness or dogma. Rather, the story will be told “from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, first hand accounts by the participants themselves.”
But when you get into the first chapter, “Strauss, Mahler and the Fin de Siecle,” Ross does something very interesting. He eschews the obligatory introduction of the nativity of Wagner’s prelude, and instead focuses on the Graz premier, in 1906, of Strauss’ early and rabble rousing opera, Salome, where many of the twentieth century’s big shots were in attendance, including Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and Puccini (and possibly, Hitler).
This snapshot of the Salome concert effectively shows a handful of composers whom, if you were learning about in a compendium of musical history class, you would think had incredibly divergent voices as creative artists, and whom all disagreed with each other in broad and history-changing ways. I like this choice, and this approach, because it has the potential to collapse the narrative that has now been codified and used as explanation for the polyglot environment of post-Wagnerian western composition. As you read on, however, things soon take predictable turns.
Ross’ evaluations of composers tend to fall in line with what we are taught in music school: that Strauss was an enfant terrible and had a knack for beginnings; Mahler had an inferiority complex and a spiritual, if wayward sense of harmony. What seems to be lacking, though, is a fresh perspective. A voice that might reevaluate what we have learned from the twentieth century, not just reiterate what we have learned about the twentieth century. Perhaps Ross doesn’t believe that’s his place. The traditional associations come up. Strauss might have been too effeminate (in person) to be considered a Germanic titan (an argument that was used against Schubert during his time). And there is even an awkward juxtaposition of Schoenberg’s music and Hitler’s terrorism. In a passage that is intended to illustrate how so much was happening so fast at the beginning of the century, after rattling off musical history about Mahler and Puccini, Ross writes: “Schoenberg, in 1908 and 1909, would unleash fearsome sounds that placed him forever at odds with the vox populi. Hitler would seize power in 1933 and attempt the annihilation of a people. And Strauss…” Not only is the declension stereotypical of the line we get about Schoenberg–that he “unleashed” some kind of horror into music, when actually the semblance of his style was adapted to horror film scores after the fact–but the events are separated by a quarter of a century. And one is an aesthetic event in art. And the other is genocide. Centuries weren’t passing in the night, as Ross writes. Perhaps it might seem that way in retrospect, but there is no way Schoenberg’s music from 1908 can be said in any way to reflect the kind of fascist led humanitarian atrocities that were to come. This is steeped in the twentieth-century-as-turmoil interpretation of atonal music. It seems more to prolong the mystification of discord, and to credit a music that was meant to be inherently expressive of a deep sense of humanity–as Schoenberg would have argued his music did–with fascist violence and militaristic aggression.
When it comes to describing the music, as Ross forewarned he would, his accounts, so far, are heavy on the poetry. There is a lot of conjecture between his descriptions and what he’s trying to portray as the life of the artist and the intention of the composer. This is a notorious complication of musicology, and not one that should be new to Ross. The worst is this passage regarding Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. Ross is attempting to connect Mahler’s spiritual connection to American geology with the teleological nature of the end of the first movement: “…the harmonic series is spelled out note by note in the strings and harp, like a rainbow emerging over Niagara Falls.” Eeeeewww.
To his credit, the book is meticulously researched, and there is a wealth of information, even though the writing sometimes meanders a little too much freely through his “multiple angles.” Perhaps a book about a universe as fractured as twentieth century classical music might benefit from more rigorous, lucid forms.
The first chapter ends with what actually might be the single factor that really led to classical music’s ouster from the throne of musical culture: the record. Even though Caruso’s recording of “Vesti la giubba” was, apparently, the first album to sell a million copies, Ross points out that popular music was quick to stake its claim to the recorded sound. Here is the first truly new point of view that might help us come to terms with the position classical music currently finds itself in: caught somewhere uncomfortably between popular idioms and avant-garde technologies.