A review of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-24933-7, $30.00, 624 pages

First the bad news: this is physically a very ugly book. The jacket is stark, the spine under it is clumsily designed with the author’s name not entirely visible, and the mixture of type styles within the book has nothing to gladden the heart.

But the book itself, to give away what I can’t keep to myself, is magnificent. It is a long book that demands the readers close attention, but I finished it with regret and wished that it had been longer.

The fate of music in the twentieth century is difficult and vexed. It begins with the glories of Mahler, a composer who languished outside the musical consciousness of the listening public for decades after his death. Composers of the time, like him, had uncertain commitments to tonality. Schoenberg brought these into focus by the adoption, possibly not necessary, of twelve-tone music. It provided at least one possibility of creative activity, one never adopted by everyone although for a long time after World War II, it became almost mandatory.

Music at the beginning of the century and in some respects throughout the century was divided between the German and the French schools. The exuberance of nationalist ill feeling Ross describes in these words: “Music became war carried on by other means.”

In the years between wars many styles flourished. The development of music suffered badly in the bloody repressions of Hitler and Stalin. Composers of note and promise died in the camps or at the hands of the NKVD.

Ross takes Shostakovich as the typical musician in Stalin’s Russia. This has a particular interest since Shostakovich has been the subject of controversy. Was he a dissident or was he a tool, however unwilling, of the regime? The answer seems no longer to be so black or white. That Shostakovich appeared as a dissident is largely the result of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, a book that purports to be an autobiography of Shostakovich. Although accepted by many and still defended by some, it was easily recognized from the beginning as a fraud and recent investigations have further impaired its authenticity. It is worth a trip to Ross’s excellent blog (www.therestisnoise.com) to study the latest examination of Volkov’s book.

Ross’s examination of music is not limited to the concert stage. Early in the book he introduces jazz and the effect that classical music had on it. In later pages he will also discuss the effect that jazz had on concert music. He sees, in short, music as an indivisible activity, one not subject to artificial categorizations. Recent music has been receptive to an intricate amount of cross-fertilization and Ross follows these relationships with great skill.

He has an engaging readiness to gossip. His portraits, largely unfriendly, of Nicholas Nabokov and Theodor Adorno are skilful and have a hint of venom. In other contexts, he is equally gifted at bringing to life the relations, often troubled, of the musical giants of the past century. He presents many incidents that explain much about the musical developments of the period. Some of these are far from edifying – and often all the more amusing for that.

He does not mention Amy Beach among the earlier American composers. He does not mention Libby Larson or Robert Simpson among more recent composers. He finds in Stravinsky greater ease in setting words to music than I can accept. Otherwise, his coverage of the period is beyond reproach. This is not simply a good book: it is a great one, one that has exuberant bonus values beyond the immediate purpose of its informative function.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places