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Last summer the Musical Patriot decided to travel light. Rather than load up his saddlebags with fat volumes on music he stocked his iPod Nano with dozens of audio books, ranging from the lofty to the lurid. The first sunny day, I fell asleep on a West Sussex Beach ten minutes into the first of the 22 CDs of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. “Dein Leben soll kalt sein – darum darfst du keinen Menschen lieben!” — Your life shall be cold, and you won’t be allowed to love anyone. — So the Devil informs the composer Adrian Leverkühn what the price will be for his unflagging musical inspiration.
Sadly my life was not cold enough that morning. I woke up two hours later, in the midst of a marathon Mann sentence, the verbs piling in at its end like a tangle of driftwood slamming into shore on a storm surge. Gathering my jet-lagged wits about me, I realized I was as red as lobster. I crawled back to the pub, and didn’t allow myself to see the light of day for another week.
Thus burned by my iPod, I vowed this year to return to the traditional formats of summer reading — ever more draconian airline carry-on guidelines be damned. Granted, one can also fall asleep while actually reading a book, but at least it can provide the better part of a square foot of solace from the sun. I would have been thankful for even that Faustian patch of white skin.
Speaking of Doctor Faustus and the musical and moral conflicts of the benighted 20th century, I’ve just finished New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Fourth Estate, 2008). It’s elegantly written, frequently imaginative, often unexpected, occasionally precious, and always informative and entertaining. At just under 600 pages, the book boasts a substantial, but still manageable, heft. Not quite big enough for a beach pillow, stowable even in that little pouch in the back of the seat in front of you in the plane.
With a talent for conjuring the feel of historical moments and personalities, Ross weaves into his book many of the great personal encounters of the century, beginning with Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler dawdling in the countryside around Graz, Austria during the day of May 16, 1906 before that evening’s premiere of Strauss’s Salome, an opera as provocative for its music as its degenerate subject matter.
When Mahler began to get nervous about the lateness of the hour, Strauss nonchalantly replied, “They can’t start without me. Let ‘em wait.” Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Alexander Zemlinsky were among the leading figures of the young century’s musical culture gathered in the audience.
In the subsequent pages of Ross’s book other encounters follow, many of them crossing the classical-popular divide: the enigmatic Berg meeting Gershwin in Europe 1928; Stravinsky sitting in the front row at Birdland and hearing Charlie Parker quote from The Firebird in the frenzied be-bop speed-test, Koko; Shostakovich coming to London to hear Rostropovich play Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto and meeting Benjamin Britten; Schöneberg, believing he was basis for the above-mentioned Adrian Leverkühn, and accosting the German expatriate novelist Lion Feuchtwanger’s wife in a Beverly Hills grocery store, raving against what he saw as the novel’s calumnies—a scene enacted to the bemusement of the laid-back L. A. onlookers: “Lies, Frau Mart, lie!” cried Arnold from across the lettuces. “You have to know, I never had syphilis.”
Ross is at his best when he sets his egotistical, ambitious, eccentric, volatile, opinionated, fragile, sincere, and deluded cast of 20th century musical luminaries and side-liners into action like this. But Ross also has also an excellent ear and an enviably knack for distilling the essence of increasingly complex musical works for the enjoyment general readers. He can give a quick and useful account of how a piece sounds and chart a manageable and memorable course through the often broken-up geography of modernist works. He is a suave and erudite tour guide, one who knows his stuff, having gathered his material from original letters and contemporary accounts, as well as from the burgeoning musicological literature on 20th-century music.
Adolf Hitler later claimed also to have been at that epoch-making first performance of Salome in Graz. A tidy historical symmetry it would indeed be, for as Ross darkly tells us later, Hitler’s legacy did much to discredit the moral authority of classical music later on in the 20th century. I’m simply not sure of such grand claims, given, for example, the centrality of Strauss’s music across the last century and into this one, before the Nazis, during their regime, and after it. When the Nazis march through a book or across a movie and television screen, it’s hard not to let them goose-step away with the story and considered historical judgments.
Admittedly, the fact that the German air raid of November, 1940 that destroyed Coventry Cathedral had the code name Moonlight Sonata is an irony too grim and enticing to resist. Nor should it be. Ross tosses it into the mix with gloomy aplomb. One can just see and hear the entranced Beethoven coaxing the spirit of Romanticism from his piano as the bombs of Modern War rain down over England. That this particular chapter in the destruction of Europe indirectly led to the composition of Britten’s War Requiem at the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1962, perhaps too neatly encapsulates the moral tarnishing, not to say bankruptcy of the Land of the Poets and Composers. The malign cameos of such as Josef Mengele whistling his favorite classical melodies before sending Jews off to the gas chambers at Auschwitz come across rather opportunistically as Ross uses them to make his larger point about the ethical ambiguity of art music after Hitler. Many composers and performers (especially conductors) were themselves opportunistic, while others valiantly resisted, or simply escaped, through flight or death. Ross does help us see and hear some of the myriad ways music and politics are interwined. The book closes the lid the coffin, and I’m glad to see that creaky being laid to rest.
But then again just because Charles Manson was deeply influenced by the Beatles, doesn’t mean we can blame the Fab Four for the Manson’s crimes. While that argument is too glib, Ross’s accounts of music and musicians in times of terror are often too general, too unwieldy, too obvious. Music, a complicated mode of personal expression to say the least, sometimes staggers under the bundle of pathological and political meanings Ross loads onto it. To change metaphors midstream: while the authorial eye seems sometimes to be squinting down a toy rifle and shooting at tin ducks at a carnival attraction, it is still fun to watch him fire away with such precision.
Ross is at his best with American music, nailing John Adams and Steve Reich, although even on home soil he is sometimes wide of the mark—as with Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, whom he praises too much for his overtures into the classical genres, when it was the forms of Tin and Pan Alley that best expressed his genius.
Still, Ross captures the electricity modern music was once capable of generating, not only among composers, but a society in which Great Composers still retained high standing. He is equally good—and pleasantly up-beat—at discerning what it means for that this art is now on the margins.
Ross is selective, and not bashful about the omissions, which may aggravate devotees of this or that composer or style. All writers attempting to cover a single century of an art form in one book are forced to pick their spots. Inevitably, more time space is given to the first half of the century, before the demands of truncation loom as the page count grows and the millenium’s end still hasn’t quite come into view. But Ross does not lose momentum, sustaining his style and his larger claims, however unwieldy they can sometimes become, until the last page.
The book energized this reader to revisit important works and performances of them — a suggested list of ten recommended readings, then twenty more comes at the end of the book—and discover new ones. I read the book on the plane, and can vouch for its beachability. Bring your iPod if you’ve got one and load it up with Ross’s recordings recommendations—just remember to put on lots of sun screen.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omni. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org