This is the best book about music I have ever read. It is not often that I can say anything is the best ever after the age of fifty. Best album, best gig, best novel, best film all much more probably lie in the past much more that the future. But this – a book about twentieth-century classical music (mainly Western Europe/America) – at the age of 52 is the best book about music I have ever read. I’ll come back to why in a little bit.
Ross is the classical music critic of the New Yorker, and this is his first book. Written in 2007 it was shortlisted for a Pulitzer, which while is not a cast-iron guarantee of quality, is a marker that this is something a bit special. His aim is two-fold: to tell the story of what has been seen as a difficult, often elitist and obscure, period of music. How did we get from Italians whistling Verdi arias in the street to Stockhausen’s unproducable works in less than a century. And to explain why this music might be less obscure and unlistenable than at first it seems.
Ross picks up the story in turn of the century Vienna – where Mahler is lionised by awed bystanders in the manner of today’s footballers or filmstars. His symphonies push six hundred years of western music to a point of no return. As famous, if not more so, is his counterpart Richard Strauss. Both are the final inheritors of the century-long surge in popularity of classical music during the nineteenth-century.
As modernism erupts in art and literature a succession of rebels take the sacred twelve-tone scale apart. This revolt against tonality! Ross draws out from amongst the coffee houses and concert halls the group of composers with Arnold Schoenberg (the first key figure of the story) at their heart: Berg, Bartok and Webern. Part one traces the arrival of modernism in Western Europe, then Russia (Stravinsky), and America (Ives, Varese and Gershwin). Sibelius gets a chapter to himself, as an outlier of Mahler-esque tonality living on and creating his own mythology in Scandinavia. The political and cultural inferno that was Weimar Germany, ending in the towering achievement of Threepenny Opera ends Part One.
Part Two tells the story of music under political direction in the thirties and forties: focusing on Shostakovich in Soviet Russia. Even the comparatively well-worn story of Hitler’s obsession with Germanic music is made fresh, exemplified by Strauss whose final works Four Last Songs and Metamorphosis are brilliantly drawn as responses to the collapse of the Nazi regime. Less familiar is the New Deal and its effect on composers such as Ives and Copland. There’s a side-note on Ruth Seeger, a rare female composer, and mother of Pete.
If Schoenberg (who ends up living in LA a few streets from Stravinsky) is the dominant figure of the first half of the book the post-war period sees Messien emerge as the composer at the centre of everything in Part Three. His Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a concentration camp, is the key musical work of WW2 and he goes on to teach Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others. Ross charts the intellectual and political dogmas that drove post-war ultra-modernists like Boulez to expound musical theories and create works that retreated from any pretence at broad appeal, to be only experienced in the lab and understood by a select few.
There’s a fascinating diversion to consider Benjamin Britten, and in particular the work Ross considers his masterpiece, Peter Grimes. One perceptive critic has remarked that Ross’ true heart appears to be in opera, and some of the most illuminating writing here is about the handful of operas that define the twentieth century: from Strauss’ Salome through serialist classics Wozzeck and Lulu, Threepenny Opera to Grimes and the anti-opera opera at the end of the century, Einstein on the Beach.
The way out of the academic soundlab cul-de-sac in part lay in the radical simplicity of the American composers. First of all Cage, and then the minimalists La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Reich and Glass: composers who found a way to bring all the strands together while also starting a new phase. Ross concludes with a survey of composers across the world working in the present, from Tan Dun to Argentinian composers.
That’s the what. Here’s the why.
It’s something new. Honestly how much more is there to learn about The Beatles? The stories of Schoenberg and Vienna, Ives and Copland and the New Deal are stories that I discovered in new and revealing detail . Not everything is new of course, Philip Glass’ taxi driving and Strauss’ seduction by the Nazis are well trodden paths. But I can guarantee that anyone will find stories and music that are unfamiliar and fascinating.
He writes beautifully about music, in a way that gives you a real sense of the work and the musical structures behind it, without baffling the general reader. For every reference to triads and Lydian scales, there’s a sentence that details what if feels like to hear The Rite of Spring in twenties Paris or Steve Reich in a San Francisco arts lab in the sixties. He’s brilliant on the emotional impact of the music on the listener.
He draws out the complex interplay between the most abstract of the arts, society and politics. In a short chapter on music in Europe in the years immediately after WW2 Ross traces the origins of Darmstadt, the summer school that became the Bayreuth of post-war intellectual modernist composer. Its foundation was the result of an American occupation force initiative to encourage German culture to start with a clean slate in 1945, without offending the Russians or encouraging socialism. The Americans funded many modern and experimental music initiatives in the fifties as part of their cultural war against communism.
Lastly and bestly, there’s a recommended listening appendix at the end of each chapter. After chapter one I didn’t let myself go onto the next before I’d made a good stab at that chapter’s list on Spotify. It’s taken me six months but I’ve enjoyed every step.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Listening with patient, but open ears.
One thing you’ve learned
Who Morton Feldman is, and what a masterpiece Rothko Chapel is. But find your own. There’s a whole musical world here.