How The Rest Is Noise changes our understanding of 20th-century music.

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Sept. 23 2008 1:55 PM

The Big Rewind

How The Rest Is Noise changes our understanding of 20th-century music.

(Continued from Page 1)

How does The Rest Is Noise make sense of all this? Alex Ross doesn't try to. Instead, as a critic and historian contemplating a noisy century, he looks intensely at individuals, at particular composers reflecting, riding, sometimes bucking the currents of culture and history around them: Stravinsky in Paris and America, Schoenberg in Vienna and America. Perhaps the book's most memorable chapter is "The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia," which examines a period when producing an obscure sonnet or an atonal sonata could earn you a bullet in the head. Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich are the focus of this chapter, but Shostakovich is the hero: a genius of radical inclinations who was brought to heel by the Soviets. Through the Stalinist decades, Shostakovich had to compose as best he could, advancing here and accommodating there, all the while waiting for the knock on the door. Ross makes sure we understand what that cost him. After publicly reciting an absurd self-denunciation in 1948, Shostakovich shrieked to friends: "I read like the most paltry wretch, a parasite, a puppet, a cut-out paper doll on a string!"

In the process of laying out his history in sound, Ross fashions what amounts to a tacit revisionist picture, a small quiet revolution of his own. He gives the traditional trinity of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók their due, both historically and technically, likewise other important figures like Webern and Cage. But the longest and warmest chapters in Ross' book concern the late-Romantic Finn Jean Sibelius and the eclectic but mostly tonal Brit Benjamin Britten. Those two and Shostakovich form a sort of counter-trinity in Ross' book: three composers who bucked the Modernist narrative that revolution is the name of the game, who wrote much of the time in traditional genres however personalized, and who were some of the most crowd-pleasing of 20th-century composers.

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I asked Ross if he had intended a strike at the old consensus. The answer was: not exactly as such. "My plan all along," he replied, "was to write a book that would encompass both the Modernist revolution and those composers who fell outside of Modernism's conventional lineage. I didn't plan on supplanting the hierarchy that already existed (if I were capable of such a thing), but, rather, to supplement it. So, I see the century in terms of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók AND Sibelius, Shostakovich, Britten, AND—very central to me—Berg and Messiaen." Ross adds that the view of the Modern period, or any period, can't be summarized in only a few figures: "When we talk about 19th-century music, we don't try to boil it down to three composers. I don't know if anyone with a straight face would say that the major composers of the 19th century were, say, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner ...What about Schubert? Brahms? Berlioz? Etc. It should be the same with the 20th century."

Which I second. Why only a few superstars? Why should Schoenberg be a litmus test? To see the arts of any century in a mature perspective, we need to disengage ourselves from the ideologies and polemics of the period. In the later 19th century, for example, there was a full-scale war between the radicals lined up behind Wagner and the conservatives behind Brahms. Today those two composers happily coexist in concert halls, and we don't judge them through that lens.

Music of the 20th century is as vital a part of the classical repertoire, including the most popular repertoire, as the music of any other period. The reality in the concert hall has long been that a lot of composers from the 20th century are played and appreciated. I remember my shock some 25 years ago at a concert in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., when an audience went nuts (in a good way) over the Bartók Third Piano Concerto—and, for good measure, welcomed a new piece of mine. As best I can tell, most concertgoers don't blanch over Sibelius or Prokofiev, and Shostakovich is on a roll. I attended two years of Schoenberg-themed programs from the Boston Symphony and didn't see masses leaving in a huff. And remember that Rachmaninoff and Gershwin were 20th-century composers. If they didn't invent any systems, if they didn't "free music," if they didn't "teach us to listen in a new way," so what? How interesting, fresh, moving, and true are their notes?

So, as part of his look over the 20th century, Alex Ross snuck his own bomb into the historical narratives that have clouded our vision of the Modernist period. When the pieces come down and the air clears, we've got a bunch of splendid music to come to terms with from our own perspectives. The Rest Is Noise is a major step in that direction.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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